Tampering With the Templars

In recent years one of the loveliest sights in Haifa has been the renovated streets of the city's German Colony. The whole area has gained a new lease on life and the municipality has chosen it as the site of a historical museum.

In recent years one of the loveliest sights in Haifa has been the restored and renovated streets of the city's German Colony. The whole area has gained a new lease on life and the municipality has chosen it as the site of a historical museum.

The case of Haifa exemplifies the great tourist and municipal potential of preserving neighborhoods built in various places in the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the Tempelgesellschaft (Temple Society), a Protestant group from southern Germany who were known as Templars for short. True, the Haifa restoration was preceded by a great many public battles and was done without the flora that was an important element in the original neighborhood, but the final result is impressive nonetheless.

The city of Tel Aviv has an opportunity to preserve and restore the Templar neighborhood in the area of the Kirya - the Defense Ministry compound - but there is a real concern that the historic and landscape heritage of the neighborhood will be seriously affected by the implementation of building plans. The historic buildings in the area of the Kirya are now vitiated by neglect and disrepair. Rare and unique vegetation has been destroyed, including some of the first eucalyptus trees that were planted in Palestine, which were cut down.

Tel Aviv Municipality and the Israel Lands Administration are promoting a large-scale construction plan in the area of the Kirya that will include several residential and office complexes consisting of high-rises, an extensive system of parking lots and a park. The underlying idea is to transform an area, which until now served the defense establishment and government offices, into a dynamic business center and an attractive residential neighborhood. At the same time, however, it is threatening to swallow a significant part of the Templar heritage in a neighborhood that was established more than 130 years ago as an agricultural colony.

Work of various kinds is already under way in the southern part of the Kirya. The public council for the preservation of historic buildings and sites maintains that the construction work is going ahead without full discussions on the new plan to develop the area and creating irreversible facts on the ground. According to Tel Aviv Municipality, the work is being done as part of a previous plan that has been approved. The idea was to avoid damaging the structures that are intended for preservation, but the council says many of the structures are at risk, including the olive press, the winery and the distillery of the Templar neighborhood.

The initiators of the (comprehensive) plan introduced changes to take into account the preservation of historic buildings, but in the case of such a singular neighborhood the structures have to be protected during the execution of the work. In addition, a further planning effort is needed to try to save more structures, as the heritage council is proposing.

The distinctive character of the Templar neighborhood lies in the fact that it is a complete compound that reflects the culture of an unusual community, which succeeded in transplanting its customs to an environment radically different from its country of origin. Many of the characteristics of that culture are not visible, but they have not been destroyed. Now the compound has become an ugly sequence of parking lots and small construction sites. In this state of affairs it is possible that the skeleton of the structures marked for preservation will remain, but not much will be left of the fences, the vegetation, the wall embellishments and other features without which genuine preservation becomes an empty phrase.

Another problem is the transportation overload that the project in the southern part of the Kirya is going to cause. According to the city engineer, the number of parking spaces allotted to each building will be decided on the basis of the parking regulations in effect when the permit for the building is issued, and in addition to the general authorization, each building will require a separate permit. According to the Transportation Ministry, the municipality has reneged on an agreement in which the project was to have 6,000 parking spaces; the implication of the present proposal is the creation of no fewer than 10,000 parking spaces. The municipality is thus acting contrary to the national policy of reducing parking spaces that are close to mass transit systems. The area in question is close to the planned subway and commuter train system.

The project appears likely to leave intact very little of the historic heritage of Tel Aviv and is likely to further increase the already large volume of transportation in the area of the southern Kirya. The alternative could be thousands of passengers who alight from a nearby train station and walk through streets where there are not only high-rises but also small gardens and Templar buildings that illustrate how diversified a city Tel Aviv could be.