For Israel’s Trendy Shopping Sites, ‘If You Build It They Will Come’ Is No Sure Thing

Tel Aviv’s old port is humming with boutique shoppers and gourmet diners, but Jaffa’s even older port is a flop despite its real boats.

It’s afternoon and the made-over Jaffa Port is slumberous. No more than a handful of people are strolling around. The ritzy shops and restaurants are empty. The only place doing any business is the unglamorous fish-and-chips stand, which going by its decor could just as easily be selling scrap metal or shoelaces.

But actually Arye the fish-and-chips guy is doing brisk business, flouring small fish and shrimps and dunking them into boiling oil. Tourists and locals patiently wait in line for their food served on a paper plate, which costs them 30 to 40 shekels ($7.75 to $10.35). A meal at the restaurants next door starts at double that, but Arye notes he gets his fish from the source.

His success stands out against the misery of the other businesses at Jaffa Port Market, a white elephant launched just four years ago at a cost of tens of millions of shekels. The market has all but closed down. “Seafood and ice cream survive but that’s about it,” Arye observes. Indeed, a hamburger joint opened up and imploded.

The idea had been to revive Jaffa’s port, which has been hosting ships and boats for 5,000 years but in recent decades had become a seedy affair. It didn’t work out as planned.

Still, there are many ventures in Israel to turn historic ruins, or just dilapidated crime-ridden neighborhoods, into tourism and shopping attractions for both local and overseas visitors. They include Be’er Sheva’s Old City, Tel Aviv’s port, Jerusalem’s Old Train Station, Haifa’s port and lower city, and zones in Acre, Rishon Letzion and Rosh Pina. And don’t forget Jerusalem’s old leprosy hospital, which is being turned into a media and technology center.

Sarona
Eyal Taug

The Jaffa Port is a flop, but the Tel Aviv Port is a huge hit. There are no hard-and-fast rules.

Theoretically, says Technion Ph.D. student Eyal Salinger, buildings earmarked for conservation command higher prices; people want to live in them — and the same can apply for whole compounds like the old train stations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

People interested in culture tourism will visit, as Tel Aviv has proved since 2003, when UNESCO declared its Bauhaus White City a world heritage site, says Salinger, who’s doing his doctorate on the economics of conserving buildings with “cultural heritage value.”

What’s the secret of success? Specificity, perhaps. Take the Tel Aviv Port, a former rat-infested agglomeration of half-abandoned warehouses. It’s now a thrumming hive of shops and restaurants serving Tel Aviv sophistos. It inspired many more renovations, even if a boardwalk doesn’t assure commercial success.

Remember that the Tel Aviv Port is only a port in the historical sense — nary a boat docks there today. There is no dock or anything to remind you that it was a port except the big blue Mediterranean Sea. “The Tel Aviv Port is essentially a mall,” says Ron Levinson, a kayaking teacher.

But at the Jaffa Port, which actually has boats mooring, the living history didn’t help. Arye’s fish-and-chips joint can work because it’s natural to the site. And restaurants have been coming and going for decades.

“But you can’t bring a farmer’s market to Jaffa we have vegetable markets,” says Levinson. “No local will buy a boutique tomato.”

Don’t forget the parking

The Jaffa Port could have been renovated in keeping with the local culture. “Why shouldn’t there be a food market here like the fish-and-chips? Why don’t they talk with Ali Karavan about setting up a shop here too?” says Levinson, referring to a famous hummus purveyor.

Moreover, Jaffa’s Old City and the Jaffa Port, though next door to each other, seem utterly disconnected. This is also an issue with other conserved sites like Tel Aviv’s Old Train Station.

Right by the sea, the place was nicely renovated but has nothing to do with the rest of the city. It’s small and doesn’t offer enough to keep people coming — you run out of things to do too quickly. It has to keep finding reasons for the people to come, says Tamir Ben Shahar of the consultancy Czamanski & Ben Shahar.

What can these places offer? Events, festivals, shows, expos or even “strong man contests,” as Haifa’s lower city thought of doing. The right choices can mean life or death for these sites.

Tel Aviv’s Old Train Station is quiet on weekdays but packed on weekends and holidays. It helps that it’s right by the beach and big hotels.

