Plans envisage waterways flowing through neighborhoods in a rehabilitated Haifa Bay in northern Israel. (Yaar Architects/Israel Lands Authority)
Main image: Plans envisage waterways flowing through neighborhoods in the rehabilitated Haifa Bay in northern Israel. (Yaar Architects/Israel Lands Authority)
Conference reveals designs for massive renewal scheme

Inside the plan to turn Haifa’s befouled bay into a livable urban hub rivaling Tel Aviv

The Gateway to the Bay project will replace polluting factories and oil storage tanks with 130,000 new homes, walkable streets, beaches, parkland, canals and clean, green jobs

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Main image: Plans envisage waterways flowing through neighborhoods in the rehabilitated Haifa Bay in northern Israel. (Yaar Architects/Israel Lands Authority)

The flat, industrial bay area of the northern city of Haifa, which skirts the Mediterranean Sea, contrasts starkly with the residential and commercial neighborhoods that tumble down green hillsides further inland.

Dominated by Israel’s largest seaport, the chimneys of the extensive Bazan Oil Refinery complex, a big fertilizer plant, and multiple seaside crude oil storage tanks, the sweeping crescent bay is a blighted mishmash of factories, warehouses, workshops, decrepit buildings, and weed-filled wasteland. A railway line serving the factories, refineries and commuters cuts the rest of the city off from the unsightly gray and polluted seaside area.

If planners get their way, though, the next 20 years will see the bay transform into a thriving hub offering attractive residential and commercial properties, clean industry, extensive parkland, a network of canals and waterways, and access to clean, sandy beaches lined with hotels, cafes, and sports and leisure facilities.

According to a vision unveiled for the first time last month, the rehabilitated bay forms the key that will turn Israel’s third-largest city into a metropolis that rivals Tel Aviv and its environs in employment opportunities and quality of life, becoming a polestar for a reinvigorated northern Israel.

Residents and non-governmental groups have long campaigned for the bay’s heavy industries to be shuttered in light of studies suggesting a link between living in the Haifa Bay area and cancer as well as infant disorders such as smaller-than-average heads and relatively low weight.

In late April, planners, architects, engineers, local authority officials, and civil society groups gathered for a conference at the University of Haifa to hear about the plans.

The proposal is the culmination of work that began after the government passed decision 1231 in March 2022, instructing the Israel Lands Authority and the planning administration to ensure that the bay connects seamlessly with the rest of Haifa, the many other local authorities in the area, and the group of towns nearby known collectively as the Krayot.

Last year, the Directorate for the Development of Haifa Bay, which operates under the Prime Minister’s Office, presented a work plan for the project. In December, the government approved a new comprehensive plan, outlining the vision for the area’s development.

Haifa Bay, seen from the University of Haifa, April 10, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The comprehensive plan, officially known as an Outline Plan, is based on closing the bay’s heavy industry, particularly the petrochemical industries, including the massive Bazan refinery site, and a fertilizer factory, along with a large oil storage tank complex.

The bay, according to the outline, will be transformed into a sustainable area of residential neighborhoods, commerce and employment, clean industry, tourism, and open space. It will also remain home to the country’s largest cargo port, two smaller seaports, and the diminutive Haifa airport.

With 130,000 new residential units and the creation of 560,000 new jobs, Gateway to the Bay, as the plan has been dubbed, is slated to be one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country’s history.

Inspiration from abroad

The Israel Lands Authority, which is responsible for all the planning, has employed 60 companies to design the project, with four firms coordinating detailed plans for a different section of town.

“Approval of National Outline Plan 75 was an important milestone, but it’s just the start,” Einav Ringler, senior director of the Israel Lands Authority’s Planning and Projects Department said at the confab, noting that there was a “long way ahead” and plenty of competing interests.

The Landschaftspark in Duisburg, Germany — one of many examples of how former industrial sites can be rehabilitated that are being studied by planners of the Haifa Bay. (Nachteule, iStock by Getty Images)

The planners and architects have taken inspiration from case studies abroad where derelict areas have transformed into thriving urban spaces.

The general vision foresees an urban fabric of varying densities, with smaller apartment buildings and towers for residential and commercial use. Neighborhoods will be connected by greenery and waterways to the Mediterranean coast — where rehabilitation will create a sandy beach lined with hotels, and sports and leisure facilities — and to a large metropolitan park, almost twice the size of Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, which will run alongside the Kishon River and incorporate several tributaries.

The superblock, part of plans for a residential neighborhood on the site of an oil storage farm in Haifa Bay, northern Israel. (Derman Verbakel/Israel Lands Authority)

Alongside one of those waterways, the Saadia Stream, a large high-tech complex will be built.

Nearby, an 840-dunam (205-acre) site today covered with row after row of oil tanks will be replaced by a broad, clean, bathing beach, with cafes and restaurants, in the style of the Tel Aviv Port area.

