Local struggle over light rail intensifies in Jerusalem’s German Colony

Two citizen groups go head-to-head on whether or not to a place section of track down Emek Refaim Street, the heart of the upscale neighborhood

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A glimpse at what Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem might look like with the light rail running through it. (Courtesy Refaim BaMoshavot)
A glimpse at what Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem might look like with the light rail running through it. (Courtesy Refaim BaMoshavot)

A struggle is intensifying over the location of the planned light rail route through the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem, where two differing groups of residents and a committee of city planners are trying to figure out where to place a crucial portion of the track.

A new suggestion by one of the resident groups to build a portion of the light rail beneath a tunnel near Emek Refaim, the main street of the German Colony, puts them at odds with another group who shuns the half-a-billion shekel idea and further delay of construction.

The District Planning and Building Committee has given the municipality 30 days to make a decision about the placement of the tracks.

“The city is in love with what happened on Jaffa Road, they want to make another Jaffa Road,” said Linda Adams from Refaim BaMoshavot, a steering committee of residents who are fighting the planned rail line, referring to the section that runs through the downtown Jerusalem street.

There’s just 1,200 meters of the train line in question, and it was initially planned for HaRakevet Street, or Train Street, which runs parallel to Emek Refaim and was named for the original, Ottoman-era train that once ran through this historic neighborhood.

When the city turned the historic train tracks into Park HaMesila, a now popular park used by runners, bikers and walkers heading to and from the First Station complex, it replaced the plan for constructing new train tracks.

The proposed map for the continued construction of Jerusalem’s light rail system. The section through Emek Refaim is in light blue. (Courtesy JNET)

The working plan is now to have two sets of tracks on a portion of Emek Refaim, with some car traffic rerouted on the northern and southern ends of the street. It’s a lot of movement for what is essentially a narrow, two-lane main drag of the neighborhood, according to the naysayers.

Refaim BaMoshavot feels it will ruin the character of the street and landmarked neighborhood, turning it into a crowded version of downtown’s Jaffa Road, while the other group, the Gonnenim Urban Forum, is pushing for this new version of public transportation, given that the city needs a better system for getting around more quickly and efficiently.

The city, said Adams, has been trying to get money into Emek Refaim, which has been struggling with empty storefronts, and sees the train as a way of bringing change to the street.

“There’s lots of reasons why Emek may not be doing so well and plowing a train through won’t be good for it,” she said. “People on Emek will just fold up and go away, or maybe the owners will just sell out to condos. No matter what, it will be ruined for at least seven years of construction work.”

A photo of the light rail construction on Jaffa Road in 2009, as storeowners complained that the ongoing work was ruining their businesses. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Gonenim Urban Forum, however, thinks a train is just the right answer for the commercial strip.

“The street is full of traffic jams, and it’s hard to get around sometimes,” said Itamar Shahar, a lawyer and city planner from the forum. “A train will offer more peace and quiet and access to the neighborhood from other areas of the city.”

Emek Refaim was the original site for this portion of track, after the park was constructed and “no one wanted to touch that,” said Shahar. “It’s the biggest gift that this neighborhood has received and no one wants to ruin it.”

If the train was placed alongside the park, as per one of the suggestions, it would ruin it for the most part, agree both groups.

And while Refaim BaMoshavot is now pushing the idea of the tunnel, the Gonenim Urban Forum believes it wouldn’t be comfortable for travelers, requiring passengers to traipse downstairs with kids and bikes and strollers.

“We’re not building a subway in Jerusalem, or the London Tube,” said Shahar. “It will make people think twice before getting on the train.”

He views the tunnel suggestion as another method of stalling the light rail construction.

“The Emek campaigners want to lengthen this process as much as possible,” said Shahar. “They want to delay until after the mayoral elections, and postpone it as much as they can. But on the other side are those of us who needed this yesterday. We need a train now, we can’t rely on private cars and we could have this before every other city, but that doesn’t interest them.”

A station in Jerusalem's light rail system. The system is included in the Transport Ministry's public transportation database (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Illustrative: Passengers waiting for a train at a station in Jerusalem. (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Shahar said the forum represents a much larger swath of the population than Refaim BaMoshavot, with tens of thousands of residents from southern Jerusalem who are desperate for more efficient public transportation.

Planning always involves politics, particularly when inserting a train in an urban area, said Avi Lindenbaum, an architect from Ari Cohen Architecture & Urban Planning, the firm that is part of the Jerusalem Transport Master Plan Team.

“It’s turmoil,” he said. “You have to allow people to continue living while doing all this construction.”

Lindenbaum feels that the city has dramatically improved its light rail construction process after the initial project on Jaffa Road, creating better methods during the recent Kiryat Hayovel part of the plan.

“There are 40 to 50 parameters that we take into account when figuring out the value of each plan,” he said. “We have to solve the problem of Emek Refaim at some point. It’s an approved line, whether it’s in the sky or underground, and for now we’ll work elsewhere.”

Adams says the city hasn’t planned enough for any of the future train tracks.

One of their ideas is to have the train skip their neighborhood altogether, and take the green line through the nearby Talpiot industrial zone where the city’s plan is to add more jobs and housing options.

“Just skip this neighborhood, it’s too crowded,” said Adams. “Has anybody checked that? Has anybody shown that this is all necessary? We’re asking them to pay more attention.”

The idea of creating a bypass in Talpiot also has pros and cons, said Lindenbaum. It’s possible, but would add seven minutes to the ride for passengers trying to reach Malcha, Pat and Gonenim.

“When you build a light rail, it’s not a bus, you want the fastest ride possible,” he said. “Those seven minutes extra are the biggest downside, they’re valuable minutes. It’s feasible, but it will add lots of time.”

Digging for this next section of the light rail is slated to begin at the Pat intersection next year.

It’s all part of the government’s plan to move forward with the light rail lines in Jerusalem, creating 400,000 rides daily and changing public transportation in the city, with five lines along 27 kilometers of track, 52 stations, and park and ride lots.

“It’s all going to happen,” said Lindenbaum. “A little more time will tell what the final plan will be.”

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