Last fall, my editor asked me to look into the construction of high-rises and apartment towers across the city of Jerusalem — a new phase in building for this city of short, squat limestone buildings.
I started to work on the story, back in November.
I got deeply sidetracked when, shortly after his request, a developer called my husband, looking to turn the four-story apartment building in the neighborhood of Arnona where we live into a tower of 18 to 24 stories.
Our small, suburban structure, with just four units and owners, is slated to be one of the city’s Pinui Binui — or “evacuate and build” — projects, which aim to construct high-rises of 18 to 30 floors along Hebron Road, a major thoroughfare that is part of the future route of the Jerusalem’s expanding light rail system.
We suddenly found ourselves considering the pros and cons of leaving our beloved garden apartment — at least temporarily, maybe for good — and wondering how that would affect us and our family.
Building blocks of gold
Much as Jerusalem has changed dizzyingly over the past century, some things remain remarkably the same.
In 1918 Ronald Storrs, the first governor at the start of the British Mandate, instituted a city plan that included constructing residential buildings faced in creamy Jerusalem stone in order to reflect the golden hues of the sun.
Apartment buildings were generally erected three to six stories high along tree-lined residential streets, eventually becoming part of the city plan instituted by the local government in 1959.
In fact, there weren’t any major changes in Jerusalem construction style from 1959 until 2009, says Ami Arbel, a city planner at City Hall who is heavily involved in the Pinui Binui plan. But the dearth of space in a city with an ever-growing population has become overwhelming, making it a pressing question where to find new space to build housing.
Nowadays, Jerusalem real estate is overwhelmingly pricey, and new construction is often geared toward foreign investors. There are insufficient affordable options for young couples, students, and families who want to live in the capital but don’t have millions to plunk down for a two- or three-bedroom apartment.
“We knew the only space that was still available was into the sky, with high-rises that can take advantage of that,” says Arbel.
Local planners have been working on where and how to build up, no simple matter for a city whose low-rise rooftops are part of its iconic skyline.
But times have changed, influenced by projects built in the center of town over the last decade, as well as the light rail, which is currently expanding beyond Jaffa Road to a line that will run up Hebron Road and stretch from Ramot to Gilo, and another that will start in Malha, run through Emek Refaim and end in Ramot as well.
“You have to make this kind of development attractive to people,” says Arbel. “So we wrote a document that set out to strengthen the use of the light rail, with towers along the light rail routes, allowing projects of up to 30 floors. We’re changing the heights allowed in Jerusalem.”
While my husband began the process of speaking to developers, accompanied by neighbors from our building and the buildings near us, I started sniffing around, contacting city planners and local architects as well as the local community authorities of neighborhoods where towering apartment buildings were being planned, to hear what residents thought about it.
My first meeting was with Arbel in his City Hall office, where he peered at a Google map of Jerusalem and pointed out 25 neighborhoods slated for Pinui Binui high-rise projects.
In this program, apartment owners work with a developer to turn their collective units into one or several apartment towers, usually receiving a larger apartment, underground parking spots and storage units in return for temporary relocation. Owners of higher-end apartments are sometimes offered a unit of similar size and value in the new tower as well as an additional investment unit.
In Arnona, my southern Jerusalem neighborhood, the nearby corner where Hebron Road meets Asher Winer Street — once home to an expanse of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel’s apple orchards — is now the site of a massive new housing project of two 30-floor buildings, several 18-floor buildings, additional garden apartments, a dog park, a playground and two preschools.
The city’s blueprint for Arnona — an old, established neighborhood with leafy streets and a suburban feel — includes plans for towers along Hebron Road, which borders the neighborhood, and Tama 38 upgrades for other buildings. In Tama 38, residents work with a developer who strengthens their building against earthquakes and constructs new apartments on the roof; each unit generally gains additional space and renovations.
“It’s not a dramatic change, and it won’t happen tomorrow morning,” says Arbel. “Our goal is already a policy, but 96% is private development work.”
Even the decision to turn existing squat buildings into towers, which will radically change the look and feel of the city, can only be made by each building’s owners working with a developer. According to Arbel, each building project must gain 80 percent approval from all of the unit owners in order to go forward.
