Earthquake-proofing Incentives Could Threaten Jerusalem's Historic Neighborhoods

Architects warn proposal, now awaiting final approval, could spell disaster for areas built up before 1948 - areas with rich architectural history.

A change to Jerusalem's building code could threaten the capital's unique architectural flavor, particularly in neighborhoods belonging to the classic era predating the country's independence.

Meant to encourage developers to earthquake-proof buildings in Jerusalem, a proposed amendment to the National Master Plan would provide incentives to developers to reinforce structures in more areas of the city. But architects warn that the proposal, now awaiting final approval, could spell disaster for areas built up before 1948 - areas with rich architectural history and distinctive streets and houses, dubbed the "historic city."

Sheikh Jarrah’s unique architecture could be threatened by a proposed building code.
Emil Salman / Jini

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Most of Jerusalem's centrally located areas are included in this designation: Baka, Rehavia, downtown, Romema, Mea She'arim, Mekor Barukh, Nahlaot, along with Sheikh Jarrah and the American Colony on the city's east side. Tourists and real estate developers share a fascination with these neighborhoods, and their property prices are among the steepest in the city. The term "historic city" was coined by a group of architects who view the neighborhoods' unique architectural styles as a rare collection of historic building patterns.

"This is a mosaic unique to Jerusalem, reflecting the city's development over the years," says architect Aliza Arens, of Rosenfeld Arens Architects.

The planning authorities are apparently oblivious to all this. Amendment 3 to National Master Plan 38 (Tama 38 ) provides incentives to property owners to reinforce their buildings against earthquakes, while Amendment 3 is meant to encourage developers to apply the plan to areas where it would otherwise be considered "less economically feasible." The Jerusalem branch of the architects association recently appealed the amendment, asking to exempt the historic area from the plan.

Arens, along with her colleagues who filed the appeal - architects Carlos Prus, the branch chairman; Selma Arad; Avi Ben-Gur; and Amos Hammerman - are worried the amendment could lead to an onslaught of development in the historic city.

"We understand the need for a city to develop and grow, but it needs to be done with an understanding of the infrastructure," emphasizes Arens. "Based on the amendment, two and a half floors could be added above an existing building. It also makes it easier to demolish buildings and get breaks in planning requirements. This combination is disastrous for the historic city. Jerusalem is dear to us and different than any other city. Uncontrolled planning could be damaging."

"There can't be one sweeping plan for the entire city," says Hammerman, former Jerusalem district architect of the Interior Ministry's planning authority. "Planning needs to be match each neighborhood's character. A close look at the municipal plan shows that the incentives to demolish a building and replace it with another one apply to the historic city too. This is a recipe for destroying the city's distinctiveness."

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City looking after its pockets

The position of Jerusalem's municipality is similar to that of the architects, but its motives are different. The city's plan for reinforcing buildings had allowed adding two and a half floors to five-story buildings or those with more than 20 apartments. But the municipality has since backed off from this plan and now wants to limit building rights to one and a half stories. It also wants to exempt the historic city and places designated for conservation from incentives provided by NMP 38, due to the fact that these are prestigious areas where land prices are high.

A survey conducted for the municipality by property assessor Sam Rubel shows that land prices range from NIS 8,300 to NIS 19,500 per square meter in neighborhoods like Katamonim, Pat, Neveh Yaakov, Gilo, Ramot, Kiryat Hayovel, Sanhedria, French Hill, Rassco and Talpiot. Prices in the historic city neighborhoods, in contrast, could reportedly reach NIS 33,600 per square meter.

The city's stance on the issue, as presented by municipal projects manager Shmuel Mahala at a forum of the National Planning and Building Council in December, revolves around betterment taxes collected by the municipality. Mahala claimed the reinforcement plan causes enormous economic damage to the local authority and that incentives should be rolled back in the rest of the city as well.

"The municipality can expect heavy losses in income due to betterment tax exemptions," Mahala stated at the meeting, suggesting that the government should compensate the city for the burden of relinquishing this income. He also presented the municipality's position that all Jerusalem should be included in Appendix 2 of the amendment, a list of localities where the permitted building additions are limited to just one and a half stories. The district committee, after studying the municipality's objections to the plan, recommended that the national council accept most of its demands and reduce incentives for the entire city.

"The municipality is asking to scale back rights given under NMP 38 throughout the city, not just in the historic city," explains an architect in close contact with city hall. "The Jerusalem municipality isn't revealing its policy, but its main argument is the need for betterment taxes and the damage caused to it by exemptions from the tax. Its explanations are backed by an unreliable pricing table purporting to show that land prices in the historic city are higher than prices in other areas of the city. But the table indicates that land prices in 18 neighborhoods outside the historic city are identical to those within it. So why should it apply a double standard here?"

"The city is also ignoring the fact that, even if land in areas like Mea She'arim and the Zichron Yaakov neighborhood is very expensive, their residents belong to a very low socioeconomic class, but they also deserve having their buildings reinforced," adds the architect. "As long as they're not provided with incentives, these residents will lose out."