Slightly further inland on the same plot, nine clusters of superblocks of high-density residential buildings and other public services structures are being planned, linked by bike and walking paths. Taking inspiration from Barcelona, the superblocks will leave mechanized transportation, including cars, outside, creating walkable, campus-like urban spaces inside.

Between the superblocks, green corridors will link the neighborhood to the beach.

Within the complex will be a massive parking lot, possibly underground, and public facilities, ranging from an elementary school and kindergartens to a medical center. Roads for public and private transportation will skirt the complex’s periphery outside.

High-rise buildings surround an area for leisure, recreation and sport in plans for a rehabilitated Haifa Bay, northern Israel. (Derman Verbakel/Israel Lands Authority)

To the south of the beachside neighborhood, a parcel of green space that today is home to a rundown soccer field and bleachers will become a center for sports and leisure. Ringed by trees, large commercial and office towers will be built, along with a transportation hub. The team took inspiration from Lumphini Park in Bangkok, Thailand, where tall towers surround a green space dotted with sports and entertainment facilities.

To fill the office high-rises, the Economy Ministry is working on a strategic economic program that will include how best to draw jobs to the region to replace all the heavy industry being removed.

High-rise buildings surround Lumphini Park in Bangkok, Thailand. (avtk, iStock Photos at Getty Images)

As part of the project’s ethos of linking Haifa to the Galilee and vice versa, in Kiryat Atta, east of the city, a large new hospital is to be built by the Clalit Health Fund. The hospital will replace the Carmel Medical Center, a brutalist structure atop a hill on the southwest side of Haifa, a location that makes it inconvenient for many in the Galilee.

Trains, not trucks; canals, not chemicals

Project planners have put the emphasis throughout the bay area project on mass public transportation, complemented by bicycle and walking paths. Rather than focus on zipping cars through the Gateway, main thoroughfares will be designed to become arteries brimming with urban commerce and cafes. Heavy trucks will be diverted away from urban areas.

Near Yagur Junction, southeast of Haifa, a large park-and-ride lot will be built at the southernmost edge of Gateway to the Bay for drivers coming from the Carmel and further south.

Artist’s impression of the entrance to the Haifa Bay area from the south, showing parkland and a lake. (Yaar Architects /Israel Lands Authority)

Bolstering the use of public transportation, a revamped transportation hub at the existing Merkaz Hamifratz bus and train station will contain the terminus of a new ultra-fast rail line being built by Israel Railways, where trains traveling at up to 250 kilometers (155 miles) per hour will cut journey times from Tel Aviv in half, to just 40 minutes.

The speedy connection will help galvanize economic growth across the region by linking the Galilee with Israel’s financial and cultural center.

Trains into Haifa will use tunnels for most of the stretch from the Hof Hacarmel beach to the station, opening up a large section of curving coastline to the public for the first time since the British built the line a century ago and facilitating easy pedestrian access between the city’s downtown and the rehabilitated coast.

A view of the northern port city of Haifa, seen from the Bahai Gardens on Mount Carmel, September 14, 2017. (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)

While Haifa Bay once served as the main drainage basin for the Kishon River and its tributaries, construction on former wetlands has caused major drainage and flooding issues over the years.

Plans are to turn the abundance of water from a problem into attractive ponds and canals, as done in places like Hammarby Sjöstad in Sweden. Once a byword for industrial pollution and urban decay, the outlying Stockholm neighborhood has been transformed by urban renewal that takes advantage of the canals and waterways in the area.

Buildings line a canal in Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. (Yaroslav Zubkov, iStock photos at Getty Images)

Bye bye, Bazan

A central part of the scheme will be the removal of a massive petrochemical plant operating in Haifa Bay since the early 20th century.

Featuring an iconic cooling tower (there used to be two) that looks like something from a nuclear plant, the Bazan Group Oil Refineries Ltd. site occupies 526 acres (2,130 dunams) some two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the bay.

The plant turns imported crude oil into distillates ranging from bitumen for road surfaces to waxes, oils, lubricants, and polymers. The conglomerate has been repeatedly fined for air pollution and violating its emissions permit.

View of the oil refineries and the industrial area of Haifa Bay, October 28, 2008. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Despite technical improvements made over the years, it often appears in the top ten highest polluters in the country in annual Environmental Protection Ministry reports based on industry data. (It took seventh position in the report for 2022, published in September.)

Under the plan, Bazan will be shuttered and materials currently manufactured from oil will be imported and stored in protected areas instead.

Once the Bazan site is vacated, planners foresee new neighborhoods comprising 65,000 residential units, with large commercial areas, office buildings and light industry. Some Bazan remnants may be left in place as a way of linking the new with the old.

Intensive research into how best to clean the site’s polluted soil and wastewater once the factories are gone has focused on the rehabilitation of Philadelphia’s Bellwether District.

