Architects’ association questions legality of Jerusalem cable car project

As Nature and Parks Authority prepares to discuss plan on Sunday, two professional bodies call for project to be halted

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Artist's impression of a cable car crossing Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion from a promotional video. (YouTube)
Artist's impression of a cable car crossing Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion from a promotional video. (YouTube)

Two national organizations that deal with planning and building have issued stinging critiques of a controversial plan to build a cable car close to Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

In statements issued Thursday, Association of Architects and Town Planners in Israel and the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites slammed the plans, which are scheduled to come up for discussion on Sunday by the decision-making council of the Nature and Parks Authority.

The proposed route for the cable car runs through the national park that surrounds the Old City, which gives the council the right to advise, although not to veto the plan.

The cable car, an initiative of the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem Development Authority — the joint body of the city’s municipality and the government —  would take visitors from the First Station cultural complex south of the city center to the Old City’s Dung Gate in under five minutes.

Planned to start operating in 2021, it is set to pass through, but not stop at, a cable car storage depot in the public garden below Ein Rogel Street in the neighborhood of Abu Tor.

Artist’s’ impression of cable cars crossing Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley, from a promotional video posted to YouTube.

From there, it would sail over the Hinnom Valley to a stop at Mount Zion, before continuing over the Palestinian village of Silwan to its final destination — the still-to-be built Kedem Center – a massive, multi-story complex that the right-wing City of David Foundation is planning to build on top of the Givati parking lot, near the Dung Gate.

The foundation is best known for the national archaeological park it runs under the City of David in Silwan, where it is also involved in purchasing properties for Jewish families.

The cable car system is being designed to ferry up to 3,000 people per hour in up to 72 ten-person cabins along a line supported by 15 massive pylons.

Both the Old City and its walls are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Ministers, outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and at least three of his likely successors in next month’s local elections argue that the 1.4-kilometer-long (4,600 foot) track of the cable car – the bulk of which will be located in mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem — will serve as a tourist attraction. More importantly, they say, it is the greenest, least disruptive, and most immediately feasible and affordable solution to getting visitors from West Jerusalem to the traffic-mired Old City and the main entrance to the Western Wall, the most venerated site where Jews are allowed to pray.

Thousands of people gather for the priestly benediction at the Western Wall, 26 September 2018. (Police Spokesman’s Unit)

But the Association of Architects and Town Planners said it “strongly rejects” the initiative, which, it charged, shows “contempt for Jerusalem’s status and its sacred sites to three religions” and will deal a blow to Jerusalem’s status as a city of the world, as well as to the values of preservation, the city’s residents and those who love Jerusalem in Israel and the world.

“There is no precedent in the world in which a historical city has abandoned what is recognized as an area of historic heritage area for the kind of development proposed,” the association said in a letter.

The association further claimed that the initiative is illegal under planning law, which, it said, does not sanction the building of tourist infrastructure in a national park surrounded by open areas.

The project is not going through the regular planning system of local, district, and national planning committees, each of which allow for public objections.

The Jerusalem Development Authority unveiled very general plans at the end of last year and held a few poorly attended presentations for the public.

Then, after just one presentation before the Jerusalem planning committee last year, the project was whisked away to the National Planning Council – a fast track body within the Finance Ministry set up to handle major infrastructure projects such as gas and railway lines that cross local authority boundaries.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, right, at a Knesset House Committee meeting in Jerusalem on June 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That the council – and the tourism ministry, led since 2015 by Likud lawmaker Yariv Levin — was able to take on an ostensibly local project such as this was thanks to a 2016 government amendment to the planning law that added “tourist infrastructure” projects to the definition of “national infrastructure” ones, and specifically named tourism transportation systems.

However, another clause in that same amendment appears to exclude projects that, according to the relevant district master plan, are “surrounded on all sides by land zoned as open space.”

