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September 23, 2014 / 28 Elul, 5774
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Jerusalem of (Real Estate) Gold

The romantic skyline of Jerusalem is disappearing. The sights of the beautiful churches and minarets of the ancient mosques will soon be eclipsed by high-rise office and apartment buildings. Is Jerusalem on its way to becoming a modern city? Or is it losing its special character?

A reflected Jerusalem skyline in the city's center.

A reflected Jerusalem skyline in the city's center.
Photo Credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90

Today, Jerusalem is on the cutting edge of urban development that not even Tel Aviv can approach. The light rail that is already operational has given the center of the city an almost European feel, and the work underway to build a train station in the International Convention Center will make the center of the capital even more accessible.

Visitors to Jerusalem are welcomed by the boldly designed Calatrava Bridge. Planners and developers are also in the process of constructing the new Cinema City complex, which will become a major leisure and entertainment center. These are just the initial indicators of the profound aesthetic transformation which Jerusalem is undergoing, and it compliments the spate of high-rise construction which the city is hard at work in advancing.

There are currently dozens of high-rise construction projects that are progressing toward the final stages. Soon, the entrance to Jerusalem will be dotted with buildings that reach as much as 32 stories high. Most of them will be office buildings that serve commercial ends. There has also been a renewed momentum when it comes to the building of residential complexes. In the last five years, changes to the city’s master plan have accommodated the planing and construction of high-rise residences.

Bridge and City Model

“The master plan dramatically changed the moment it was decided to cancel the Safdie plan in west Jerusalem (which included the construction of 20,000 apartments in undeveloped areas),” said Dalit Zilber, the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem District Commissioner. “Instead of expanding westward, today we are talking about moving inward and thickening the interior of the city through renewal and renovation. We are carefully examining and scrutinizing every project, and we are taking great pains not to exceed the guidelines of our policy.”

Altering the skyline

In recent years, the Jerusalem skyline has been altered by a number of high-rise towers that were built without a clear policy in mind. The most glaring example of this is the Holyland project, which was built in the southern part of the city atop a ridge that hovers 700 meters above sea level. The sprawling complex stretches across 162 dunams, and it can be seen from almost any point in the city.

Initially, a scaled-down version of the plan, which was intended to serve tourists, was approved. As time went on, however, more additions were incorporated into the project, and the construction expanded to include more apartments and hotels. In total, Holyland encompasses 17 towers that stretch between 18 and 20 stories high, with the exception of two towers that reach 31 floors. Overall, there are 1,000 apartments in addition to a hotel.

Thus far, just eight of the 17 buildings have been completed. A few years ago, a police investigation revealed that some of the plans at the site were approved in exchange for bribes offered by the project’s contractors. This led to changes in the original plan. Last year, the Interior Ministry decided to reduce the scale of the plan, erasing a few of the towers that were scheduled to be built.

Another residential complex that has become very difficult to ignore is the Jerusalem of Gold project, which lies at the corner of Rabbi Akiva and Hillel Streets. This large, upscale apartment complex, which was initiated in the 1990s, includes two residential towers that reach 25 floors and include 209 apartments. The plan was built despite opposition from local residents.

Another tower that takes up prominent place on the city’s skyline is the Seidof Tower, which is located on the corner of Jaffa and Eliezer Streets, not far from the Mahane Yehuda open-air market. The project was initiated and developed by a number of private individuals and businessmen who initially proposed that the building include no more than seven floors of apartments. Shortly afterward, their appetite was whetted, and plans changed, rendering the project a high-rise tower.

Despite protests and legal challenges by the Interior Ministry’s National Planning Council and the Supreme Court, the plan was approved. Today, the building is a 24-floor tower with 127 apartments.

“The Society for the Protection of Nature has in the past been involved with many legal battles over the construction of high-rise buildings in Jerusalem, talking about this supposedly holy skyline that mustn’t be changed,” said Shaked Avraham, a member of the SPN who also represents environmental agencies in the various planning councils. “This is history, a thing of the past because there has been a realization that there is no such thing as a holy skyline. People also realize that the most precious commodity is land, and it needs to be utilized efficiently. High-rise buildings serve this end. Now the main question is where, how, and how much.”

“In the past, high-rise buildings were constructed without any comprehensive vision in mind,” Avraham said. “In the last five years, however, a cogent policy has been formulated for high-rise construction in Jerusalem. This policy is manifest in the new Jerusalem master plan (despite the fact that it has yet to be approved formally) that serves a guide for both the municipality as well as for the District Council.”

“Unfortunately, however, the greed and avarice displayed by many contractors and builders who are trying to get as much land as possible and to build as many stories high as possible, results in very thick, ugly constructions that have little connection to the surrounding landscape,” he said. “We have quite a number of problems in this regard. The tall buildings that were initiated and approved in the 1990s are a good example of this.”

“Architects and builders want more and more, even at the cost of producing a catastrophe planning-wise,” he said. “It’s not the height of the towers that is disastrous, but the insane, gargantuan building and the wide spaces that they take up that create problems in the public landscape from an aesthetic standpoint. Take for example the towers that are slated to be built near the Mahane Yehuda market. These towers were poorly conceived, and they are being constructed as per the gargantuan whims of the builders and excessive generosity on the part of the planning institutions as opposed to proper urban planning considerations that also take into account the preservation of the special, historic fabric of the area.”

Holy balance

The master plan that has been advanced in Jerusalem in recent years lays out clear criteria regarding high-rise construction. They include accessibility through public transportation, proper integration with the historic fabric of the area, and a minimum of 2.5 dunams on which the property would be built. In the coming years, we are likely to see many residential towers crop up in neighborhoods like Arnona and on major thoroughfares like Hebron Way and Herzl Street. There will be also a number of boldly conceived plans for the area surrounding the Mahane Yehuda open-air market.

One of the few towers built in the city as part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate the Katamonim neighborhood is the Ganei Tziyon tower, which was built by Hasid brothers (Ahim Hasid) real estate company five years ago. These are one of the few real estate ventures of this kind, which is why it received the blessing of all the main protagonists: the planning institutions, the municipality, and the local residents. Ganei Tziyon encompasses two low-rise buildings six-to-seven stories tall as well as one tower with 18 floors.

Ganei Tzion

“The Jerusalem skyline has been altered in recent years by towers that were built without any clear policy in mind,” said Zion Hasid, one of the owners of Hasid Brothers, which has been involved in real estate projects in Jerusalem since the 1970s. “This project was built with the proper balance in mind and through the joint planning of all the relevant parties, so in that way it also meets the needs of the longtime residents of the area. It has managed to attract a socioeconomically advanced demographic to an area that was thought of as a rundown, distressed region, and it has re-branded the Katamonim neighborhood into one of the most sought-after places in the city with regards to real estate opportunities.”

Within the next few years, we are likely to see more high-rises dot the landscape in the capital. The next major project will rise near the entrance to the city on Herzl Street, in a region of the city known as the Mekasher Complex. Plans have been approved to raze 96 apartments, which will make way for two large towers of 25 floors apiece and which will include a total of 220 apartments.

Another tower that is scheduled to go up in the near future is the venture belonging to businessman Rami Levi, whose project will be located on the corner of Hebron Way and Moshe Baram Street in the Talpiyot section of Jerusalem. The project encompasses 150 apartment units in two, 12-floor buildings as well as one 18-floor high rise.

A large bloc of buildings is expected to be built in the Arnona neighborhood and the surrounding area within the next few years. Planners are working on the construction of 1,000 apartments stretched across a few 12-floor buildings on Hebron Way.

If you thought that the Holyland project was the highest-altitude edifice in the city, then you obviously hadn’t heard of Zion Towers (Migdalei Zion) that will build by the Hasid Brothers Company in the Arnona quarter. their project sits a top a cliff that rises 800 meters above sea level, the highest in all of the capital. The company’s venture is the only one in the neighborhood that will reach 24 floors, and includes 200 luxury apartments. The sale of the apartments will commence toward the Passover holiday. The four-room units in the complex are being sold at a price of NIS 2.3 million, while five-room apartments are being sold for NIS 2.5 million.

Another 1,800 apartments will be built in the coming years on the hills of Arnona, not far from Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. As part of the plan which was approved recently by the authorities, the buildings will reach between 18 and 24 floors.

Plans that are even bolder have been moved forward in recent years for the city’s center in the area of the Mahane Yehuda market. One of the biggest, most attention-grabbing initiative is the Eden Project, which lies at the intersection between Agripas, Aliash, and King George Streets. It encompasses a 24-floor tower that will offer both hotel services as well as residential apartments. There will also be two more towers that will rise to 24 floors, and they will be built in Etz Hahaim yeshiva complex near the open-air market. This project will offer 184 housing units in multiple towers as well as a hotel with 100 additional rooms.

Not too far from there, two towers are being planned for the area adjacent to Davidka Square. One of the 16-floor structures will be used for a hotel and the other will be a commercial office building. Meanwhile, the area on Jaffa Street that once housed the old central bus station near Sha’are Tzedek Medical Center will soon be home to four new towers. In addition, the historic Beit Mapai building on the corner of Jaffa and Hanavi’im Streets is going to be converted into a 24-floor tower. Just down the block on King George Street, planners are preparing the ground for three new towers that will be used for hotels and residential spaces.

“When we were having our arguments over building high-rise buildings without a clear policy in mind, Uri Ben Asher, the former chief engineer in the municipality, would say, ‘We need to be like Manhattan’,” Avraham said. “Now Jerusalem can say that it’s like Manhattan, but like any ambitious undertaking in Israel, it could turn into a poor-man’s Manhattan if we don’t take the public landscape into account.”

“There’s no doubt that whoever invested in real estate in Jerusalem profited tremendously,” said Hasid, who is also a member of the National Council of Contractors. “It is true, the city has endured some tough times, but for the long term Jerusalem has become one of the more intriguing and profitable centers of investment when it comes to real estate.”

“In years past, they’d build apartments that rose to between four and six floors,” he said. “Now they have started to build high-rises. Building towers has increased dramatically, and it has left half the city with buildings that are five, six floors high. Ultimately, we are seeing that because of the planning of high-rises in the previous five years, 20,000 new apartment units have been approved.”

“It is true, one cannot say that the apartments built in the towers were geared toward the middle class, but even if the city built low-rise buildings of 10 floors in the city center, they will still be bought up by the wealthy.”

About the Author: Ranit Nachum-Halevi is a consultant to real estate companies, and former senior real estate correspondent for The Marker, Haaretz's daily financial supplement. She has been working in Israel's media for more than 15 years. You can reach her at ranit.nh@gmail.com.


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