The city doesn’t have any completed Pinui-Binui projects yet, but there are several in the works. Still, says one of the developers who is angling to handle our building, it’s considered a sure thing. It just takes people time to be convinced.
“In the end, we can allow this, but the residents have to want it and it’s a drama,” says Arbel. “It can be fantastic: You get a new apartment and you get more space than you had, or you move somewhere else with the money. But it’s not simple. There are people who are older, or those who don’t want to leave their neighborhood. There’s 1,001 reasons why it’s hard to get it to work.”
Yuval Almozino has spent the last six months working on my neighbors, people who didn’t necessarily know each other beforehand, to convince us that this is a worthwhile endeavor. He’s had mixed success.
It’s not his own apartment that may be turned into a tower but that of his parents, who are now in their 80s.
They bought the 107-square-meter apartment with a garden and large balcony, adjacent to our building, 12 years ago. But it’s Almozino and his siblings who will inherit the apartment, which would be combined with our building and two others to form one high-rise tower.
“My dad thinks it will help the family financially,” says Almozino, the only one of his three siblings who doesn’t live in Jerusalem. “These are nice houses and they’re comfortable, but there’s demand for this neighborhood and for apartments here. It’s the future direction of this city, and building up offers a solution.”
Almozino says he’s spoken with at least 15 developers, and only about half of those know what they’re talking about.
“I want someone I can believe in from the start,” he said. “They all say approximately the same thing, but we need to know that it’s the right person, because for my dad, and the other owners, it’s everything they own.”
Arbel and his municipality colleagues always advise residents to choose carefully and work closely with the developer on these projects, in order to create the best deal for themselves.
“They can get organized, get their own lawyer and then put out a tender for a developer,” he said. “It’s their homes and it should be their initiative.”
There’s a long line of developers looking to snag these deals — some with the questionable charms of snake oil salesmen or seedy profiteers, others with a more credible reputation.
All stand to make a tremendous profit in the construction of these buildings, which is why they can make generous offers to owners who will have to vacate their comfortable homes, at least for a while, for the future profit of going high-rise.
A mixed response
Almozino says he sees it as his responsibility to gather all the information and bring it to us and our neighbors, who are currently in a joint WhatsApp group. He invites anyone who’s interested to his meetings, although most don’t show up.
Some of them only “want the finished product; they just want to sign on the dotted line. And that’s okay, I don’t mind,” he said.
But others are against the plan — either because they don’t want any change in our quiet, easygoing neighborhood, or because they don’t believe the developers’ plans will ultimately be beneficial.
“It will just change all this,” says Sari Cohen, who has a Hebron Road address but who enters her building via the much quieter and more scenic Revadim street, which is parallel. “I love my house, I love my fruit trees in the backyard,” she says, pointing. “Why would I want to move?”
She has a point — though it won’t be quiet around Hebron Road when they’re constructing the light rail, either.
“It’s a nuisance, for sure, when you have to do this,” allows Arbel. “You want to protect the neighborhood the way it’s been. With Pinui Binui, you’ll have a building that’s way taller than all the other buildings behind you.” For those buildings, “it will ruin the view. But this is how planning works.”
It’s also a slow process, he says, at least eight to ten years from start to finish.
But he says firmly that this is the direction in which Jerusalem is headed — taller residential buildings and an expanded light rail system to ease the traffic that snarls up most neighborhoods twice a day, if not all day, and that is going to get worse as more residents pile up.
“Everyone who lives in Jerusalem will have to get used to using the light rail, just like they do when they travel abroad and use the New York City subway, London Tube or Paris Metro,” he says. “Using one’s car in Jerusalem will mean sitting in an endless traffic jam.”
Most of the city’s planned towers will be located along a light rail route, making it easy for anyone who lives there to get around.
And for some of my neighbors, that makes the whole project a win-win.
“It’s like winning the lottery,” enthuses Avishai Gruber, 38, who lives in my building and bought his duplex apartment four years ago for NIS 2.75 million (about $785,000). “We don’t know if it will happen, but we see it as a financial decision. You can get a lot of money, and, if you like, decide to live somewhere else afterwards. It’ll take a lot of time, but there’s no reason not to do it.”
As for us, we’re still weighing the pros and cons. I’ll keep you posted.