The Sooty, Noisy Street That Could Have Been Tel Aviv's Champs-Elysees

The main axis of Gush Dan is just a pipeline for moving cars. But it’s not too late to change this.

This is not the time to once again delve into the “culture” of malls in Israel, nor is it the time to once again discuss the phenomenon of “towers.” But this is the time − in light of the plan now being put together to expand Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center into the neighboring plot by building another mall and tower there − to rethink from scratch the future of the main street or central boulevard of Tel Aviv and the greater Gush Dan region, on which this development rests. In other words, to rethink Haifa and Petah Tikva streets ‏(or Namir and Begin, to use their modern names‏).

I intentionally used the terms “street” and “boulevard,” because they are the last terms you could use nowadays about this off-putting traffic “axis.” But they are also the first things that must happen there.

Today the axis is a highway, a sort of miniature version of the Ayalon Highway in the middle of the city that cuts through Tel Aviv and Gush Dan like a knife. A street and boulevard are what it could have been, an urban creation that connects and links, lively and filled with pedestrians and bike riders. It could have been a street and boulevard suitable for the 21st century and maybe even beyond − the next-generation Tel Aviv.

This sooty traffic artery where no one would ever think to spend any time of their own free will could have been the Champs-Elysees of Tel Aviv and all of Israel, no less. The latest Azrieli tower and a long list of other enormous developments planned along the route, including offices, residences, commercial space and what not, are an opportunity not to be missed to fix the mistakes.

The existing developments along this route − including the Azrieli Center and the Defense Ministry’s Kirya compound, as well as the horrible Kaplan intersection − prove how badly we’ve missed the boat. These developments may be standing along the length of our imaginary street, but they ignore its existence. They turn their backs, and their rear ends, to it as if it were an unwanted nuisance to be avoided at all cost. And the road has responded by behaving like a pipeline to transfer a certain number of vehicles from here to there instead of being a pleasant urban street.

All this is the result of irresponsible planning. The planning authorities are the guilty parties, the ones who allowed it, and are still allowing it, to happen.

An urban street in the context of the Begin Road axis sounds like an urban fantasy, but in reality, it has already happened. A little to the south of the existing Azrieli Center stands the old Beit Kalka office building. This structure was built in the 1970s and received no appreciation as an architectural achievement. But by standing along the line of the street like a frontal wall, it has succeeded in creating a rare moment of urbanity in the midst of the erupting traffic wilderness. A few more such moments and the road would already be something else.

Similar things were written here a decade and a half ago, but it still isn’t too late to make it happen.

In an essay entitled “Ayalon City” in 2000, architect Sharon Rotbard defined the city of towers located on the strip between Begin Road and the Ayalon Highway as “a development with no project and no planner, a spontaneous and wild expression of globalization, of the local free-market economics and the processes of privatization that have overtaken urban planning.” Ayalon City, the article claimed, is a public space of pure privatization. Almost everything in it is branded and commercial, and the main significance is that “in Ayalon City there are no citizens, only consumers.”

This is an accurate description of the existing situation, but it is neither predestined by fate nor dictated by the invisible hand of the market. What looks like a wild eruption is completely nonspontaneous. There is a directing hand. Someone allows all the Azrielis to build their real estate projects there, someone grants them building rights, and someone issues them building permits so the construction can start.

The one who gives them all these opportunities − and sometimes not in the most up-and-up manner, but that is a different story − is in fact the public, via its elected representatives and the planning agencies. But even in the era of privatization, these are still supposed to serve the public interest.

The way things are run today in Ayalon City, and not only there, the planning and municipal establishments tend to mostly serve the interests of the Azrielis, and not necessarily those of the public. Building rights and building permits are a public resource like natural gas, and on these, too, the public deserves to receive proper “royalties.” We do not need to establish a Sheshinski Committee to ensure this. The existing planning committees should be adequate to collect such “royalties” and carry out the interests of the public, the environment and the city. Ayalon City is crying out desperately for a new set of planning priorities.

The planning agencies are the ones that could make building permits conditional on creating an unprivatized public space and require an urban choreography that would be friendly and inviting − not just for consumers, but for citizens too. There is nothing that justifies, for example, the horrible planning of the Kaplan intersection or the inherently inaccessible placement of the government’s Kirya compound. Just the suffering caused by trying to reach it is enough to make anyone loathe anything connected to the civil service, the city and those who plan it. The fear is that this is also how every new project along the route will continue.

Other elements of any royalty deal should be the demand for affordable housing in new developments and reducing the parking required − or canceling it completely, as is done in other cities no less properly run and no less privatized than those in Israel. But the new Azrieli development has a planned parking lot for 1,000 cars. How long will this go on?

As it turns out, the mall tycoon is taking over more and more prime real estate in the area, and we must collect appropriate royalties from him. The Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv are the prettiest in Israel, and that will also be true of the newest, elliptical one, judging by the computerized renderings. But that is not enough. We need a street or a boulevard below them where we will be able to demonstrate against them.

Dan Keinan