“What did they have to ruin in order to put up those bleachers,” wondered one pedestrian out loud, as he walked down Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem on Wednesday morning, passing a massive grandstand set in a formerly grassy stretch of Liberty Bell Park.
He appeared to be echoing the thoughts of other passersby gazing at the red-and-white bunting, grandstands and bleachers set up in preparation for “Formula Jerusalem,”, a two-day Formula 1-style racing car event scheduled to begin Thursday afternoon.
With the total cost of the event estimated at NIS 15 million ($4.14 million), and expected to attract thousands of spectators from Israel and around the world, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has said the city is “making history” as it enters a “unique phase for people who are car enthusiasts.”
Drivers and technicians from Ferrari in Italy are participating in the race, as are many of Israel’s top drivers.
Anyone can watch the race for free along the designated route during the event, which will be held on Thursday, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., and again on Friday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. But there are also so-called VIP tickets available for those who prefer sitting on the grandstands set up along the route. The prices are NIS 350-450 ($96-$125) for a seat and complimentary Formula 1 hat; NIS 550 ($152) for a seat, hat and free refreshments and NIS 700 ($194) for a seat, hat, refreshments and free parking.
Prior to the racing event, the cars were on display in a hangar adjacent to renovated First Station, with a NIS 25 entry fee.
Similar Formula 1 showcases have been hosted in New York, Moscow, Sao Paulo and Macau. But for some Jerusalemites, the whole thing is just a hassle.
Barkat’s Facebook page is filling up with complaints as residents have started to realize that the event will snarl much of the traffic in the city, creating a situation similar to the one preceding the marathon held back in March.
One resident, Yosi Dudai, complained in his Facebook letter to Barkat about the waste of taxpayer money, which should instead be spent on better street cleaning and lower property taxes.
“Mr. Mayor, you’re celebrating on behalf of the residents, who end up feeling like strangers in their own city. Maybe we need a mayor who understands Jerusalemites better.”
Another resident complained about the noise that is sure to disturb the high school students in nearby schools, who are currently immersed in the annual matriculation exams.
The municipality responded swiftly to Dudai’s complaint, commenting that Jerusalem is joining other major cities worldwide in hosting the event and bringing hundreds of thousands of spectators to the city. It added that the budget for the event came primarily from sponsors and donors, while the city recently hired 100 new transportation employees at an investment of NIS 11 million per year.
“We see this is not as a cost, but as an investment,” added a spokesperson from Mayor Barkat’s office. “We’ve repaved streets for the event because of the regulations around motor sports, which will benefit the city for years to come, and spent unprecedented police hours preparing for the safety of the event. It’s a unique event, having Formula 1 cars on the streets of Jerusalem.”
According to the municipality, “thousands” of the VIP seats have been sold so far and are in “very high demand,” but they’re for those who “want to sit at the event from beginning to end, for motor sport enthusiasts who really get it,” said the spokesperson from Barkat’s office. “No one really needs to buy tickets, you can see it all for free.”
Local business owners were also angry, concerned about losing business again after having to close for President Barack Obama’s pre-Passover visit and for the marathon just prior to that.
Sarah Weinstein, a co-owner of 4UGifts, a high-end housewares shop on Hebron Road, was “livid” when she heard about the street closures for the Formula 1 event.
“I was ready to kill Barkat,” she said.
Weinstein and her business partner, Karen Etgar, decided instead to get into the spirit of the race and decorated their window with car-related paraphernalia, from a wooden car track and a children’s wooden race car to bunting from the popular children’s movie “Cars.”
“We’ve had a great response so far, and now I’m excited about it,” said Weinstein, who plans on keeping their store open, given its close proximity to the First Station and the car display. “It’s so cool, we’re a china shop and here we’re getting into Formula 1.”
According to the mayor’s spokesperson, the goal is to test the Formula 1 event over the next two days before deciding whether it will become an annual fixture.
“We have 100,000 spectators from Israel and abroad coming through Jerusalem right now, here for the light festival and the book fair. We’re expecting people from all over the country,” she said. “When Mayor Barkat talks about Formula 1, he talks about the investment, not the spending. This is for the tourists as well, and Jerusalem is a big tourist city.”
But according to Sima, a municipal employee who asked not to use her last name, the whole event is a big sham, tying up traffic and causing trouble. And what for?
“It’s an election year,” she shrugged. “No wonder there’s all these kinds of events right now.”