Jerusalem Old City cable car plan savaged by architects, academics, tour guides

Renowned architect Moshe Safdie predicts ‘international opposition,’ says no other historic city in the world has resorted to this mode of transportation

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

Those wishing to enter Jerusalem’s Old City as if on the wings of angels may welcome plans for a cable car that will glide across Jerusalem’s historic Hinnom Valley and along the Old City walls, depositing its passengers at the less romantically named Dung Gate.

But at a stormy public meeting in the city on Wednesday, architects, academics, preservation experts, and tour guides heaped scorn on the government’s scheme to ferry up to 3,000 people per hour in up to 72 ten-person cabins. They called it a poorly-thought-out, Disneyesque idea that will scar the historic landscape with 15 massive pylons, sully unique views of the UNESCO World Heritage Site (both the Old City itself and its walls), and do little to solve what those present agreed were unacceptable levels of traffic congestion and pollution around the Old City walls that hamper access to sites revered by the three monotheistic faiths.

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 (4,600 foot) long track of the cable car – the bulk of which will be located in mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem — will serve as a tourist attraction but more importantly as the greenest, least disruptive, most immediately possible, and best value-for-money solution to getting visitors from West Jerusalem to the main entrance to the Western Wall, the most venerated site where Jews may pray.

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

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two years ago, Barkat — who recently joined the 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.

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.

On Wednesday, Aner Ozeri, who is responsible for development of the Old City Basin at the Jerusalem Development Authority – the joint body of the city’s municipality and the government, which has been charged with planning the project — told 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 these were either insufficient or many years away, if even possible.

Architect’s impression of the planned cable car station next to the existing First Station cultural complex, screened at a public meeting in Jerusalem on September 6, 2018

The route and its advocates

The cable car, which is supposed to take visitors to the Dung Gate in under five minutes and to start operating in 2021, is envisioned 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.

From there, it 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 controversial, right-wing City of David Foundation is planning to build on top of the Givati parking lot, near the Dung Gate.

Architect’s impression of the planned cable car depot in Abu Tor, Jerusalem, screened at a public meeting in Jerusalem on September 6, 2018

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.

It is also busy creating parks and tourism projects to expand the Jewish presence in and around the Old City basin.

Ozeri told the attendees at 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, due to open partially this month, will eventually be extended into the city.

The so-called Rav-Kav pass (multi-route, in Hebrew) used for light trains and buses would be used for the cable car as well, with the government subsidizing the cost.

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

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

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.”

The planning team had checked visibility from multiple points throughout the city and concluded that the structure would be “almost invisible” from the Armon Hanatziv Promenade in south Jerusalem, although it would be clearly seen from Abu Tor and the Cinematheque bridge overlooking the Hinnom Valley.

The stations were being designed like glass boxes to minimize visual intrusion, he said.

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

The opposition

In a scalding letter read out at the meeting, however, 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.

It 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, he said.

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.

Architect Moshe Safdie (YouTube screenshot)

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

Omri Salmon, director of the Council for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, said, also in a letter, that the project had to be stopped.

Prof. Irit Amit-Cohen, chairwoman of the Israeli branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) said she feared the project would cause “great harm” at a time when historic cities across the world were delicately dealing with similar issues “with tweezers.”

David Cassuto, a former Jerusalem deputy mayor, pointed out that historic cities such as Rome, with 15 million tourists a year, and Athens, with seven million, had seen no need for a cable car.

Jerusalem, according to the Tourism Ministry’s planning wing director, Orly Ziv, recorded 2.7 million visitors to the Old City last year.

Yoni Shapira, chairman of Heritage Trail, the association of tour guides for incoming tourists, said that the cable car would not change the way tour guides with large groups functioned, although the service could attract individual families.

Lawyer Sami Arsheid, who represents residents of Silwan, said Palestinians had not been consulted and noted that the invitation to the meeting was written in Hebrew only.

Jews gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City to pray for rain, on December 28, 2017. (Flash90)

Some speakers 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 approval process

The JDA unveiled very general plans at the end of last year and set up an information stall, since closed, at the First Station with leaflets claiming that the project would cut private vehicle traffic near the Old City by 30 percent and buses by half.

