Can Haifa Ever Surpass Tel Aviv as Israel's Bustling Urban Magnet?

Haifa has the potential, but the urban renewal effort in this northern city seems misdirected.

Among the municipal planning and building notices appearing in Haaretz on a recent Friday was a request by the Haifa municipality that the owners of a certain parcel of land on the city's southern outskirts contact local committee offices.

The reason: public notification of a plan to build a residential neighborhood dubbed "southern approaches" just south of Castra Mall, which will include 1,398 housing units, public buildings and open areas.

house that Ofer Schwartsglas - Abdullah Shama - 26092011
Abdullah Shama

The neighborhood is slated for unoccupied land, reflecting a worrisome trend in municipal planning throughout the country of establishing new neighborhoods rather than dealing with existing ones - and their problems.

This doesn't occur just in Haifa: The penchant for expanding into new territory to build neighborhoods is a common practice of many Israeli cities. But in Haifa this seems to having been carried out to an extreme, with Mount Carmel becoming a chain of neighborhoods strung together by a road.

In recent years, however, Haifa has begun trying to start coping with its older sections and promote urban renewal in tandem with building new neighborhoods. The project drawing the most media attention is the Port Campus, an attempt to turn the lower area of town into a university compound bustling with students, with a youthful and creative aura. This, in fact, is what the relatively remote Technion and University of Haifa campuses have failed to create for the city.

A wonderful opportunity ostensibly exists here: Two colleges operate in the area, and the city has renovated several buildings and turned them into dormitories. Developers are taking note and are even buying in. These include Eran Eldor, who bought a building in May 2009 that was largely abandoned, renovated it and subdivided it into apartments to rent to students. But during the renovations he discovered that the building, although already split into separate units for municipal tax purposes, had just one water meter.

Eldor says he approached the municipality and understood that it recommended he install internal water meters and "sell" the water to the tenants. "I rent out apartments, I don't sell water," he insists. "The city needs to provide water meters to the existing units."

Eldor and his wife, a lawyer and doctoral student in administrative law, petitioned the court and eventually reached an agreement with the city that water meters would be installed for each apartment. He thinks the city raises difficulties for developers by attempting to create a homogenous place for students. He also thinks it discourages the subdivision of buildings into separate units for fear that the individual sale of apartments will attract the wrong population. "If Haifa's municipality wants to promote the lower city it needs to act more intelligently," he asserts.

Architect Einat Kalisch Rotem, a Haifa native who specializes in urban renewal, says the issue raised by Eldor about a homogenous population is a central one and points to the fact that the lower city, and the Port Campus specifically, haven't really gotten off the ground.

"The city allows only students to live in the Port Campus, but students aren't permanent inhabitants with a true affinity for the place," stresses Kalisch Rotem. "One of the first rules of successful urban renewal is having a population committed to the area with [a sense of] local patriotism."

"Port Campus feels dead"

Kalisch Rotem tells of a fellow architect who tried to buy a building in the Port Campus project but couldn't get the city's approval for using it as a dwelling. "The municipality doesn't say so openly, but it doesn't let non-students move into Port Campus, even though the place feels dead most of the time because students go home Thursdays," she claims. "It's true that the urban renewal process takes time, but after five years there hasn't yet been any real change."

In her opinion the city needs to work with the existing inhabitants of the lower city while attracting a new, stronger population. "The lower city has an Arab population that the city ignores," explains Kalisch Rotem. "It is fixated on having one universal profile, but for real urban renewal there must be local commerce, local character, and not just one approach to serve the entire city."

The issue of urban renewal is very significant in Haifa. Large sections of the city are in need of a facelift, if not more - neighborhoods such as Hadar Hacarmel, the lower city, Khalisa, Neveh David and Neveh Sha'anan.

Over the years, the tendency to build new neighborhoods helped perpetuate acute problems within the city. Haifa has great potential and focusing within the city could generate an impressive quantity of housing units and alleviate the need to build on open space.

Neveh Tzedek effect

Developers and municipalities dream of what could be termed the Neveh Tzedek effect, a gentrification process where a run-down neighborhood with a low socioeconomic profile - a place where you wouldn't even want to buy a soda - becomes transformed into a real estate gem.