Plans for Philadelphia’s new Bellwether district. (Hilco Redevelopment Partners‏/YouTube screenshot)

After an oil refinery exploded there in 2019, planners decided to clean up Bellwether and redevelop the 1,300-acre (5,260-dunam) site as a green magnet for training and employment in the life sciences, e-commerce and logistics.

The closing of Bazan constitutes one of the largest challenges for the Directorate for the Development of Haifa Bay, which is coordinating between the many bodies that have to play a part in the rehabilitation plan, helping to remove obstacles and solve problems.

Yuval Admon. (Government Press Office)

Ensuring energy continuity will require infrastructure for the import, transmission, storage, and distribution of materials that the Bazan industrial complex currently produces or handles.

The work plan for that energy transition, which envisages closing Bazan in 2029 at the latest, includes 500 tasks, all set out with schedules and deadlines for the directorate, headed by Yuval Admon.

An inter-ministerial steering committee chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief economic adviser Prof. Avi Simhon meets quarterly to oversee the directorate’s work.

Aerial view of Haifa Bay showing the main areas of heavy industry. (Google Earth)

The Chevron fuel company, which is extracting natural gas off the coast of Haifa, has already begun to channel the oily byproduct of gas (condensate) to an oil refinery in Ashdod, on the southern coast, rather than to Bazan as it has done up to now.

To hold the oil byproducts, or distillates, that will be imported, the state-controlled Israel Infrastructures aims to finish initial planning this year for a new storage terminal at the port, with building expected to start in the coming months.

Israel Infrastructures also owns the aforementioned oil tank storage farm set to be replaced by residential housing and a beach.

Negotiations are taking place between the state and the companies that own Bazan, as well as the fertilizer complex, over their impending evictions. The oil refinery and its associate companies Gadiv and Carmel Olefins employ some 1,300 people, many of them in high-demand fields. A few hundred work for the fertilizer plant.

So far, Bazan has resisted plans for its Haifa site to be shut down and has warned against relying on imports for Israel’s oil needs, claiming Israel would have to depend on Turkey for jet fuel, cooking gas and diesel fuel.

“The idea that the State of Israel can exist without its refinery collapsed with the war [against Hamas in Gaza],” Bazan said in a statement. “Anyone who still thinks that Bazan can be closed harms the country’s security.”

Simhon, who chairs the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office (with Admon as his deputy) takes the opposite view.

Noting that the defense establishment was an early backer of closing Bazan for fear of having to shutter the complex during a major war and being left with crude oil but no distillates, Simhon told the conference, “If this current war [against Hamas in Gaza] has done something, it has just sharpened the urgent need to close Bazan, and if someone says different, he’s probably being paid to do so.”

Admon told The Times of Israel that Haifa’s port could grow and become an important logistics center if US President Joe Biden’s vision of a trade corridor linking India, the Middle East and Europe arises as a competitor to China’s Belt and Road initiative.

View of the Haifa port on July 31, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

“If I were Bazan, I’d think how I can become a part of this logistics hub,” Admon said.

Simhon told The Times of Israel that he thought Bazan understood that the train had “already left the station.”

Once the storage facilities were complete, the company would close “with or without agreement,” he said, and with only limited state compensation.

Something in the air

Simhon and Admon have been pushing this project for years.

As Simhon told the confab, population distribution is one aspect of the National Economic Council’s strategic planning. Experts have long tried to encourage population growth in the north, only for Haifa and other cities to experience negative migration, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

In 2016, Simhon visited an Intel factory in the southern city of Kiryat Gat together with Netanyahu and asked the director why she thought Haifa was shrinking.

“Without hesitation she said, ‘I’d be happy to send my engineers to Haifa, but they don’t want to go because of the pollution.’ And then the penny dropped for me. Bazan is a physical thorn in the heart of the metropolitan area. And when she said that, everything fell into place,” he recalled.

A sign warns of polluted water outside the northern city of Haifa on May 18, 2013. (Shay Levy/Flash 90)

Since then, Simhon and Admon have helped to shepherd government decisions, an economic examination of options for Bazan by the international management consultancy, McKinsey, and an inter-ministerial committee of directors general.

Blanket opposition to closing the plant has since transformed into support from all government ministries.

The Haifa Municipality is also in favor.

But there are some jitters about the 2029 deadline for Bazan’s closure.

The Energy Ministry said in a statement that while it was a “full partner” in the plans, the timetable was “only theoretical.” The completion of tasks would depend on the speed of planning and approval of funds, it said.

Financing for the project has apparently not been a problem so far, with the state planning to sell land to pay for the massive infrastructure works needed. The Israel Lands Authority has already spent NIS 100 million ($24.6 million) on the project.

Avi Simhon attends a conference in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I believe that the metropolitan area that will arise will act as a counterbalance and provide real competition” to the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Simhon told the conference. “Anyone who comes back here in 20 years will see a place that’s very successful.”

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