They invited members of various neighborhoods to a few poorly attended presentations and produced a video clip featuring the cable cars floating along wires without any pylons in sight.

In April, the planners presented the project to the National Parks Council – the policy making body of the National Parks Authority, which is responsible for the greenbelt around the Old City Walls.

The council, which has the power to stop the project, was divided.

After just one presentation before the Jerusalem planning committee, 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 which added “tourist infrastructure” projects to the definition of “national infrastructure” ones, and specifically named tourism transportation systems.

Many of the speakers on Wednesday criticized the decision to take the project away from the city council, which represents the concerns of local residents (except Palestinian ones, who tend not to vote in municipal elections for political reasons).

Architect Gavriel Kertesz said that shepherding the project through the NPC would enable planners to avoid having to consult with a preservation committee, as they are usually obliged to do, and would minimize opportunities for public objections.

Kertesz has worked in the Old City basin and the national park around the walls, which include the historic Jerusalem neighborhoods of Yemin Moshe and Mishkenot Sha’ananim, as well as at the Dormition Church on Mount Zion.

He was also part of the team behind the most recent cable car at the Masada archaeological site in southern Israel, which sails along a 900-meter (3,000 foot) route without a single pylon.

Architect Gavriel Kertesz, September 6. (Times of Israel)

Kertesz pointed out that a clause in the government’s 2016 amendment to the planning law appeared to exclude projects which, according to the relevant district master plan, were “surrounded on all sides by land zoned as open space.”

In this case, the Jerusalem District Master Plan clearly showed that 90 percent of the area earmarked for the cable car had been zoned as a national park around the Old City walls.

Kertesz has calculated that while the pylons – up to eight stories high and not presented at the meeting — will be clearly visible at all times, the cable cars are only likely to run for 30 to 40 percent of the time, taking into account stoppages on Sabbaths, religious holidays, nights and pauses for routine maintenance and repairs.

Furthermore, he said, cable cars could be operated neither on the hottest days of summer nor the windiest of winter.

In April, Kertesz called on the Jerusalem Development Authority to consider alternatives that were less harmful to the landscape, such as a monorail — similar to one at Los Angeles’ Getty Center — combined with a large planned but never implemented underground parking lot in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, near which elevators are already being built to take visitors down to the Western Wall.

The would-be mayors

Ofer Berkovitch and Moshe Lion – two leading candidates for mayor in the upcoming municipal elections – told The Times of Israel that they support the cable car project.

Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Zeev Elkin, speaks at the Jerusalem Center for Public and State Issues, on September 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Ze’ev Elkin, a third candidate, has been pushing it forward in his current job as minister for Jerusalem affairs.

Yosef Deitsch, a fourth serious contender, did not respond to requests for comment.

Adnan Husseini, the Palestinian Authority’s Jerusalem affairs minister, said the Palestinian Authority would soon respond to the project. “Anything in East Jerusalem should be stopped if they want to build peace,” he said.

Similar projects?

Despite the official opposition of the French government to any Israeli construction in East Jerusalem – which Palestinians seek as their future capital — the project is employing a French company, the Grenoble-based CNA – Cable Neige Amenagement – Maitrise D’Oeuvre, which specializes in cable car systems for ski resorts.

That company came in after the French consortium Safege, a subsidiary of the publicly traded French utilities company Suez Environment, withdrew in 2015 after working for only a few months, apparently under pressure from pro-Palestinian organizations in France.

A French diplomatic source told The Times of Israel that France, like most of its European partners, had published recommendations for companies and citizens about the legal, financial and PR risks involved in carrying out activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

CNA – Cable Neige Amenagement did not reply to a request for comment.

Cable car over the Rhine River at Koblenz, Germany. (YouTube screenshot)

Asked for examples of other historic cities employing cable cars, Ozeri cited London (where the facility is located in the renovated docklands area) and Barcelona.

The Times of Israel looked for a comparable system in sensitive, historic locations overseas. The closest were at the Great Wall of China – where the cable car runs up through a ravine, rather than along the walls — and an 890-meter (3,000 foot) line connecting the German town of Koblenz with the fortress Ehrenbreitstein on the other side of the River Rhine.

In 2013, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee ordered the dismantling of the Koblenz project by June 2026 because of its negative visual impact.

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