But when it rains, the place is dead as a mackerel, which is about the same for all the outdoor tourism compounds. Talk about troubles coming in threes — the summer brought the Gaza war, the winter brought an extra dose of rain, and Israeli consumer spending has been declining.

And merchants at the Old Train Station accuse the city of disinformation; for example, concerning the scale of rent and the amount of visitor traffic. The first year was amazing, but turnover is declining every year.

That said, some businesses have survived since the place was established around five years ago, including a tapas bar, an Italian restaurant and an ice cream parlor.

Rent can run from 300 to 400 shekels per quare meter and leases are usually for five years with draconian early-exit terms. The terms may create the illusion that there are millions to be picked up off the floor.

Maybe there are, with very hard work. Another issue can be that the managers of a given area book events that may not serve the businesses.

“An event for little kiddies may flood the space with mothers and children, but they won’t be shopping for high fashion, while a wine festival would bring in more appropriate people,” observes a salesperson at an Old Train Station shop.

At the Tel Aviv Port, one problem is parking. If there’s any at all, it costs too much, notes Guy, who runs a store there. It should cost $2 to park there, not $15. And in the last holiday season, the port managers announced that the place was packed and people shouldn’t come, which Guy thought silly. Manage the traffic, don’t stop it from coming.

Somebody will go under

The newest of the open-air conservation efforts is Tel Aviv’s Sarona, which like the rest of the pack has the exact same chain stores as the malls. Launched six months ago though not finished, Sarona too is suffering from the dichotomy of Israelis spending less while more shopping space is constantly being developed.

There’s a big question mark hanging over the Sarona market that’s due to open before the summer with thousands of square meters of health-food stores, soap boutiques, delicatessens and the like. You have to wonder where the hordes of shoppers will come from. And just a few hundred meters away a new Azrieli Mall is supposed to open.

“Tel Aviv doesn’t have room for that much commercial space. Somebody’s going to go under, the only question is who,” says a shopkeeper at a different Tel Aviv compound.

Sarona is built on a beautifully conserved Templer complex, though today’s shops and plans are hardly reminiscent of those austere 19th-century German Protestants. And here too, the stores don’t seem to do much business midweek, says Oren, who runs a nearby kiosk and the Vaniglia ice cream parlor.

Oren pays 30,000 shekels a month rent for the kiosk and ice cream parlor, which cover all of 50 square meters, plus management fees of 5,000 shekels a month. And he pays 4% of profits to the Vaniglia chain — and knows that two competing kiosks and two more ice cream joints are due to open at Sarona. He turns over 2,000 shekels a day on weekdays and says business at Sarona could be a lot better if people could park.

“It’s so bad I’ve seen people fight over parking on weekends,” Oren says. “If they have trouble once or twice and have to pay through the nose for it, they don’t come back.”

He agrees that the first year is the strongest; curiosity draws people. Then business is doomed to decline because there’s not much to do at Sarona. “You come once or twice and you’ve done the place,” he says. “And parking is a real problem.”

Right now at Sarona, as at the Old Train Station, the businesses that work best are food. Other retailers are on rickety legs. Only six months old, Sarona is already seeing a 5% business churn rate — 5% are gone and replaced by other businesses.

Of course, some places only take off after years, like the farmers market at the Tel Aviv Port. For years it barely hung on, but now on Friday and Saturday, rain or shine, the place is packed.

Ben Shahar believes time will make the difference for the open-air shopping areas. Malls with their finite space have to open with pretty full occupancy, but that isn’t so for open-air markets. “Reviving a neighborhood takes a very long time,” he says.

Ultimately, success comes down to conserving not only business facades, but the soul of the neighborhood, says Omri Shalmon, head of the conservation council. He notes that conservation isn’t necessarily about business; the point is to preserve the authenticity of the site, be it a factory turned into a concert hall or a home turned into a hairdressing salon. A lot also depends on local pride.

Tal Oren, a lawyer who runs the company that runs the Tel Aviv Port, says the place attracts 8.5 million visitors a year, a figure that speaks for itself. It’s the second-most-visited site in the country after the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he claims. It’s crammed on weekends, with around 50,000 visitors on Friday and Saturday, and 15,000 on weekdays.

It also hosts shows and events on weekdays in order to increase traffic, and businesses are lining up to rent space, Oren says. But not all efforts wind up a Cinderella story.