Neglected Haifa Neighborhood Is Back in the Limelight - but for Better or Worse?

The wave of construction in the seaside Haifa raises concerns among residents and preservationists. Fourth and last article in a series about preservation in Haifa.

The Bat Galim neighborhood in Haifa has for many years been a victim of neglect, abandonment, and as a result, crime. All of this is in spite of Bat Galim's being situated next to one of the most sought after resources in Israel - the beach. The British made a tremendous mistake when they built train tracks east of the neighborhood, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the city. "When I arrived in Israel 35 years ago from Greece, I could not understand how such a neighborhood was undeveloped," said Paulina Leshniak, an architect and Haifa resident. "In all Mediterranean states, the beaches are well developed and sought after, but here, of all places, it's desolate."

Bat Galim has more than a beach, as it boasts a respectable planning history as well. According to architect Zvi Skolnik, a Bat Galim resident for over 40 years, the neighborhood is an "inventory of public housing history," beginning with housing built for British soldiers that is now designated for preservation. The layout of the neighborhood was planned in 1922 by Richard Kauffmann, and its first houses were planned by architects including Alexander Baerwald, who designed the Technion University campus, and Joseph Barsky, who designed the famous Herzliya Gymnasium - two of the leading architects from the "Israeli Period" of the previous century. Those first houses are joined by more modern structures that were built later, as well as Templar structures that were already there. At the end of Bat Galim Boulevard, right on the water, stands the abandoned Casino Bat Galim, built in the 1930s.

Despite the impressive architectural and cultural range, no organized planning has been penned for the neighborhood since the British left the country, and its houses are abandoned and deteriorating. In recent years, however, even if the situation on the ground only partially shows it, Bat Galim has seen an unprecedented wave of construction and renewal. According to city engineer Ariel Wasserman, the new activity stemmed from a project meant to renovate public areas and infrastructure that was carried out five years ago, and was a "trigger for entrepreneurs." However, the renewal and planned massive construction have caused concern among the neighborhood's veteran residents, preservation societies and history buffs alike. They're afraid of "eight-story monsters," according to Naama Neeman-Mizrahi, from The Society for Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites, who stated that they should be built in a line behind the historical structures. "It's not only ugly, but primarily problematic in terms of composition," she said.

History erased

Between 1992 and 1994, a comprehensive conservation survey was conducted by Dr. Ziva Colondi, commissioned by the city's preservation committee. "Such a high-quality survey was not done for most of Haifa," said Skolnik. "You've already done a survey, so utilize it, make it happen," he urged. Skolnik believes that the survey, which determines that 29 structures in five different areas should be preserved, is "just the beginning."

"The first thing that must be done after such a survey is to prepare documentation files for each of the structures," said the architect. He adds that even though there is a hearing for every case of construction on a building designated for preservation, "the hearing is anything but a preservation hearing. Instead of a preservation survey, submission of a three-dimensional graphic plan for any project should be demanded, the more information the better, and according to the plans, it can be decided if construction is in line with preservation or not."

"In Haifa, there is a problem of preservation," agrees Eli Liran from the Haifa Historical Society. "I hardly understand the municipality's considerations." Liran, who studies the structures built by Baerwald, describes some structures that seemed to have escaped the survey, and are slated for demolition. Among them is the house of the Menderly family on Margolin Street. "This neighborhood is full of rich history, and it is being lost," said Liran. "Even though I'm not an architect, and I'm not expressing my opinion if its good or bad, I think it is important to commemorate the past, and in this case they're erasing it. That's how decades-old knowledge gets lost."

The Society for Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites sees another problem in the Haifa municipality's work. "There are no comprehensive guidelines for the area, which is a problem we've encountered in French Carmel, as well other Haifa neighborhoods in which preservation surveys were conducted," said Neeman-Mizrahi.

As mentioned earlier, the Haifa municipality's contribution to renewal in Bat Galim is by no means negligible. Casino Bat Galim is undergoing extensive renovations, as is the old abandoned kiosk facing the casino on the end of Bat Galim Boulevard. "The preservation here is like acupuncture," said Wasserman. He praised the "pioneering" entrepreneurs who purchased apartments in the area, and rejects preservationist claims by pointing out that anyone who wishes to renovate a building designated for preservation must submit a file with organized documentation. Leshniak's architecture office is currently dealing with 14 plots in the neighborhood, and construction will begin in some of them soon, while others are in advanced stages of receiving permits.

Leshniak explained that the type of project varies; there are some additions to preserved structures, there are new buildings, and new projects undertaken within the framework of the national plan to strengthen structures against earthquakes.

"I believe that every facet of Bat Galim will be completely different within three years," she said. "There is huge demand, and people see this place as a duplicate of Herzliya Pituah, of the Jaffa promenade." According to Leshniak, the Haifa municipality is attempting to speed up the construction process with the various authorities, including the Interior Ministry's committee for coastal preservation, which must approve any special project in the area due to its close proximity to the sea. Most of the new structures are houses, which sport large windows, pergolas and glass parapets. It is hard to avoid the notion that the areas was cut off from the city in order to become a kind of vacation village.

Opportunities and obstacles

Aside from the architectural, aesthetic factor, questions arise about future tenets, and the new people who will live in the area. The new projects, at least the first among them, have been built as caches of "investment apartments," with each one sporting an area of 50 meters. According to Skolnik, that is an ominous sign. "The municipality is not assisting and is even exacerbating problems of affordable housing for families. An elementary school, which used to have 200 students 10 years ago, now has less than half that number. That's more of a red light than any crumbling plaster," he said.

Skolnik believes that physical preservation of the structures should be a secondary goal alongside rehabilitating the quality of life in what should be a functioning, residential neighborhood. Bat Galim's standout location puts it in the center of many public debates, like the ones over providing power for the train, building a new promenade, dumping sewage into the sea, and the structure that will eventually be built over the old Egged station. Despite all that, renewal for the neighborhood holds lots of new opportunities, but also many obstacles of planning, that could determine its fate.

Yael Engelhart