Saving City Centers, a Job for The Man

Residents are suspicious of urban renewal and business isn't interested in long-term projects. But renewing the centers is the solution for development in Israel's cities.

For decades the cold-storage warehouse in Haifa Port stood there slowly crumbling, grimily nestled amidst among other industrial edifices that stood abandoned and neglected. Come the 1990s, came salvation – its walls were painted black and it was converted to a night club, a appropriate fate considering its structure and remoteness from residential neighborhoods. And then when the nightclub too was deserted, all that remained was empty dance floors, pipes, and the sigh of the club "Troy," guarded by two fake gladiators.

These bizarre statues aside, there is nothing exceptional about this story. Israel's cities are studded with "black holes," residential and industrial areas left to rot, many of them centrally located. The populations are aging; young families prefer new residential areas at the outskirts of town. The schools stands deserted, the parks are drying up and industrial buildings are empty asbestos huts.

Some years ago, the building changed hands. Its buyers hired Knafo Klimor Architects, who suggested turning that area of the Haifa Port into an academic campus.

The result is the Carmel Academic Center, a clean, functional building born of the original construct and frame. The most striking feature is a colorful glass front, adorned by the faces of culture heroes.

The city of Holon is also keenly aware of its neglected areas and six weeks ago, awarded the architects - Tagit Klimor, David Knafo, Arye Hayoun and Uri Hillel - the seventh bi-annual Aylon prize for urban architecture.

"In almost all Israel's cities and towns, the centers are sparsely built up. That is because when they were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, the land wasn't that expensive," Knafo explains.

He believes that an organized mechanism for city center renewal is necessary, given the economical reality, which is dominated by the private sector. "It can't be left to the mercy of business," he says, and why is that? For one thing, business wouldn't develop a non-central property of dubious betterment value.

"The economy is a central player here," agrees urban sociologist Merav Aharon of the Technion University. "Without some sort of financial impetus the authorities and entrepreneurs simply won't invest in these areas."

It takes a village and a government

Urban sociology is a field that links social sciences and the world of urban planning and architecture. Urban sociologists have been calling to return to the older parts of the cities since the 1960s, Aharon says – if only because land in the cities is running short.

Even cities that do have some undeveloped land resources, such as Hadera and Ashdod, are beginning to run out. In Holon, plans for the last land resources will soon be submitted, and more and more cities are starting to look back into the center.

Knafo suggests that the government work with local authorities to create a mechanism to re-plan the city centers. Each plan has to be individual: "There can't be just one way to solve different problems, and formulas won't work either," says architect Ganit Mayslits Kassif, a member of the Aylon prize committee. "Urban renewal doesn't necessarily mean more permits, even though that sometimes is a wonderful option that helps solves problems.

She sees the Carmel Academic Center project in Haifa Port as an indicator of a "welcome trend, a fine example of work using existing tools – while adding new content by relatively simple and available means."

In 2009 Mayslits Kassif Architects won the Rechter Award for planning the revamp of the Tel Aviv Port, from grubby, dilapidated warehouse spaces to a vibrant commercial and tourism spot, featuring a farmer's market and boardwalk restaurants. No new building permits were . Since there was no need for bureaucratic processes involved in new planning, the project was carried out swiftly and sensitively.

 

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Projects like the Carmel Academic Center and the Tel Aviv Port are cheaper to carry out, and more ecological, they are leisure projects, not suited to residential areas, and do not bring about more dense building. Moreover, the mayors of the cities, whose terms last only several years, are interested in developing projects that would bring in profits as soon as possible, and enjoy development taxes and a rise in collection of local taxes. They prefer such projects to local, specific projects that involve several planners who they cannot control.

Politicians, such as those who pretended to raise social issues in the last elections, enjoy power and influence. "Menachem Begin's neighborhood rehabilitation project cost a huge amount of money at the time, and naively focused on esthetics, with a touch of education and social awareness," Knafo says. "But today we've matured and we understand the social needs of such projects. On the other hand, a density project such as national plan 38, could suit cities that already have a shortage of real estate. "This apparatus will work mainly in cities in which the local authorities focus on publicity and calming fears," Aharon says.

Still, it is very difficult to bring around change in neighborhoods that have deteriorated, and are subject to suspicion and hostility. "Many times groups of youngsters and students come around with good intentions – and we saw that during the period of the social protest – but the residents of these neighborhoods have already lost faith in themselves and in others," Aharon adds. The will to integrate young people in renewal of neighborhoods, including artists that live in lofts, is not only a cliché, but a vision lacking any true inspiration – and reeking of romanticism, orientalism and exploitation.

On a national scale, national plan 35, approved by the government in 2005, focused on strengthening areas surrounding Tel Aviv, Haifa, Be'er Sheva and Jerusalem, while safeguarding open areas between the cities and future land resources. Knafo isn't positive this model suits Israel: "This idea could collapse, and what will remain will be only Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv, and a bit of Be'er Sheva as the army moves south, Haifa will continue to struggle with it's problems, as will Jerusalem with it's political and demographic problems." Knafo believes that only a national project could inject the necessary urgency to the centers of the middle sized cities. "This isn't a simple project, but it has a huge potential – and in any case is much simpler than laying more infrastructure and transforming more agricultural lands to new neighborhoods," he says.

The local debate is part of an international debate dealing also with the green aspects of urbanization, such as the new-urbanism movement which promotes accessibility to pedestrians, which blend residential neighborhoods with local businesses and workplaces, a form of opposition to satellite towns and unifying globalization. Aharon suggests a further strategy for the renewal of city centers: every time an empty plot will be developed, an action urban renewal will also be undertaken. "In return for building on the entrepreneurs favorite playground – the empty plot, they will be required to cooperate with a development project which is less profitable, maybe more complex, and requires more mediators with the population – but, nonetheless, is very important."

Yael Engelhart
Yael Engelhart