According to architects consulted by The Times of Israel, the Jerusalem District Master Plan clearly shows that 90 percent of the area earmarked for the cable car has been zoned as a national park around the Old City walls.

The architects’ association went on to underline that planning and building law ascribes importance to wide public and professional debate and to “planning transparency” — especially regarding sensitive projects such as this — and that there is “no place” for a fast-track process that will not include the usual stages for professional examination.

It continued, “Values of landscape and culture that have been preserved for centuries will be violated in an irreversible fashion by crude technical elements: rows of giant pylons, buildings for stations and infrastructure, parking lots and more.”

The cable cars, as planned, will pass closely over residential neighborhoods, affecting quality of life and severely impacting upon residents’ privacy, the association’s letter claimed.

Architect’s impression of the planned cable car station at Mount Zion, Jerusalem, screened at a public meeting in Jerusalem on September 6, 2018.

In a more diplomatic letter, the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites called for a halt to the project, saying the most basic and essential work had not yet been carried out.

The planners had to consider “in a profound and professional way” the cable car’s effect on preservation of the historic landscape and to carry out a detailed survey of the area slated for development in conjunction with the council.”

Like the architects’ association, the council also questioned the decision to transfer responsibility for the project to the national planning council, “which naturally did not take into account the complexity of the issue and the various implications.”

The project, a Tourism Ministry initiative, has been floating around in the Jerusalem Municipality for several years.

Two years ago, Barkat — who recently joined Likud — told party activists that it would form part of an infrastructure that would bring “the wider world [to this part of East Jerusalem], to understand who really owns this city,” the Haaretz daily newspaper reported at the time.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Symbolically, the government chose this year’s Jerusalem Day – which marks the reunification of the east and west portions of the city after the 1967 Six Day War – to announce a NIS 200 million ($55.2 million) budget for the scheme.

Last month, Aner Ozeri, who is responsible for development of the Old City Basin at the Jerusalem Development Authority, said at the first public meeting on the subject since late last year that 150,000 people visit the Old City each week, many to take part in some of the 160,000 events organized each year, and that a solution to traffic congestion could not wait.

“We need a range of solutions, of which the cable car will be one,” he said. Other options had been considered, among them shuttles, a light rail and a regular train. But those were either insufficient or many years away, if even possible.

Ozeri told the meeting — initiated by the Society for the Protection of Nature and held at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies — that the cable car would provide a comfortable, quiet, and environmentally-friendly solution that requires little land and will meet the challenges of the hilly terrain. No homes or roofs would have to be demolished along the route chosen, he pledged.

Light Rail, Jaffa Road (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Passengers would get to the First Station via a light rail route currently being planned that will form part of a much bigger, citywide mass transit system of trams, buses and even a train. The fast Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line, which opened partially this month, will eventually be extended into the city. Ozeri added that the project would also help the residents of Silwan.

Project architect Mendy Rosenfeld promised that the cable car would not exceed the height of the Old City walls and would glide over “just two to three houses.”

But in a scalding letter read out at that meeting, Moshe Safdie, an internationally renowned Canadian-Israeli architect, said that while the project would “no doubt upgrade the facilities of the City of David Foundation,” it was wrongheaded and inappropriate.

Warning that the system, running so close to the Old City walls, would “provide a precedent that, without doubt, will spark international opposition and criticism,” Safdie said that the architects’ impressions were “deceptive,” with the cable cars made to look much smaller than they would really be.

Architect Moshe Safdie. (YouTube screenshot)

Some speakers at the meeting doubted whether ultra-Orthodox Jews who mainly live in the north of Jerusalem would drag themselves to the south of the city to get onto the cable car to the Western Wall.

Others thought it unlikely that Palestinians would use the system because of its association with the City of David Foundation.

The 22-member council of the National Parks Authority due to discuss the project on Sunday comprises five government representatives, four local government ones, six from scientific and public institutions, three people representing the public and one each representing the Israel Lands Authority, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and the National Parks Authority itself.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed