Head to Head / Are Special Panels to Accelerate Building Justified?

An interview with Planner Alon Cohen-Lifshitz.

The Knesset approved on Monday in a first reading a draft law intended to accelerate residential building through new zoning panels that will fast-track the regulatory process. The hope is that these "supertanker committees" will rapidly increase the supply of housing stock, thus bringing down prices. The legislation is so important to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he came to the Knesset to plump for the bill before the vote.

Detractors say the law would not necessarily expedite construction, and could have negative social and environmental implications. The nongovernmental organization Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights, opposes the bill. The architect Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, who heads one of the NGO's planning departments, explained Bimkom's position.

cohen-lifshitz - Tomer Appelbaum - July 6 2011
Tomer Appelbaum

"Our impression is that bureaucratic obstacles do exist, and that there is room for improvement. But in our opinion the proposed committees are not the solution. It must be remembered that in terms of having insufficient personnel to handle workloads, the planning bodies are in a similar situation as the courts. We think the right way to improve the planning system is to add budgets and human resources to the existing committees, using existing law."

Does the draft law answer the needs of the general public rather than only those of the wealthy?

"The bill contains no mechanism for creating so-called affordable housing. It is not enough to reduce prices and increase supply. Among other things you must also offer smaller apartments. The average new apartment in Israel is large and therefore beyond the reach of most people. Many people could not afford to buy such big homes even if the prices come down, and many have no need for such big apartments. Previous national master plans addressed the need for affordable housing. This issue is also being promoted by local governments, including Tel Aviv. The problem is that the government does not help in passing legislation to promote this kind of housing."

The broad authorities of the new committees are to include the power to amend regional master plans. Why do you think it is so important to keep these plans as they are?

"We believe it is very important to preserve the planning hierarchy; the higher committees have the ability to see things in a broad scope, on the regional or national level, and not merely at the level of a specific place as will happen with the plans that these committees will approve. If there is a contradiction between a residential project and a regional plan, for example on the subject of preserving public areas, this will have implications not only for the specific plan but also for a wider area. If these housing plans introduce changes in regional master plans in sensitive areas, this could greatly damage the environment. It must also be remembered that these committees are not legally required to take into account negative opinions about the plans."

The Prime Minister's Office claims the new law preserves public involvement and access to information. Do you agree?

"This is a very significant aspect of the bill. One of the only channels today for including the public is by submitting objections to building plans and, if the objections are rejected, to appeal to a higher planning body. This mechanism should be made even stronger, but the new law goes in the opposite direction. It barely allows for appeal, which could have destructive implications for the environment. It places the burden of addressing the public objections and appeals on the courts, which are already overburdened and which do not generally interfere in the planning process. It must also be remembered that turning to the courts is expensive and complicated, and therefore is mainly the privilege of those who are better-off."

Perhaps the law nevertheless makes a significant contribution because it will shorten the process?

"The problem is how to shorten it without too high a price and without harming the quality of the planning. Planning is by nature a long-term process involving very many different aspects. It can't be an instant process, certainly not when thousands of homes are involved. These new committees will have the authority to skip steps and to make decisions with far-reaching consequences, and they will face pressure from many sides. Our fear is that as a result neighborhoods will be built without suitable road infrastructure, without necessary public buildings and without open, public space. Then they will try to solve the problems with makeshift, after-the-fact measures, all of which will detract from the residents' quality of life."

Could the new law provide a solution for the Arab sector?

"Development in the Arab and Bedouin areas is further complicated by private land ownership, with complex issues of proving ownership and ownership claims against the state. This law does not provide any solutions to these problems, and these are the very sectors with the most severe housing problems."

It has been claimed that the bill was actually designed under pressure from and in order to serve the interests of real estate developers. Do you agree?

"I know that the efforts two decades ago to accelerate the planning process enabled, among other things, the creation of luxury projects in Jaffa and Jerusalem that were conceived as gated communities built inside of surroundings that remained neglected. It is certainly possible that this new law too will help developers to push through projects of this kind.