Over the years, the abandoned concrete hull on the beach promenade has been home to dolphins, mafia hush money, a surf school and discotheques, not to mention the site of a deadly terror attack. On Wednesday, after a long legal battle, the Tel Aviv municipality finally began demolishing the Dolphinarium.
As tractors inched closer to the concrete walls, many were glad to see the long-awaited departure of the decrepit landmark. Festooned in graffiti and with its concrete crumbling, the building sits on prime seaside real estate and the city has been advocating for its removal since 1993.
“The demolition work that begins today is part of the city’s vision to develop the continuation of the promenade along the entire Tel Aviv coast, allowing open views without any obstructions toward the sea,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said after posing for photos atop one of the tractors.
In return for the 6 dunams (1.5 acres) of land where the Dolphinarium currently sits, the city has given the owner 12 dunams (3 acres) across the street, allowing a developer to build two towers with apartments and a hotel in the area surrounding the Hassan Bek mosque.
But activists are angry that the developers landed such a sweet deal to build up some of the last open areas in the neighborhood, after allowing the Dolphinarium to rot for decades.
In the 1970s, architect Nahum Zolotov, a diving enthusiast, hatched the idea for a dolphin show in Tel Aviv. He lined up Israeli businessmen and investors from South Africa, designing the iconic curved façade for a mixed-use aquarium/entertainment/commercial complex. The Dolphanirum opened to much fanfare in 1981 as the “Blue and White Disneyland,” Haaretz reported.
But the Dolphinarium soon ran into trouble: The South African business partners, some reportedly with mafia contacts, were using the business as a laundering operation to move money to Europe and were eventually forced to leave the project.
Without the high-rolling South African backers, the cost of running the exorbitantly expensive dolphin shows eventually drained the business, and the Dolphinarium closed just four years later, in 1985. The dolphins found their way to a new home in aquariums abroad but died a few weeks after their transfer.
Over the past three decades, some businesses, including movie theaters, catering halls, night clubs, and sport shops have tried to utilize parts of the enormous structure for various initiatives, but with limited success, and most of it has stayed empty.
On June 1, 2001, a young man walked up to a group of teenagers who were waiting to get into the Dolphinarium discotheque, a popular spot for teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union on a busy Friday night. While waiting in line, the Hamas-affiliated terrorist detonated explosives strapped to his body, killing 21 teenagers and injuring more than 120. Since then, the abandoned structure has been a daily reminder of one of the worst terror attacks of the Second Intifada.
The Tel Aviv municipality has been itching to take a wrecking ball to the structure for decades, threatening for the first time as early as 1993. The municipality plans to build a continuation of the promenade, public parks, and a community center for sea sports, according to a municipality spokeswoman. The final plans for the municipality’s Marine Sports Center are not yet approved. The demolitions should take two months.
Last week, passersby generally celebrated the impending demolition, and said they had almost stopped noticing the building but that it would be good to see it gone. “This is good for tourism and good for the economy,” said Kobi Cohen, originally from Netanya. “Anything is better than an abandoned building.”
“It’s a pretty building and I’m sad they’re destroying it, but there’s no choice, you need to keep moving forward and developing,” said Yogev David, who lives near the site and comes to the beach almost every day. “As long as it’s not a high-rise right on the water, it’s a good thing.”
The Tel Aviv municipality first tried to push the land swap deal in 2003. They promised land owner Josef Buchmann, the German-Jewish businessman who purchased the Dolphinarium in the late 1980s, 12 dunams (3 acres) on a plot of land across the street around the Hassan Bek mosque, to build 250-300 apartments and a 200-room hotel, according to the deal announced in 2014. Buchmann sold the site to Israeli investors in 2015 for $50 million. The 12-dunam plot across the street has a value of around NIS 1 billion, Globes reported.
Activists and environmental groups were furious over the land swap, which they claimed rewards Buchmann and the new investors with choice real estate worth seven times the value of the Dolphinarium site, after Buchmann purposely let the site deteriorate for decades.
“There are many places where entrepreneurs encourage neglect to get the public to release very expensive land,” said Yakir Ben Maor, one of the central activists opposed to the demolition. He compared the situation to Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, where he said owner Koby Maimon is taking a similar strategy in purposely encouraging dereliction in order to receive breaks on building regulations. “This is exactly what they want the public to see,” said Ben Maor.
Ben Maor acknowledged that draconian building codes on the Dolphinarium site made businesses wary about attempting to renovate the building. He slammed the municipality for declining to lift the building codes in order to give the building a chance at rebirth. “People are scared of the word ‘renovation,’” said Ben Maor. “There were so many ways to fix this without destruction.”
He noted that the municipality could extend the promenade along the seaside without destroying the building itself, because there is enough room between the building and the water’s edge.
There is an ongoing legal case over the land swap with Buchmann, but the Supreme Court ruled that the demolitions can go forward before the land swap case is resolved.
In April, after ten years of operating out of the Dolphinarium with the constant threat of possible demolition, the Galim Surf School got a week’s notice that it would need to evacuate the premises.
The news didn’t come as a surprise: When the business opened 10 years ago, there was already talk of demolishing the building, said Shlomi Eini, the owner of Galim. The location in the Dolphinarium was inexpensive and allowed the business to operate surf and paddleboard lessons without students needing to cross a street, said Eini.
Although it has a small rental business in north Tel Aviv, Eini plans to keep Galim at the Dolphinarium beach, which has excellent waves for beginning surfers and a large community of enthusiasts in the area.
In the meantime, he has moved his operations to a metal container parked in a nearby lot with a shade tent. But he mourned the informal community center where dozens of kids would hang around every day after school and in the summertime, lounging about in board shorts and rash guards and hashing over the weather forecast.
The surf school had programs helping children with chronic diseases and behavioral problems find peace and quiet among the waves. “This is a sport that kids love to do, something that can accompany them for their entire lives,” said Eini, who was a professional surfer himself. “It gives quiet to the mind, it gets all the anger out because it’s so exhausting, it gives kids space and time to be with themselves.”
The surf school served around 800 to 1,000 kids a year through their summer programs and lessons, as well as thousands of tourists and residents alike with their rental program. “We’re giving a service to the public, by giving these kids a place to feel like they belong,” said Eini. “Even good kids need a framework that guides them.”
He said the surf school’s focus on social programs means it won’t be able to afford rent in another location along the beach.
He accused the municipality of focusing on the international tourists strolling down the promenade rather than the city’s residents, especially those benefiting from the club-like atmosphere of the surf school. In attempting to improve the beaches, the municipality was forgetting about the people that actually use them. He hopes to work in cooperation with the municipality to find a permanent solution for all surf school’s clients, he said.
Avigail, 17, has been surfing at Galim for three years. Without her hearing aids, Avigail is completely deaf, but the Galim teachers adopted hand signals to communicate while on the water and let her know about upcoming waves. “This was like my first home,” she said, looking at the now-shuttered Galim school. “Surfing gets rid of all my stress.” She plans to stay at Galim’s makeshift container school, though she hopes it finds a more permanent home.
The waves were breaking at a good height, and Avigail was anxious to join the rest of the teenagers. She stashed her bag in a shopping cart chained to the fence along with all the other kids and hoisted her board up over her head to dash down to the water’s edge. She said she hopes everyone will come out and give surfing a try, girl or boy, those with or without disabilities, to capture some of the peacefulness she feels on the surfboard. But she is worried that without the surf club, there won’t be a permanent home for them, even after the municipality finishes the construction.
“The municipality says they’re in favor of the environment,” she said. “But what about us? What about the sea?”