No-man's Land Once Again

Thirty-eight years after the unification of Jerusalem the Mamilla project, which is supposed to connect the Old City with the new, is not yet completed. In the entire city there is not another project that has trod such a prolonged and difficult `Via Dolorosa'

The "Mamilla Settlement Jubilee" convention was held at the ICC International Convention Center in Jerusalem on December 28, 2004, with the participation of more than 2,000 people. In a moving social and nostalgic gathering, former inhabitants of the neighborhood, most of them with origins in Iranian Kurdistan and Morocco, recalled the difficult days during the 1950s and '60s when they lived in rickety houses along the no-man's land in the city that was divided between Israeli Jerusalem and Jordanian Jerusalem. In those days, from time to time Jordanian snipers fired from the city walls opposite into the windows of the homes in the neighborhood.

Elderly men and women huddled together excitedly with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren around historical photographs of the houses and their inhabitants and an exhibition of authentic artifacts from everyday life in the neighborhood: kerosene lanterns, primus stoves, basins and laundry tubs, improvised wooden playthings, plain iron "Jewish Agency" beds and traditional clothing. Proudly the grandparents pointed to pictures of the home where the idol of the neighborhood, soccer star Uri Mamilian, grew up and to photographs of dark alleys where the well-known director Otto Preminger filmed "Exodus," starring Paul Newman.

The success of the convention, where a feeling of family and community prevailed, derived in part from the fact that it was organized at the initiative of some of the people who used to live in the neighborhood, without any political or establishment involvement. No grudges or complaints about social and ethnic or financial and economic discrimination were heard, also because hundreds of families and workshops located in this depressed border neighborhood were relocated during the 1970s in an orderly and organized process, with hardly any social crises. The state paid the residents of Mamilla generous monetary compensation or gave them alternative housing in various parts of the city. The beginnings of the development of the industrial zone in Talpiot in southern Jerusalem, with its garages and various workshops, was the result of the relocation of those from the Mamilla neighborhood.

From the convention emerged an Israeli success story of 50 years. Hundreds of immigrant families that arrived here with no possessions "made it," and in a big way: They established themselves economically and socially, acquired trades and professions, established homes and families, and gave their children and grandchildren a good education.

The achievements evident that evening stand in stark contrast to the urban- physical-functional state of the large and important Mamilla complex planned at the beginning of the 1970s in order to serve as a bridge between the Old City and the western part of downtown Jerusalem. The project has not been completed to this day, and naked concrete skeletons stand along its length, stuck for 30 years in the urban throat of Jerusalem, neither swallowed nor spat out. The planning of the complex has undergone innumerable incarnations and changes, mostly because of a public battle against it during the 1970s as well as problems with the approval and advancement of the planning.

During the British Mandate Mamilla Street was a flourishing and lively commercial street. Along its length were splendid showrooms of automobile agencies and elegant shops for electrical appliances, fabrics and fashion. All this changed after the War of Independence, when the neighborhood became a vulnerable area on the border between the two parts of the city. Following the Six-Day War in 1967 new planning began for the Mamilla, the history of which is a microcosm of the major sensitivities and the problems of planning in Jerusalem. In the entire city there is not another project that has trod such a prolonged and difficult "Via Dolorosa." The problems derived, in part, from arguments as to the extent of preservation as opposed to demolishing and building anew, the proximity and height of the building opposite the Old City wall, solutions for roads and parking, the character of the open spaces and the detailed architectural design. Another set of problems derived from the unearthing of graves - questionably Jewish - that muddied the relationship between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox.

The ultra-Orthodox control of the Jerusalem municipal institutions was manifested clearly in the fact that the huge parking lot built with a huge investment of about $25 million at the foot of the Jaffa Gate, intended for 800 cars and about 50 buses, remains shut and locked from the eve of the Sabbath on Friday afternoon through the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evening and on Jewish holidays. The thousands of tourists and day-trippers who want to visit the Old City, its squares and its markets, are forced to park haphazardly on local streets or in places far from the Jaffa Gate.

There has also been a quarrel ongoing for several years, with reciprocal lawsuits, between the initiators of the project, the Alrov Group owned by Alfred Akirov, and Carta, the municipal company in charge of developing the area, which is also preventing progress in the building.

A modern biblical village

Over the years the planning of the Mamilla project has undergone a gradual process of change, and today it has improved immeasurably relative to the first plan submitted at the beginning of the 1970s. Under the original plan, all the buildings in the Mamilla complex were to have been demolished, apart from the French Catholic Convent of Saint Vincent de Paul, and the new complex was to have been built on a gigantic platform above a subterranean system of roads.

As noted, the plan has gone through many changes since then. The Mamilla project could have been completed within eight to 10 years had things started in the ordinary way, but from the outset the project was managed with exaggerated and mistaken self-confidence in the spirit of the euphoria that prevailed during the period between the great victory of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, when many people, including entrepreneurs and planners, thought that it was possible to do everything, and at any price.

Parts of the Mamilla plan have indeed been completed, among them the parking lot adjacent to the Jaffa Gate, the David's Citadel Hotel (formerly the Hilton) and several dozen costly and prestigious housing units bearing the name "David's Village," designed as a modern version of a biblical village. These apartment houses are one of the more obvious examples of the neo-oriental style that has developed in the city since the mid-1970s, a style that is a translation into contemporary materials and technologies of the world of traditional-Middle Eastern forms: terraced buildings of two or three stories with a variety of domes, arches, and receding and protruding elements built along narrow lanes and stepped paths. The quasi-biblical feeling is also augmented by the names of the picturesque lanes between the buildings: "Sweet Singer," "Shepherd of Flocks" and "Maker of Pleasant Music."

