Jerusalemites tend to kvetch about any visible changes in the city’s skyline.

Consider Holyland, the six-building project that looms over the city. Set high on a hill and with its own access road off the Begin Expressway, it was built with corrupt funds and means, culminating with the prosecution and conviction of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem as Holyland began and came to fruition. It’s the high-rise development that Jerusalemites love to hate.

“Holyland will always remain a symbol of bad architecture and corruption,” said David Kroyanker, the Jerusalem architect and historian. “It’s a project that’s terrible from all sides.”

Olmert, the convicted politician, was all for high-rises in Jerusalem. He once told The Jerusalem Report magazine that he didn’t have any problem with “building tall” in the city’s periphery, “30 floors, even 40.”

The capital’s former mayor will be heading to jail in September, but it looks like his taste in architecture will be guiding his hometown’s future.

But despite having precipitated the biggest real estate corruption scandal in Israeli history, Holyland’s look is not necessarily emblematic of the high-rise trend in the holy city, said Kroyanker. “It’s a bad exception.”

Once known for its collection of square, squat, Jerusalem stone-covered buildings, Jerusalem is now building high-rises and it’s changing the look of this ancient town.

The decision to start building up in the capital was mostly a question of supply and demand.

The city has long grappled with a lack of apartments, particularly for young couples and middle-class families who want to stay in Jerusalem but can’t spend half a million dollars for the tight space offered in a typical three-bedroom apartment.

Jerusalem has to supply more housing, said Tamir Nir, an architect and Yerushalmim party councilmember who sits on the municipality’s preservation and transportation committees. Israel’s largest city isn’t crowded enough, he said. The key, he added, is figuring out how to preserve the character of the city while building it up.

Allowing high-rises in Jerusalem is “a tremendous change in relationship to what we call the historic skyline of the city,” said Kroyanker, who’s not a tremendous fan of tall buildings in the city.  “There’s all this context in terms of what people the world over know of Jerusalem.”

The decision to build high

High-rises weren’t always part of Jerusalem’s urban planning plan. Israel-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie had once proposed the so-called Safdie plan, which included building Jerusalem outwards, with 20,000 housing units, commercial and industrial space on more than 16 square miles in the hills west of the city. Safdie is the architect who designed the city of Modi’in. The plan was eventually overturned, as its detractors said it would weaken the city center.

The new plan? Building upward.

It’s not the first time the idea’s been raised, said Kroyanker. The city’s first high-rise — the Pinsker building in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood — was built in the 1970s, followed by another in the Rasko area, and then the 14- and 16-floor buildings of the Wolfson complex.

A bird's eye view of the Holyland complex, one of the first of Jerusalem's high-rise projects (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)

A bird’s eye view of the Holyland complex, one of the first of Jerusalem’s high-rise projects (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)

They weren’t really high-rises, said Kroyanker, but “everything’s relative compared with the traditional four- and six-story buildings. The overall skyline was relatively low.”

His own issue with high-rises isn’t necessarily their height. It’s what they look like.

“We’re just like anywhere else in the world,” said Kroyanker. “We build high-rises mainly because of economics. It’s their architecture that’s problematic.”

“The architecture, on average, is lousy,” he said. “It’s usually very mediocre, very heavy and there’s nothing elegant about their design. It’s difficult to give high-rises an elegant shape. It just becomes a chunky piece of architecture.”

He isn’t the only one who worries about the trend.

“We’re used to short, flat buildings in Jerusalem,” said Yishai Breslauer, a local realtor. “But we have so many people now, we need to start building up, something that bothers the old-timers. It’s like back when everyone lived in the Old City, and told [Moses] Montefiore that he was a crazy entrepreneur, offering free houses to people outside of the city walls.”

It’s an apt metaphor.

Moses Montefiore had a hard tiime luring residents of the Old City into the then new houses of Mishkenot Sha'ananim (photo credit: Miriam Alter/Flash 90)

Moses Montefiore had a hard time luring residents of the Old City into the then new houses of Mishkenot Sha’ananim (photo credit: Miriam Alter/Flash 90)

The British philanthropist, Moses Montefiore, was looking to improve the quality of life in Jerusalem when he built what is now Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a quaint neighborhood of red-roofed houses just outside the Old City walls. Initially, no one wanted to move; the new neighborhood seemed too far, and too different from the winding alleys of the Old City.

Yet as Breslauer knows, convincing people to change their thinking can be a tough task, particularly in Jerusalem.

He pointed to the major landscape changes in Mamilla, outside the Old City walls, where a slum was turned into a luxury hotel and high-end shopping avenue. Or the high-rises built by developer Ahim Hasid, the Hasid Brothers, in the Katamonim, that brought in middle-class families to the historically lower-income neighborhood.

“You have a lot of whiners, and they’re gonna whine about what you do, no matter what,” he said. “But say what you like, the Katamonim was a so-so place, and now it’s changed. Same with Mamilla, they made it beautiful. Obviously it has to be legal and kosher, but you have to do what you do and make it better for people of Jerusalem.”

