Intended to ferry up to 3,000 people per hour at peak time

Israel advances controversial cable car to Jerusalem’s Old City

Official notices expected to appear in newspapers on Friday, launching start of 60-day period for public objections

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.

Israel’s National Planning Council is formally advancing a controversial plan to build a cable car that will cross over Jerusalem’s historic Hinnom Valley and glide along the Old City walls to an area near the Western Wall.

The council will publish its approval of the plan in newspapers Friday, kicking off a 60-day public comment period before the scheme is brought for final approval.

The cable car is billed as a tourism attraction as well as a solution to serious traffic congestion and pollution around the Old City walls.

Up to 3,000 people will be ferried per hour at peak time 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 project is being strongly backed by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, but is opposed by numerous experts who argue that it is untenably obtrusive and politically irresponsible, and will not solve the traffic and other problems it purports to address.

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.

The cable car route is to start next to the popular First Station cultural complex south of the city center, from where it will 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 the cable car station to be located next to the First Station complex in Jerusalem.

From there, the cabins will 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, just outside the Old City walls.

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, and to create parks and tourism projects to expand the Jewish presence in and around the Old City basin.

Despite the fact that the easternmost station will be located in a City of David Foundation building, Aner Ozeri of the Jerusalem Development Authority, which is in charge of implementing the project, has said that the project will also help the mainly Palestinian residents of Silwan, for whom transportation options are inadequate.

The whole 1.5 kilometer (one mile) journey will take under five minutes.

Aner Ozeri of the Jersusalem Development Authority. (Facebook)

Ozeri maintains that the cable car will provide a comfortable, quiet and environmentally friendly solution to congestion around the Old City that requires little land and will meet the challenges of the hilly terrain. He has also said that no homes or roofs will need to be demolished along the route.

However, architects, academics, preservation experts and tour guides have heaped scorn on the scheme.

They have called it a poorly-thought-out, Disneyesque idea that will scar the historic landscape with 15 massive pylons, sully unique views of the Old City and its walls — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and do little to solve the traffic problems.

Tourism Minister Levin (Likud) is pushing for the project at a national level. Indeed, after just one presentation before the Jerusalem planning committee, 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.

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

A 2016 government amendment to the planning law — apparently tailored to this specific project — added “tourist infrastructure” projects to the definition of “national infrastructure” ones, and specifically named tourism transportation systems.

Unlike the regular planning hierarchy of local and district committees to which the public can submit objections, topped by a national committee to which the public can appeal, the National Planning Council only allows one period for objections, which it calls “reservations.”

According to the planners’ vision, passengers will 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 Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, which opened just between the capital and Ben Gurion Airport last fall, will also eventually be extended into the city, if all goes to plan.

Parking solutions will still need to be found near the First Station.

Ozeri has said that the plan is for buses to drop tourists off there and then drive to specially built parking lots at Har Homa and Givat Hamatos in the far south of the Jerusalem.

Even if this is implemented, however, it remains unclear how so many buses will cram into the narrow road and tight conditions outside the First Station, particularly at peak times.

The narrow street leading to the First Station, shown on the right. (Google instantstreetview)

In a letter read out to a public meeting about the project in September, Moshe Safdie, an internationally renowned Canadian-Israeli architect, said the project would contribute little to solving the problems of access to the Old City, would merely shift traffic and parking problems from the Old City to the First Station, and should be replaced by a parking complex within the Jewish Quarter served by shuttles.

The architects’ impressions were “deceptive,” Safdie charged, and the cable cars were made to look much smaller than they would be in reality.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no other historic city in the world that has allowed construction of a cable car system within the visual basin of its historical heritage,” he said.

“A cable car system, running close to the Old City walls …will provide a precedent that, without doubt, will spark international opposition and criticism.”

Architect Moshe Safdie (YouTube screenshot)

In December, the business daily The Marker reported on the findings of a Tel Aviv traffic planning company hired by the cable car project. That company reportedly failed to find sufficient interest among independent visitors to the city, who make up the bulk of tourists.

This was because the obvious and shortest route for such visitors to the Old City  runs from the central bus station and new railway station along Jaffa Road to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. Catching public transportation to the cable car station in the south of the city would make the trip considerably longer.

The Haaretz newspaper reported earlier this month that a request to the JDA by Emek Shaveh, an NGO, to see an economic feasibility study carried out for the project was turned down on the grounds that publication could “disrupt the project’s progress.”

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion celebrates his victory with supporters at his campaign headquarters, after winning the Jerusalem municipal elections on November 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Emek Shaveh, a left-wing organization committed to protecting archaeological sites as the shared heritage of all cultures and faiths in the country, has vowed to lodge objections to the project.

A statement from the organization described the plan as “destructive” and charged that it would damage the walls of the Old City and the skyline of the Old City basin. “That, they dare to call tourism.”

A statement issued on behalf of Jerusalem’s recently elected mayor Lion said, “This project is a high priority for the city, as it will provide all residents and visitors the opportunity to access Jerusalem’s most holy sites and will ease traffic and congestion throughout the capital.”

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