Neighborhood Renewal, or Urban Waste?

Driving along Independence Street in the lower city of Haifa, you see sign after sign trumpeting the future inauguration of this or that college in the future Port Campus.

Driving along Independence Street in the lower city of Haifa, you see sign after sign trumpeting the future inauguration of this or that college in the future Port Campus.

In most cases, the buildings marked for development house nothing but pigeons and fleas. This neglect doesn't exactly scream of an inspiring project designed to change the face of Haifa and renew the dilapidated neighborhoods at the bottom of the mountain. But though investment may be slow, the Haifa municipality truly is devoting major resources to the future campus - at the expense of the Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood, which remains in the rear.

Haifa mayor Yona Yahav told TheMarker Real Estate in August 2005 that within a few years, the lower city would become a buzzing center, proudly housing faculties from the Technion and Haifa universities, alongside a selection of colleges.

The campus is the city's solution for a tedious problem: the empty buildings in the area that once provided services to government institutions but whose offices moved to new edifices in Kiryat Hamemshala. Hassan Shukri Street is an example: once it housed many a government building, such as the local offices of the Interior Ministry, the court house, and city hall. But with the inauguration of the government complex, the offices emptied and now stand innocent of sapient life.

Architect David Gershon believes that the city's choice to invest in the lower city, while ignoring Hadar - which is also studded with empty buildings - is like giving an organ transplant to a patient with a fatal condition, while ignoring the needs of another patient who needs that organ and whose chances of recovery are good.

"The lower city is dead, but Hadar is still in the process of dying, and could be improved through investment," he says. "Herzl Street is still active, there are residential areas, there are schools. It would be easier to save it."

Meanwhile, completely divorced from whatever the city means to do in the lower city, the university went ahead and found buildings and dormitories for students in Hadar, Gershon continues. "Efforts are becoming scattered. This one is promoting the Port Campus idea and the other is promoting Hadar. Each is pulling in the direction that suits it," he says.

Haifa is not an easy city to plan. Its topography, and the development of its new neighborhoods, have created a patchwork city in which one part has nothing to do with the other. The most extreme example is the absence of a clearly defined "downtown" - city center. That is a serious deficiency for what's supposed to be a metropolitan center. The dissociation between the city sections makes it almost impossible for investment in the lower city to climb up the mountain to Hadar.

"It's easy to state that a solution is needed, but the solution for Hadar would be complicated," Gershon says. "A master plan is being prepared for Haifa, but at such a low-definition resolution, you can't really see Hadar's problems in detail. Hadar isn't a single unit and because of that, the master plan can't go deep, creating a program for saving the neighborhood."

He feels that the city has no choice: "It can't leave a black hole. It doesn't need to handle the whole of Hadar. It would be enough to take one segment and to do various renewal works there. Possibly the success would be so great that it would seep into the adjacent areas."

A few years ago, the city of Haifa commissioned a plan to save Hadar. The planning team was led by architects Amir Mann and Ami Shenar, who worked with Prof. Yona Ginsburg-Gershoni and Dr Gustavo Mesch, who addressed the social issues. Yet for various reasons the plan was shelved, leaving little trace of actual progress behind.

Shenar, a partner in Mann-Shenar Architects, says that the final report was delivered in 2003. Its concept was to improve the standard of living in the urban environment. "As part of the plan we thought to revolutionize transportation in Hadar. We suggested removing some of the bus lines from the area and turning Herzl Street into a pedestrian walkway, following which a light-train system would be built."

He stresses that they weren't suggesting pies in the skies. They didn't mean to turn Hadar into a Holy Land version of Boston or Madrid. "Most of Hadar is built-up and privately owned. You have to grant incentives to renovate," he says, by which he means - extra building rights. That is how Tel Aviv renewed its city center, Shenar points out.

"Hadar Hacarmel is where the center of Tel Aviv was 30 years ago," he says, and what made the difference was the small things - regulating the schools and kindergartens, building and improving public gardens and playgrounds, and so on.

The plan for Hadar indeed includes strengthening educational and cultural institutions, giving building owners more building rights in exchange for prettying up their dumps, and finding solutions for the empty buildings, such as the ones on Hassan Shukri Street. Namely, turn them into cultural centers.

That's the plan. The practice is nonexistent. There are pinpoint efforts to fix up this or that street, but barring filled potholes, Hadar just deteriorates from dilapidated to drecky.

"It's a missed opportunity for urban renewal," Shenar chides the city chiefs. "Hadar is a beautiful place" - halfway down a dramatic mountain overlooking the blue-green Mediterranean Sea - "and it boasts modern building in stone, and a great deal of Bauhaus construction. But throughout the years nobody branded the Hadar as part of the city center." Which, geographically, it is.

Shmuel Gelbhart, architect and city planner, is head of engineering at the Haifa municipality and also chairs its planning and building committee. He admits that any improvements to Hadar have been confined to the cosmetic. "Roads are fixed here and there, but it's clear that the main effort is being devoted to the lower city. It seems that it's hard to raise two flags at the same time," he says.

One reason for targeting the lower city was high hopes of building a light-train system, which could leverage the whole area, Gelbhart says. Hadar just got left behind.

He doesn't believe that the plan formulated by Shenar and Mann will change Hadar's situation, either. All they'll get is the same grubby Hadar, but more crowded (because of landlords adding more stories to their buildings).

What the neighborhood sorely lacks is open space: "It has only 0.7 square meters of open space per person," Gelbhart laments. "That's more crowded than Gaza. The policy statement suggested that children play on the rooftops."

And if the city were to renovate the houses, and add high-rise residential towers, that wouldn't bring more the prosperous segments of society to the Hadar, Gelbhart adds. No question about it, fixing up Hadar is a matter for taxpayer money, he concludes. "You can't expect a poor neighborhood like Hadar to redo a billion facades using private money."

He has some ideas for architectural solutions to the Hadar's woes. For example, he envisions turning Herzl Street into an open-sky urban shopping center, centered on a classic Middle Eastern bazaar, the kind of thing that tourists adore. Another idea is to connect the old Technion to the government complex to public gardens with a conveyor belt.

But even if Gelbhart is at the center of power in the city of Haifa, that doesn't mean his ideas will prevail. For now, they're on paper. "I'm in the minority," he admits. "The majority voted in favor of the plan to increase population density, and at the end of the day, we live in a democracy."

Which doesn't mean that the plan to increase crowding will happen either. A master plan for the Balfour, Masada, and Hillel streets has been prepared - but it isn't economically feasible, Gelbhart adds.

Urban planning isn't an exact science and the question of which plan would benefit Hadar the most isn't going to be answered, at least not any time soon. But one thing is for sure. The city's decision not to decide, but to implement tiny flashes of ideas here and there in haphazard, pinpoint fashion, isn't going to rescue Hadar.