This prestigious collection of apartment houses, in which most of the units have been purchased by foreign residents and are inhabited for only a few months each year, has recently enjoyed a marketing boom. As the demand for prestigious apartments overlooking the Old City wall is large, four-room apartments are now commanding prices of more than $1 million.

In the past, at the northern end of the Mamilla area, near Israel Defense Forces Square, stood the Fast Hotel, run for many years by the German Templar Fast family. During the latter part of the Ottoman period and most of the British Mandate this was one of the most prestigious hotels in the city. The building was severely damaged in the 1948 war, and afterwards families of immigrants were lodged there. After the Six-Day War, the families were moved out, and the building was demolished in 1975. It was replaced by the Jerusalem Palace Hotel, which is not on the list of the outstanding architectural successes of modern Jerusalem.

Herzl's room

The backbone of the Mamilla project, which despite the 37 years elapsed since its inception has not yet been completed, is the pedestrian mall between the Jaffa Gate and the Agron Street intersection. This construction is planned so that mixed and intensive activity - commercial, leisure, office, residential and hotel - will be in buildings on either side of the pedestrian mall. Some of the buildings are historic structures that have been marked, dismantled and stored and will be reassembled in the future - like the Stern House, with the room in which Theodor Herzl lodged during his visit to Jerusalem in 1898. Along the pedestrian mall there will also be new buildings, five or six stories high.

The success of the project in its entirety is based on the functional-architectural quality of the pedestrian mall axis and the kinds of activity that will occur along its length. Inherent in the future pedestrian mall are many possibilities for the creation of a close business-commercial-human connection between the markets of the Old City, to the east of the Jaffa Gate, and the downtown area outside the walls: from the Mamilla pedestrian mall continuing to Agron Street and the historic Palace Hotel (which will be rehabilitated and renewed), through Independence Park to Nahalat Shiva - the Jerusalem "Soho" - and to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.

However, precisely this backbone, the pedestrian mall, has not been completed thus far, in part because ultra- Orthodox circles in the municipality and the Carta company have opposed "images in the Temple" and "cinema near the Western Wall." For many long years they have denied the entrepreneur permits to build and operate cinemas as part of the commercial and leisure activity along the pedestrian mall. Without movie theaters, an attractive, vibrant and effervescent commercial center cannot exist.

The result is that for about eight years now the skeletons of the buildings on the Mamila pedestrian mall have been standing desolate. In the center of Jerusalem, in the most sensitive area, at the foot of the Old City and across from the Jaffa Gate, an urban black hole has been created, an unfinished building site that disfigures the most sensitive area in the city and separates the Old City from the new instead of linking them together. The history of ambitious and pretentious planning in Jerusalem has in the past resulted in a number of deep pits that waited for years until anyone built in them. But the Mamilla pedestrian mall is worse, because it is not the size of a building, but rather the size of a block.

Overly ambitious

The major importance of the history of the planning and development of the Mamilla complex is the learning from experience accumulated over the years and in drawing conclusions from the manner and the mode of the planning, the urban development and the desirable renewal of the future in the downtown area. The main lesson should be that it is necessary to abandon ambitious plans, which for the most part cannot be carried out and do not concord with the real needs and character of the city.

The municipality complex project centered on Safra Square was similar in its extent and problems to the Mamilla project, but it was completed in 1993 at the end of a planning and construction period of only five years. This project was managed and conducted with an internalization of the necessary lessons and the drawing of the appropriate conclusions and succeeded, therefore, in avoiding "landmines" that might have delayed its completion for many years.

At present the municipality, in cooperation with and with the aid of various government ministries - headed by the Finance Ministry, the Transportation Ministry and the Tourism Ministry - is making considerable efforts to revive the current downtown area, which in its functioning and shape today resembles a remote provincial town at the edge of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The general aim is to change, gradually, the functioning and the look of downtown Jerusalem, while integrating rehabilitated and renovated historical textures with new, modern and intensive urban development. There is no contradiction between modern development, sometimes with the integration of tall buildings of qualitative architectural design, and the preservation of what exists. The realization of this aim, together with the construction of the light rail line, which will constitute the backbone around which many plans are emerging, can bring downtown Jerusalem into a new era.

At present it is necessary to afford security and stability to entrepreneurs who want to build in the center of Jerusalem by the accelerated advancement of plans so that they will be approved and implemented within a relatively short time. The endless and frustrating process of planning disputes and unnecessary public battles must be avoided. Both the general public and the planning authorities must learn and realize that in every planning process it is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff - and act accordingly. Time is a destructive factor - and the delay of essential projects leads to prolonged urban decay.

The prolonged years of struggle over the Mamilla project have exhausted everyone who is connected to it, and especially the inhabitants of the city, who deserve to see its high-quality completion, and quickly. It is to be hoped that the entrepreneur will soon bring the workers and the cranes back to the construction site and that the unfinished concrete skeletons, near the city wall, will be completed and the Mamilla project will be saved from its desolation.