Neighborhood by neighborhood

The Katamonim, a neighborhood dating from the 1930s on a hill across the valley from the Holyland project, is an apt example of a neighborhood changed by high-rise construction.

The neighborhood was built to accommodate the wave of new immigrants who arrived in Israel in the early years of statehood. It was first made up of long apartment blocks on pillars, the country’s version of low-cost housing. Later on, simple, single-family block houses were built, often accommodating extended families in each home.

Given the neighborhood’s location, relatively close to the middle and upper-middle-class neighborhoods of Old Katamon, San Simon, the Greek and German Colonies, Baka and Mekor Hayim, the Katamonim was an obvious choice for young families looking for affordable housing in Jerusalem. Ahim Hasid, a local family firm of developers, started thinking about building high-rises in 2005, said Sharon Hasid, because they “saw that Jerusalem could go that way.”

“We’ve been here a long time,” said Hasid, who handles marketing for the firm. His father, Zion Hasid, an Iranian immigrant, established the company 50 years ago, and now works with his three sons.

Ahim Hasid's Ganei Zion Katamonim project, centered by the xx-floor tower (Courtesy Ahim Hasid)

Ahim Hasid’s Ganei Zion Katamonim project, centered by the 19-story tower (Courtesy Ahim Hasid)

It took another few years for Ahim Hasid to convince the municipality to let it build Ganei Zion, a project of four six-to-eight story buildings and one 19-story tower, for a total of 194 apartments. The complex now forms a new center of the Katamonim neighborhood.

Ahim Hasid, like several other local developers, is focusing on the local middle-class buyers who need three or four bedrooms and don’t want to leave the city. Its projects are generally geared to families willing to live in neighborhoods slightly beyond the core of Rehavia, the German and Greek colonies, Katamon and Baka.

The firm’s buildings are constructed differently from the standard co-op system of the past, said Hasid. Given that there are a total of 194 apartments in the Ganei Zion complex, for example, the municipality required the developers to hire a management company to handle the underground parking, garden and other building facilities, such as the synagogue, gym and kids’ play space. They also had to build the new community center next store, used as a dance and music center.

“Our buyers are a mix,” said Hasid. “We’ve got young families, people who wanted bigger apartments, and people who were downsizing. Many of them wanted to be able to stay in Jerusalem.”

The firm is continuing to build towers all over the city. In Arnona and Har Homa, Ahim Hasid is building sets of high-rises, including two 24-floor towers on Hebron Road. On Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony, the firm is building a 32-room boutique hotel with two floors above each of the two historic buildings slated for preservation, and adding a six-floor building in what is now a parking lot behind the historic buildings, all on 3.5 dunams (.86 acres) of land. Down the street, where Emek Refaim becomes Yohanan Ben Zakai, the plan is to take one of the existing apartment blocks along Park HaMesila, and turn it into a 15-16-floor apartment building.

In other words, they’ve got plans.

When asked if the firm planned to build any other high-rises along Emek Refaim in the German Colony, Hasid said, “If you know of any available plots; we’ll build.”

The Zion towers that are currently under construction in Arnona (Courtesy Hasid Brothers)

The Zion towers that are currently under construction in Arnona (Courtesy Hasid Brothers)

It’s also important to differentiate between towers and high-rises, said Nir, the Jerusalem council member, pointing out that Jerusalem construction includes the latter but not the former. Towers are buildings with more than 18 floors, while high-rises are structures of at least seven or eight floors.

The Katamonim, parts of Arnona and sections along Hebron Road are areas that have been targeted for high-rise construction. Nir said that by 2022, the light rail should be running along Hebron Road, a major thoroughfare at the southern end of the city, dividing Baka from Abu Tor and Arnona and splitting Talpiot.

“It shouldn’t feel like Manhattan here, the buildings need to fit the neighborhood,” Nir said. “But there are areas that have been designated for building up, according to questions of demand. And architecture can be the meeting point of transportation and buildings and the neighborhood.”

Luxury high-rises downtown

It seems obvious to allow high-rises in the city’s downtown area, which is another facet of the municipality’s plan.

Developers such as Africa Israel and Minrav have been targeting downtown Jerusalem as luxury high-rise property territory for several years. Africa Israel, owned by diamond magnate Lev Leviev, began building a series of luxury high-rises in downtown Jerusalem several years ago. They’re all situated around Rav Kook and Haneviim streets, within walking distance of the Old City, and they dwarf some of the historic buildings in their midst, such as the one-story Anna Ticho House on Rav Kook Street.

