Downtown Returns to Center Stage

The National Planning and Construction Council has decided to reject a huge plan for the erection of 20,000 housing units at the edges of Jerusalem.

At a dramatic meeting last week, which was closely followed by hundreds of demonstrators, the National Planning and Construction Council decided to reject a huge plan for the erection of 20,000 housing units at the edges of Jerusalem. An announcement the Interior Ministry issued after the decision was made stated that what has become known as the "Safdie Plan" is no longer necessary and will harm the development of the city center. The cancellation of this plan can be added to many other decisions the local authorities have been promoting in recent years - with a single aim: To bring life back to the veteran and dying city centers.

As is the case elsewhere, with regard to urban planning, Israel chose to follow in the footsteps of the United States and started separating residential, employment and entertainment areas. This decision resulted in the neglect of downtown areas in favor of expanding into new locales and the creation of suburbs. It has also changed consumption patterns in favor of huge, closed malls that are alienated from their environment. As in every other area, here too it has taken Israelis time to realize - lagging behind by 15 or 20 years - that these processes have been detrimental to Israel's cities, are biting into open spaces and are responsible for increasing the rot in the veteran city centers. Recently, this awakening has resulted in massive investments in infrastructures in city centers, popular high-rise construction, an emerging prestige market in buildings earmarked for preservation and also in surprising changes in perception. "The only way to bring people downtown is to look for what connects them to the city center: Culture, nostalgia and soul," says City Engineers' Association head and Netanya City Engineer Paul Vital. "People aren't looking for malls on a Thursday evening or on a Friday morning. Rather, they want to stroll, to meet people and to purchase unique products that appeal to their soul. Bringing culture and art into the city center and restoring the sense of community is what has revived Tel Aviv and this will happen in the whole country in the end. Netanya will also bring the soul back into town."

City engineers are looking for soul, mayors are fantasizing about employment zones, the treasurers are designating budgets for renovation grants and rent subsidies and the municipal directors general are learning about the increasing importance of sidewalks for pedestrians. It would seem t hat the revival of city centers is currently the popular mantra among the decision-makers in the local authorities, and this trend can also be felt in the real estate prices in the city centers.

The city of Jerusalem is a good example of governmental and municipal intervention aimed at strengthening the city center. According to the city's municipal engineer, Osnat Post, the resurrection of Jerusalem's city center has started with the development and nurturing of public space: renovation of building facades, widening sidewalks for pedestrians and a concern for a multipurpose use to keep the downtown active during all hours of the day.

However, according to Post, the planning of physical developments is not enough to revive the city center - it is also necessary to relate to the city's image and its social and economic characteristics. To this end, five years ago the Eden company, a subsidiary of the Jerusalem Development Authority, was established to promote the development and revival of the downtown area.

"The main idea is to make the city center competitive," says company CEO Assaf Vitman. According to him, to achieve this aim it is necessary to improve accessibility, especially for public transportation (like the light railway project, along with increasing the number of parking lots), and for pedestrians (by widening sidewalks, through more lighting and by planting 3,000 trees). After that, it is necessary to create anchors that will establish the trend of demand. At Eden, they singled out three elements that are important to develop: population, cultural activity and employment.

Jerusalem's municipal policy decided to focus on attracting the student population to the downtown area. The company grants NIS 450 a month to everyone who rents an apartment in the city center and has thus increased the number of tenants in the area from 150 to 1,050 in two years. An important contribution to the revival of the city center is the new campus of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in the Russian Compound area. The municipality is also aiming to develop cultural life by means of establishing other institutions, including a museum and a theater center. With regard to employment, the municipality is pinning its hopes on the construction of a court center downtown - 60,000 square meters that will house Jerusalem's courts and will bring law offices and various service providers in their wake.

According to Vitman, the Eden company is also examining the implementation of plans in cooperation with the Community Administration, in the framework of which benefits will be given to property owners (like funding for the costs of cleaning facades) and incentives to entrepreneurs (a grant of $200 for every square meter built for employment or hotel facilities).

"The results are already evident," says Vitman. According to him, if five years ago the betterment taxes the municipality collected in the city center amounted to NIS 1.3 million a year, in 2007 they are expecting an income of NIS 70 million and more.

During the past two years, the expected increase in development the light railway will bring to the city center has already led to a rise of about 30 percent in the proceeds of shops in the Jaffa Road - King George Street - Ben Yehuda Street triangle, through which about 100,000 people pass daily. The expected impetus in the downtown area also affects adjacent areas like the former Foreign Ministry compound on Shazar Boulevard, where building plots for the construction of 466 dwelling units were recently marketed at record process: The land cost up to $280,000 per unit.

Tel Aviv was the first city to understand the importance of looking inward. Back in the 1980s, the municipality realized the price it was paying for disrupting the balance of building uses in the veteran city center. Back then the blame was cast on the proliferation of offices in the area and their negative effect on their immediate environment, among other things because of the lack of maintenance and because they are only used during daytime hours. "At the initiative of Shlomo Lahat, the mayor at the time, the municipality initiated an evacuation of the offices," relates City Engineer Danny Kaiser. "Permits for exceptional use were no longer handed out, evacuation orders for offices were issued and the approval of the Lev Ha'Ir [Heart of the City] plan granted additional rights for the construction of more residential floors, in return for renovating the aging buildings," he says.

Parallel to that, emphasis was placed on clearing parked vehicles off the sidewalks and on carrying out extensive infrastructure works. "Most of the money is invested beneath the surface; otherwise it's just cosmetics," says Municipality Director General Menahem Leibe, who talks about the face-lift Ibn Gvirol Street is currently undergoing, with an investment of NIS 120 million. The street's renovation will include a massive rehabilitation of infrastructures, aesthetic development, a widening of the sidewalks and the paving of bicycle paths.

Among the building plans expected to be realized in the city center in the future, mention can be made of the wholesale market project, in the framework of which a residential neighborhood of 1,600 dwelling units is slated for construction. Other projects include the Habas Group's residential high-rise and Arcadi Gaydamak's office high-rise - slated for construction on Rothschild Boulevard.

Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa are joined by many other cities that are working hard on developing their city centers. About two years ago, Herzliya began to formulate a policy of renewing its city center and Mayor Yael German has declared that she does not want to see offices in the renewed Herzliya downtown (the Sokolov Street area). The public space has been renewed (at the cost of NIS 27 million), the roads have been narrowed (from four lanes to a single one-way lane), the width of the sidewalks will range from 8 to 20 meters, emphasis will be placed on an aesthetic appearance (by planting plane trees that do not scatter fruit, afford shade in the summer and do not shed leaves), along with an investment of about NIS 16 million in the establishment of cultural institutions and a public park.

In Netanya there is a plan to renew Herzl Street, which is prompted by the demand of foreign investors; in Rishon Letzion development is concentrating on the winery area; in Zichron Yaakov the pedestrian mall has been renovated; in Carmiel there is a plan to "restore the heart to the center" and in Safed, which is still licking the wounds of last year's war, plans for the development of the downtown area have already been prepared.

"The planning method has to change and start from the bottom, with the public being fully involved in the planning process," says architect Irit Solzi, the chair of Merhav (MIU - The Movement for Israeli Urbanism). In the second phase, she says, every authority needs to restore public space - only this can provide leverage for future private investments. "The correct economic model depends on taking public responsibility, and not on waiting for market forces," sums up Assaf Vitman, adding, "The moment the municipality demonstrates determined action, seriousness and above all consistency, the private sector will also come."