The Neveh Tzedek effect differs from a local boom in property prices generated by developer interest. The Neveh Tzedek of today isn't merely a desirable place to buy property: It's a desirable place to move into, given the opportunity. The transformation of Neveh Tzedek (an old section in Tel Aviv's core predating the city's founding ), while encouraged by the municipality, stemmed from the charming appeal of its distinctive small houses of a type uncommon in the Tel Aviv area.

Wadi Salib is an area with clear potential for being turned into the focus of attraction with an oriental flavor. The opportunity for a Neveh Tzedek effect here is particularly evident: Prices are low, and the stone buildings and scenic view have led developers into recognizing its potential. Meanwhile the city is overhauling its infrastructure. This is a neighborhood with a troubled and controversial past, but with great prospects for the future. A tender was recently completed: For NIS 10 million a Jerusalem contractor won the chance to turn some of the old dilapidated buildings into an artists' compound.

The path toward a breakthrough seems clearly marked, but developers find it strewn with obstacles. The story of a developer already living in Wadi Salib shows these obstacles can be particularly knotty. "I knew we were facing a complex process, but I didn't expect that the hassles would stem from the municipality," relates Offer Schwartsglass, of the electrical engineering department at Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, who bought an apartment in Wadi Salib intending to renovate it and take up residence.

Schwartsglass says that at the cost of buying and renovating the home he could have purchased a home on HaTishbi Street in central Mount Carmel, but was captivated by the charm of the wadi. He notes that the city's spokesman's office and conservation department are very interested in seeing the wadi developed. "Everyone is aware that this is a blot in the heart of the city," he explains. "The problem is that on one hand a building undergoing preservation needs to he handled delicately, with extreme care, but on the other hand building codes also apply here - and there is a conflict of interest."

The building Schwartsglass bought was boarded up for over 50 years and was therefore considered a hazardous structure. "My house, like most of the buildings in the wadi, is a semi-ruin - a wreck," he recounts. "The railings are collapsing and the stones are falling away. One city department issued me a hazardous building order to fix the defects within 30 days. But I can't go and glue all the stones back into place: The structure is in ruins and complex engineering work needs to be performed, requiring a building permit. So I began doing repairs and then another city department sued me for not having a permit."

Bureaucratic obstacles

Schwartsglass thinks the municipality's inflexibility will discourage developers from investing in the wadi, adding that the city is losing out. "I believe this is a gem," he says. "I invested all my money here with the idea that things could, and should, be different. Everything is easily accessible from here. We have lived here a year and there are already many advantages. The view of the port activity is fascinating and the city is investing all around the area. I enjoy challenges, but the municipality needs to learn from my specific case and put together a team to determine what regulations to apply in Wadi Salib and how to remove bureaucratic obstacles to everyone's benefit."

Haifa city engineer Ariel Waterman is familiar with the difficulty that developers face, but claims that Wadi Salib is a complicated area to deal with. "There are many buildings in the wadi that need to be renovated and plots where buildings have been destroyed," he explains. "Rehabilitating the infrastructure is expensive, but the added value makes it worthwhile."

Waterman thinks Wadi Salib's time has come. "It's true that the first developer had to confront difficulties, but he'll also gain more," he says. "When I studied architecture my friends bought shanties in Neveh Tzedek and everyone laughed at them. The pioneers always have it rough but in the end they gain the most."

Waterman thinks the municipal administration's decision to focus attention on the worst-off parts of the city is unprecedented. He stresses that the municipality's approach goes beyond urban renewal and involves repopulating older areas rather than finding new hills on which to build. "We are the leading city in rebuilding and urban consolidation," he boasts. "Two projects are being started in Neveh Sha'anan. More than 27 projects under National Master Plan 38 are underway. From our viewpoint this is the best renewal there is because it maintains the existing social fabric while renewing the buildings."

Despite the vision presented by the municipality, Kalisch Rotem says it is all just cosmetics. "Renovation is being carried out but everything remains old: the population and the conduct of the place," she complains. "In Europe they try to find ways to draw a strong and young population and generate a new cycle of life. In Haifa they are always trying to renovate and to turn back the clock. Needs change, society changes, and a new life cycle is needed in various areas."

According to Kalisch Rotem the key to making problematic areas in Haifa flourish lies in cooperation with enterprises like the port and railroad. "Every city has the potential to develop a core of urban life and add its own shades and layers," she says. "There is no single model for urban life, even though in Israel no alternative to Tel Aviv has yet arisen. Haifa has the greatest potential to produce a high-quality alternative - urban life with tranquillity."