Big and Ugly, Jerusalem’s Holyland Project Is Poised to Get Even Bigger

The capital’s plans to rein in next phase of construction are frustrated by the cost involved in compensating the developer for lost building rights.

The Holyland complex in Jerusalem. The city's municipal engineer thinks the city's doing just fine without Frank Gehry.
Emil Salman

The Holyland residential project, a testament to municipal corruption and massive overbuilding, is poised to become even bigger after Jerusalem planners were forced to back down on efforts to limit a new phase of construction.

The district planning committee had approved a downsized plan for the next phase of construction and rejected appeals from the developer and its backers, but last week committee’s legal adviser delivered some bad news: If the city insisted on enforcing the new, more modest expansion, it would owe the developers financial compensation that could come to hundreds of millions of shekels.

Faced with a bill like that, the city backed down and now the developer Holyland Park, which has rights to the western end of the project, is cleared to build another 256 residential units on land the city had hoped to set aside as an open area.

An eyesore that sits atop a high hill overlooking south Jerusalem, the luxury residential project was allowed to grow bigger and bigger over the course of the 1990s until planners had approved a giant development of 16 apartment buildings, two of them towering 33 stories.

The resulting project created a neighborhood critics said was disconnected from its surroundings, impenetrable to nearby pedestrians or motorists, architecturally preposterous and ugly.

As it turned out, the reason why officials had allowed the Holyland to grow bigger was bribery and corruption. A police investigation that began in 2010 ended in 2014 with the conviction of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for crimes committed while serving as Jerusalem mayor. Olmert is now serving a 19-month sentence for bribery and corruption.

Embarrassed officials hoped to reverse some of the damage caused by the overbuilding. The Interior Ministry’s planning unit put together a new plan for the undeveloped parts of the Holyland, which called for rescinding all construction approvals for the western side of the project and designating it for public use.

On the northern side of the parcel, construction would be limited to three 18-story buildings instead of four smaller buildings. Moreover, the area would be more thoroughly integrated into the adjacent neighborhood of Ramat Sharett by cancelling some home-construction approvals to make way for more roads.

Holyland Park, whose partners include Polar Investments, Kardan Real Estate and Bank Leumi, was incensed. So was Rami Levy, the discount-supermarket king, who had acquired rights to the northern parcel. Residents in 250 of the existing apartments also opposed the change, saying it would alter the “luxury” character for the area they were promised.

The appeals committee of the district planning committee rejected all their arguments, saying the revised plan was more attractive and denying allegations that it was aimed at punishing the developers.

“The existing construction at the site violates the district committee’s planning policies and has created defective and inappropriate planning and building . The unusual and problematic planning circumstances justified, in the view of the committee, revised planning of the site,” it ruled.

But the panel’s legal adviser said that while the committee had the right to revise its approvals, it could not escape compensating the landowners for any resulting losses, even if the approvals it was reversing were won through bribery.

The final plan leaves only four dunams (one acre) for parks and public buildings, but the Jerusalem municipality said it was satisfied.

“The decision balances the needs to create public space at the site and connecting it to the rest of the city for the benefit of all city residents and the need to building more housing and develop the city,” it said in a statement.