Nowhere to Grow but Up / Bat Yam Turns to Urban Renewal

Plans look good on paper, but it takes more than just deciding how much should be put where.

Imagine a city completely built up with no room to expand outward. That city is Bat Yam. And with its seashore and proximity to Tel Aviv, housing prices keep climbing. But population growth can only be achieved by creatively rebuilding its inner areas.

"All current planning in Bat Yam involves urban renewal programs, since 90% of the city is built up and the rest is already zoned," explains attorney Erez Podemsky-Shaked, director-general of the Bat Yam Municipality.

Bat Yam shoreline - Tal Cohen - 07112011
Tal Cohen

The municipality is aware that urban renewal is an inherently complex process requiring special methods, so it decided to promote a unique incentive program to spark efforts by encouraging the initial developers. These usually take on the most risk by investing in old, run-down areas, a much greater gamble than wagering on neighborhoods already taking shape.

"We have assigned additions for building rights to all the city's parcels of land, but the first developers will be allotted extra additions," says Podemsky-Shaked. "We are giving the initial developers up to 600%, and the last ones just 300%. There are other possibilities within this range, but anyone joining later will receive less."

The first expansion was set for 20,000 housing units. The city intends to pause after the completion of each expansion to reevaluate progress. Each of the city's areas has been assigned an allotment of new housing tailored to its density.

Mixed usage

The municipality also decided to allow mixed use of an old industrial area located near the city's center, basically setting aside 25% of its buildings for residential use. This is unusual for Israel's urban landscape, where distinct zoning areas are the norm, even though mixing usage is usually found to help enliven cities (although anyone living over a pub might disagree ).

Podemsky-Shaked thinks the latest plans promoted by the city will turn it into a magnet for developers and benefit local residents. Many of the city's buildings are in need of repair. "Developers remain nervous after reaching agreement with residents because they still aren't clear on what the authorities will offer," he claims. "Bat Yam is one of the hotbeds of renewal because of its proximity to Tel Aviv, lower land costs, and the assurance provided by our programs."

As cities go, Bat Yam is quite small - just seven square kilometers. In contrast, Rishon Letzion, its neighbor to the south, covers 64 square kilometers. Housing density in Bat Yam is quite high, even by Israeli standards.

City of dead-end streets

Municipal plans to encourage development look good on paper, but it takes more than just deciding how much should be put where: How this should be done also needs to be determined.

Discovering why some urban renewal projects succeed while others flop isn't easy, but the people at the Movement for Israeli Urbanism (the Merhav Movement ) are trying to crack the mystery. They've created a methodology to help local authorities examine their plans and find ways to help neighborhoods.

Irit Solzi, a partner at Irit Solzi & Dror Gershon Urban Architects who chairs Merhav, explains that in its research on urbanism, Merhav identified most neighborhoods needing assistance as built between the 1950s and the 1970s, and generally near the city center. After examining methods and principles successfully tried around the world for similar projects, Solzi stresses that in order to revitalize neighborhoods, the center also needs to be revitalized, and vice-versa.

Merhav put its focus on two neighborhoods, one being Bat Yam's Shikun Vatikim. The movement wanted to quantify variables connected with urban and housing quality, like amounts of open space, the number of public buildings, and pedestrian access to and within the neighborhood - and to propose solutions accordingly.

Solzi describes Shikun Vatikim thus: "Construction there differs from most neighborhoods built in the 1950s and 1960s and is more similar to the centers of Givatayim and Ramat Gan. There are few neighborhoods like this in Israel. It has a unique fabric and is relatively conducive to renewal because of the limited number of units on each piece of land."

Each neighborhood needs to be adapted to a specific urban renewal plan, Solzi says. "If it is privatized, with each developer allowed to decide on construction for his own piece of land, the buildings will be taken care of - but this won't solve the problem of the urban grid," she explains. "While Tel Aviv's urban grid is good, many streets in Bat Yam are dead ends. A strategic plan must be created to determine where streets can be opened up so the existing grid can be made more concentrated and orderly."

Solzi explains that Shikun Vatikim's high-quality open spaces are barely used because of access difficulties, and are therefore unfamiliar to city residents - even to many of the neighborhood residents. She suggests using part of these areas to put up new buildings and reduce the impact on the neighborhood and residents from projects for resettling area tenants.

And since neighborhood access in most of Israel's cities is vehicle-oriented rather than geared toward pedestrians, she also suggests that the municipality pave new roads. The reason Solzi stresses the need for an overall plan is concern over unsupervised activity by developers.

Bureaucratic hurdles

Yehoshua Gutman, a partner at Gutman Assif Architects, mentions the great interest developers, residents and the authorities have for Bat Yam. In his opinion, the main problem hindering urban renewal programs is caused by the government - not intentionally, but due to the approval process and budgeting.

"The Bat Yam Municipality can't run a resettlement program by itself; it depends on the government for approval and funding," Gutman explains. "Just receiving a planning budget requires a year to persuade the Housing Ministry, the National Infrastructure Ministry and the district committee."

Gutman and his firm are involved in a major urban renewal program in the city for an area of housing projects. He thinks the urban renewal projects promoted by the city will contribute to creating an intense and vibrant urban environment, and points out that the municipality supports planning for pedestrian infrastructures and raising density.

"New neighborhoods in Israel are very homogenous and monotonous," Gutman says. "The advantage of the project in Bat Yam is its great diversity, based on an existing urban infrastructure comprised of a commercial center, cultural center and open areas."

The project planned by Gutman will preserve the look and feel of the low-rise apartment blocks while raising the number of housing units. "The apartments are larger, but the way of life isn't being changed," he says. "As part of the project, we are also identifying nearby open spaces and raising density through the use of high-rises - but making sure these will have mixed usage. Why not build housing and offices over an old health maintenance organization clinic? Mixed usage creates quality urban infrastructures."