Tel Aviv Square Waiting for Renovations, or for Scuds

The city has a plan to restore the once-trendy Atarim plaza, but the plethora of owners can't reach an agreement.

During the first Gulf War, then-Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat expressed hope that a Scud missile would fall on Atarim Square. After every attempt to renovate the site has ended in disaster, some senior officials in the municipality are still - 21 years later - hoping that Lahat's hope, or perhaps a less violent version of it, will come true.

The plaza, near Eliezer Peri Street on Tel Aviv's coast, was built in the 1970s. Once a trendy area that enjoyed a period of glamour, the site started falling apart just a few years after it was inaugurated. Criminal elements moved in and some business owners moved out. The large round building that housed a hip discotheque recently became a strip club. Other buildings are abandoned.

For years, city hall has been trying to renovate the locale, but to no avail. The problem: Atarim plaza is jointly owned by the municipality, the Atarim Company Ltd. (a joint government-city venture ) and 200 private asset owners. All parties must agree on any renovation project, for it to be instituted. This requirement has prevented plans from being implemented more than once.

The city is now hoping a plan developed by the Moria Sekely landscape architecture firm will restore the site back to its glory days. It includes replacing the steep ramp that connects Ben-Gurion Boulevard to the plaza with a more gently sloping slope leading directly to the plaza center. In addition, an elevator would be installed to connect the plaza with the promenade. The pavement and lighting would be replaced, the raised platform would be torn down, infrastructures restored, and the parking garage fixed up.

But property owners claim the city isn't taking their needs into consideration. They say, for example, that a direct connection to the promenade will harm businesses, since it gives people access to the beach without having to pass through Atarim Square.

Businessman Dubi Shiff owns a significant portion of Atarim's privately-owned properties, including the Marina Hotel and about a one-quarter interest in the parking lot. Sources say his cooperation is crucial, but because Shiff is embroiled in several legal battles with the city, it is unlikely the two will join forces. Shiff declined to be interviewed.

Other property owners, afraid of being harassed by the city, also refused to be interviewed. Alex Silberstein, owner of the Panorama Restaurant, was one of the few who agreed to talk. "The city ... wants to destroy us," he said. According to him, the current design includes "only cosmetic repairs," and can harm, rather than help the business owners.

Architect Yael Moria, who designed the plan, says it feels like "someone is undermining the plan for some reason that's not being said outright." Moria insists the plan is not only about connecting the boulevard with the seafront. "Our intent is not to make the connection using the currently out-of-order elevators on the sides of the plaza, but rather via a glass elevator that would become a type of landmark. It would attract people to the plaza, not drive them away," she says.

Itamar Shimoni, CEO of Atarim Ltd., says he's not waiting for business owners to come around. Shimoni recently came to an understanding with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai that the company would put NIS 7 million into renovating the parking structure. He realizes, though, that it's unlikely the upper levels will be restored.

The Tel Aviv municipality says: "Contrary to claims, the city has in recent years put some NIS 1.5 million into making safety repairs, cleaning and maintaining Atarim Square. Despite the fact that the plaza is ... jointly owned, none of the other owners has shared the costs of the repairs."

Tomer Appelbaum
Daniel Bar-On