"Mayors have great power," Housing Minister Ariel Atias has been known to remark from time to time. He's referring to one specific power that irks him: the power to decide on the mix of housing to be constructed in their fiefs - specifically, how many rooms per dwelling. But it appears that mayors also have the power to interpret government plans as they please, and to decide whether to implement them in their cities or raise "mortal" obstacles.
National Master Plan 38, aimed at strengthening old buildings and making them if not earthquake proof then at least earthquake resistant, was formulated in 2005. The plan applies to buildings erected before 1980. It sets incentives for builders and homeowners to enter into contracts: The homeowners get fortified buildings that may also be improved in other ways such by expansion of the space of the existing apartments, or the addition of an elevator - that sort of thing. The developer gets to build more apartments which he can sell at a profit.
However, NMP-38 states that it's up to the local authorities to grant building permits for any submitted plans, and therein lies the rub. Their power to grant or reject permits gives the cities power over NMP-38. When comparing two cities' approach to this plan, Tel Aviv and Ra'anana, one finds differences that are like day and night.
Both cities are characterized by very high housing prices, a very low supply of new housing and a high proportion of old buildings eligible for improvement under NMP-38. But their attitudes toward the master plan are the opposite.
In Ra'anana, there are about 500 buildings eligible for inclusion in the plan, of which 41 have applied. Of these, 31 requests have been approved by the local planning authority and in 7 cases, building permits have already been granted. By contrast, in Tel Aviv, during the last 5 years, 120 requests have been made, 40 have been approved and 22 have received building permits.
In other words, in Ra'anana, 75% of the requests were approved, while Tel Aviv approved only 33%. Looking at a third city, Ramat Gan, we find that since 2005, homeowners have submitted 73 applications under NMP-38, 29 have been approved (a rate of 40% ) and 12 building permits have been issued. Seven projects have been completed.
Until a couple of weeks ago, industry insiders suspected the city of Tel Aviv had certain reservations about NMP-38. Then Mayor Ron Huldai wrote a letter to Avi Shapira, chairman of the interministerial committee in charge of preparing Israel for major a earthquake, and left no room for doubt. NMP-38 is a farce, Huldai wrote: It constitutes a pretense of a solution, but in practice creates uncertainties at the planning level, and unrealistic expectations among the public.
Huldai's blunt letter was written in an answer to a missive from Shapira. The latter wrote that he had received a number of complaints from Tel Aviv residents who had difficulty obtaining building permits under NMP-38. Shapira asked that Huldai promote the plan in order to strengthen homes in the city, writing that it was a matter of saving lives.
Huldai evidently doubts that NMP-38 is going to save lives. The television campaign that the National Infrastructure Ministry initiated together with Shapira's committee shows a children's room collapsing during a quake.
Huldai called that broadcast "a mortal sin", accusing the committee of frightening the public without offering any real solution to earthquakes.
Development projects under NMP-38 reach the desk of Israel David, owner and CEO of the company David Engineers (which deals in "structural design and consulting" ). David Engineers, operating out of Givat Shmuel, is responsible for examining the engineering aspects of proposed projects. His views mirror the municipality's reservations.
"What interests tenants is another elevator or room for free," he says. "What the developer wants is to build fast and cheaply. What the local authority wants is to issue permits quickly, in order to find favor in the eyes of future voters. But in fact nobody has a genuine interest in strengthening a structure to withstand earthquake. In the race for gold, the need to reinforce the building is forgotten."
The city of Tel Aviv realized the danger in uncontrolled implementation of NMP-38 back at its inception, David claims. "The structures to which the plan applies are old and about to fall down anyway. Adding floors on top, without proper engineering processes, could mean that not only will the buildings not be made quake proof, but they're put in immediate danger of collapse," David says.
Thus the city engineer of Tel Aviv set out to create a mechanism to inspect putative projects. Meanwhile, adds David, he heard that certain mayors are boasting about issuing NMP-38 approvals quickly: "I know these places. I think the state comptroller should send investigators to check, together with experts, how well these buildings are likely to weather earthquakes. From what I can see from my vantage point on the outside, the results will be in the realm of criminal offense."
Too many municipalities are settling for the signature of planners and don't conduct inspections of the engineering plans, David accuses. In some areas, the engineers handling the subject don't necessarily have any experience in constructing quake-proof structures.
"In Tel Aviv, 120 requests underwent checking and only 22 permits were issued," he says. "One reason more weren't approved is that they didn't meet the standards for reinforcing buildings against earthquake."
His job places him under terrific pressure, David notes: His inspections get in the face of the developers: "I've been threatened. Local politicians try to influence me to approve plans by roundabout means. They've tried to oust me from the job because I'm in their way."
Quaking in his boots
"It's true that I haven't seen the television spot about earthquakes, but there's no need to scare me. I'm already terrified," says Ra'anana mayor Nahum Hofree, who has a very different view of NMP-38. "When I saw the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, which wasn't prepared, compared with the slight damage in Chile, where there was a more powerful temblor, but the buildings were erected to withstand earthquake - that did it for me. I am convinced that earthquake in Israel is just a matter of time."
Hofree isn't impressed by Huldai's argument. "I could also come up with 1,000 arguments why not to promote NMP-38," the Ra'anana mayor says. "But the government approved a plan that is supposed to improve the situation, and gave us tools to advance it. It is clear to me that a building after reinforcement under NMP-38 is better than one before the plan, so why not do it? The plan was shaped by experts who thought it the right thing to do."
The city of Ra'anana set up a special division to handle NMP-38 requests; its approach is to make things as easy as possible.
"First and foremost we see the importance of the [national] project, to strengthen buildings against earthquakes," says Hofree. "Secondly, we look at other aspects such as the addition of housing units, improvement of how our streets look, and naturally improvement if the quality of life for residents and increased property value." Ra'anana aims to be creative, he elaborates, and tends to grant the maximum rights permissible under NMP-38, such as adding an extra floor and a half to reinforced buildings. If additional building rights are possible beyond NMP-38 then the city grants those too, adds the mayor.
He isn't impressed by claims that certain elements have been abusing the plan to turn a quick profit, and that they don't care about strengthening the buildings per se.
"Let's tell the truth. No builder is about to execute NMP-38 because the tenants or I have a pretty face," he says. "I'm not ashamed to say I like when builders profit, because when they profit more, they invest more, they use better quality materials, they invest more in the building's facade - and ultimately the investment is good for the residents and for the city."
The creativity in Ra'anana that the mayor describes was recently ratcheted up a notch. The city is now promoting NMP-38 projects through the Ra'anana Economic Corporation, which is acting as developer. "Residents tend to be less suspicious when approached by a municipal company," Hofree explains.
The Ra'anana Economic Corporation subcontracts out the works to private-sector developers (but for its own part also receives the extra apartments that are built ).
That way, projects that wouldn't satisfy private-sector developers because the profit is too small can proceed, the mayor says.
The Ra'anana Economic Corporation's purpose is first and foremost to strengthen buildings, only secondarily to turn a profit, he explains.
The bottom line, says land assessor Daniela Paz Erez, is that the city of Ra'anana is leveraging NMP-38 for urban renewal without sparking uncontrolled development.
There's one thing Huldai got right for sure in his letter to Shapira, though.
"It would be interesting to know how useful the plan is for people who really do live in areas at high risk of earthquakes - such as Hatzor Haglilit, Kiryat Shmona and Beit She'an, where the economic conditions do not allow [NMP-38] to be executed," the Tel Aviv mayor wrote.
Hofree agrees: In such places the government needs to get involved, he urges.