'A cable car is not appropriate for ancient cities'

Internationally renowned architects add opposition to Jerusalem cable car plan

Ron Arad, Moshe Safdie, Santiago Calatrava among 27 figures charging that ‘powerful interest groups’ are putting tourism and politics above safeguarding cultural treasures

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

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

In a highly unusual move, 27 international architects have signed a letter calling on the government to halt plans for a cable car to Jerusalem’s Old City.

Ron Arad, Moshe Safdie, Santiago Calatrava, Peter Eisenman and Thom Mayne are among the signatories, adding their prestige to mounting opposition within Israel to the project.

Safdie’s creations in Israel include the country’s new airport, Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum and the mammoth Mamilla project in central Jerusalem.

The Spanish Calatrava designed the iconic strings bridge at the north western entrance to the capital.

Architect Moshe Safdie (YouTube screenshot)

Israel’s Tourism Ministry is promoting the plan as a tourist attraction, as well as a solution to serious traffic congestion and pollution around the Old City walls.

Opponents, however, say that the scheme is untenably obtrusive and politically irresponsible, and will not solve the traffic and other problems it purports to address.

The Tourism Ministry envisions ferrying up to 3,000 people per hour in up to 72 10-person cabins between the First Station commercial area and the Old City’s Dung Gate, near the Western Wall.

The plan would see cable cars strung over some 15 massive pylons visible from key points overlooking the Hinnom Valley. There would be a middle station at Mount Zion and a storage depot for cabins in the neighborhood of Abu Tor.

Architect’s impression of the cable car stop at Mount Zion.

In a letter released to the press Wednesday that is to be sent to the prime minister and the ministers for tourism and Jerusalem affairs, the international signatories write, “The project is being promoted by powerful interest groups who put tourism and political agendas above responsibility for safeguarding Jerusalem’s cultural treasures.

“No other important historic city has a cable car… It is a matter of international consensus that the choice of a cable car is not appropriate for ancient cities with a skyline preserved for hundreds or thousands of years. Cities like Rome and Athens with millions of visitors a year did not build a cable car.”

Artist’s impression of a cable car crossing Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion from a promotional video uploaded to YouTube

The letter goes on, “Jerusalem’s ancient landscape is a precious heritage to all of humankind. Its religious and cultural values must not be overruled by short-term interests.”

The missive appeals to the Israeli government, “as the custodian of the city,” to “do the utmost to keep a long-term historical and cultural perspective and to safeguard the historic skyline from economic or ideological agendas that threaten to compromise irreplaceable cultural assets.”

Similar sentiments were expressed in October by some 70 Israeli architects, archaeologists and public figures, who signed a letter that warned, “Jerusalem is not Disneyland and its landscape treasures and heritage are not for sale.”

The project — strongly backed by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion — has been approved, subject to a period of public comment, which ends on March 31.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin speaks at the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

After just one presentation before the Jerusalem planning committee last year, the scheme 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.

That the council and the Tourism Ministry were able to take on such an ostensibly local project was thanks to a 2016 government amendment to the planning law, which added “tourist infrastructure” projects to the definition of “national infrastructure,” and specifically named tourism transportation systems.

In the regular planning system, the public has the right to object at the local and district level, and to appeal at the national level. Under the National Planning Council, by contrast, there is just one period during which the public can object, and presentations are not made before the council but rather before a so-called “investigator,” who studies the submissions and then advises the NPC according to his or her conclusions.

A slew of organizations are currently preparing their objections.

Some see the issue as primarily political — an attempt by a right-wing government to further muddy the boundaries between the western part of the city and the mainly Palestinian eastern one, where Israeli sovereignty is not recognized by most of the international community.

The government chose last 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 project, which is due to start operating in 2021.

An Israeli soldier stands in the City of David (Ir David) in East Jerusalem, next to the Arab neighborhood of Silwan (Matanya Tausig/Flash90/File)

And much of the cable car route will pass over the Palestinian village of Silwan to its final destination: the yet-to-be built Kedem Center -– a massive, multi-story complex that the controversial, right-wing City of David Foundation is planning to build near the Dung Gate.

The foundation, best known for the national archaeological park it runs under the City of David name, seeks to move Jewish families into Silwan, an area which it calls the City of (King) David.

Leading the political fight are the NGOs Emek Shaveh, which is committed to protecting ancient sites as public assets for all, and Bimkom, which combines planning issues with human rights.

Palestinians whose lives will be affected by cable cars passing overhead are also lodging their protest, via lawyer Sami Arsheid.

The cable car route passes over the Karaite cemetery in Jerusalem, photographed on March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

Other groups are focused more on planning, environmental, transport and cultural aspects. They include the tour guides’ organization, Moreshet Derech, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Society for the Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites, the Karaite community and Mount Zion churches.

As the Times of Israel revealed earlier this week, the transportation ministry is not involved in the project, despite backers’ pledge that it will form part of Jerusalem’s evolving mass transit infrastructure.

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