Some 112 of the 131 apartments in the nine-floor 7 HaRav Kook project, finished in April 2013, have been sold, mostly to French or Russian clients, said Dalia Azar-Malimovka, a spokesperson for the company. A three-room apartment in the doorman building costs NIS 4.8 million, while the 243-square-meter, eighth-floor penthouse, custom designed with Fendi rugs, Italian tiles and Roberto Cavalli accessories, is priced at NIS 19 million. It’s decorated for a certain kind of buyer, said Azar-Malimovka.

“This is in center-city,” she said. “It’s a landmark street, in the middle of everything and right near the light rail. This is where it’s all going to be happening.”

Azar-Malimovka also pointed out that while many of the buyers purchased their apartments as an investment or a vacation home, many of the French clients are now choosing to live in Jerusalem. Overt acts of anti-Semitism have risen dramatically in recent years, even before Israel’s 2014 campaign in Gaza began.

“Times have changed,” she said. “This is where they want to be.”

The heavily-decorated doorman lobby of Harav Kook 7, one of Africa Israel's luxury high-rises in downtown Jerusalem (Courtesy Africa Israel)

The heavily-decorated doorman lobby of Harav Kook 7, one of Africa Israel’s luxury high-rises in downtown Jerusalem (Courtesy Africa Israel)

The high-rise at 7 HaRav Kook isn’t Africa Israel’s only project in downtown Jerusalem. It also has a 100-unit Haneviim Courtyard project, and it recently won the tender for the historic Beit Mapai building lot on Raoul Wallenberg Street, between Jaffa Road and Haneviim Street. The building is slated for preservation, and Africa Israel has an approved plan for a 24-story residential high-rise with 80 apartments, and a 4,000-square-meter, eight-floor office and commercial building.

Those kinds of plans make sense, said Nir.

“Jaffa Road shouldn’t be lined with two-story buildings, it’s not right,” he said. “It should be intensive, filled with people and offices. That’s how it is in a city.”

Down the street, developer Ashdar built the 23-story Saidoff Tower, incorporating a cluster of 19th-century homes constructed by Yitzhak Saidoff between Mahane Yehuda market and the central bus station.

And next to the knot of Africa Israel buildings is Minrav’s J Tower, also on Jaffa Road, with 23 floors of apartments. The image used to market the building is a picture of one of the apartment’s massive windows, with its view of the quaint red roofs of the original houses situated below.

It’s hard to resist the pull of Jerusalem’s history and charm, even from the lofty perch of the 22nd floor. But cities evolve.

“The center of town is going through a change, a facelift,” said Breslauer. “In about ten years, all of downtown Jerusalem will be taller, much more high-end.”

The lucite towers of Jerusalem, as depicted in this large-model of Jerusalem, maintained by the  Jerusalem Center for Planning in Historic Cities in the municipality (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The lucite towers of Jerusalem, as depicted in this large-model of Jerusalem, maintained by the Jerusalem Center for Planning in Historic Cities in the municipality (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Altering the entrance to the city

Jerusalem’s skyline changes will extend northward as well. The city’s main entrance — currently a crowded, highly trafficked area marked by the central bus station, Internaitonal Convention Center and the more recently constructed Bridge of Strings — is scheduled to become its main business center.

“We’re creating a business center in the most accessible place,” said Mayor Nir Barkat two years ago when the city’s Planning and Building Committee approved a plan to build 12 towers at the city’s entrance.

That plan may very well be a blessing, said Kroyanker, given that Jerusalem has an “ugly entrance to the city.”

According to Barkat’s office, the plan, which is still in effect, will add one million square meters of commercial, office, hotel and business space, with access to the planned Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed railway and the city’s light rail lines. The towers will range in height from 24 to 33 stories.

In a February 2013 public interview with Times of Israel editor in chief David Horovitz, Barkat defended his master plan.

“If you don’t build for the Zionists, then our young population leaves the city because the prices go through the roof. If you don’t build for the ultra-Orthodox in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, they migrate into the Zionist neighborhoods. If you don’t build for the Arabs, they build illegally,” he said. “So we have to expand all the current neighborhoods. In some places, we go high. The master plan is logical and fair to all residents.”

A Lilliputian view

One place where it’s easy to get a sense of what Jerusalem will look like is at the model of modern Jerusalem at city hall’s Jerusalem Center for Planning in Historic Cities. There, on floor minus-1 of Building One, is a sprawling model that represents seven square kilometers (2.7 sq. miles) of the city (although it stops short of Arnona and the more southern end of the city). Built by Technion students in Haifa, it took 15 years to complete and includes miniature cars, buses and trees on a 1:500 scale model.

The model is continually updated. In the back room, a team works with plasterboard, creating tiny models of red-roofed, Jerusalem stone buildings and the newer version of Jerusalem, towers and high-rises formed from clear plastic, representing Jerusalem’s future. Dotting the city’s main thoroughfares, and in clusters throughout the city, the towers glint under the overhead lights, offering a sense of what the city will look like in the not-so-distant future.

“It’s going to look very different,” said Nir, pointing at the city’s landmarks. “But it’s a good thing. Change works.”