In Jerusalem, the station is a destination even though there’s no train
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In Jerusalem, the station is a destination even though there’s no train

Capital’s Ottoman-era refurbished railway terminal is set to open at the beginning of May as a meeting place for food and culture

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

  • An inside view of the train station, still under construction (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    An inside view of the train station, still under construction (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • Historical photos of times past on the carefully conserved walls of the Jerusalem Train Station (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    Historical photos of times past on the carefully conserved walls of the Jerusalem Train Station (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • A local urban artist is creating a hand-constructed fence at the Station, made from recycled pieces of wood. (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    A local urban artist is creating a hand-constructed fence at the Station, made from recycled pieces of wood. (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • A glimpse of the graffiti and crumbling walls that were inside the station (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
    A glimpse of the graffiti and crumbling walls that were inside the station (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
  • HaTachana train station in Tel Aviv, another Avi Mordoch project (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90)
    HaTachana train station in Tel Aviv, another Avi Mordoch project (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90)

When the refurbished Jerusalem Train Station complex opens at the beginning of May, there will surely be those who criticize the renovation as kitschy, fault the planners for not fully considering the flow of traffic nearby, and complain about the noise generated by a public facility of this size.

But it’s hard not to be impressed by the addition of a complex this ambitious to the Jerusalem scene.

Called The First Station — for its history as an Ottoman-era train station that opened in 1892 — the renovated version is a cultural compound that will attempt to meet the needs of Jerusalem’s tourists and residents, a blending of secular and religious, young and old, free-spending and penny-pinching.

The 3,000-square-meter deck will be home to a mix of kosher and nonkosher eateries; an array of carts selling upscale toys, urban fashion, crafts and green-market goods; and free yoga, Zumba, Pilates and Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday afternoons; giant game boards; refurbished train cars for adult and kid workshops; and an art gallery for exhibits and events created by local art, film and theater students. There’s a familiar sense of gentrification efforts wedded to the city’s ongoing attempt to appeal to locals of all stripes.

“We tried to retain the history of the place,” said Avi Mordoch, one of the two entrepreneurs involved in the project. “We’ve got walls that are 2,000 years old in this city, and synagogues that are even older. But we’ve tried to show, with the reconstruction, that we respect the history of this city.”

Considering the carefully stripped-down brick ceilings, patina-flecked walls and a planned working railway turnstile, it’s clear that historical preservation was an important element in the station renovation.

The planners worked with local preservation architect Moshe Shapira from the outset. They aimed to fully renovate the space, which had suffered “tremendous deterioration,” said Shapira, with ruined wooden floors, crumbling walls, windows and doors.

“It’s a major problem with places like this,” Shapira said. “You have to preserve it because of its historical value, but that costs money — and the state certainly isn’t paying for it.”

The old Jerusalem train station — initially conceived by German architect Conrad Schick, Jewish philanthropist Moses Montefiore and others, and built with Ottoman money — was the final stop on the Jaffa-Jerusalem railroad line. It operated continuously until 1948, and then started up again in 1952 under the ownership of Israel Railways, which inaugurated its first ride with a sack of cement, a bag of flour and a Torah scroll, symbolizing physical and spiritual sustenance, as well as industry.

By 1998, the train had stopped running, and the station was a derelict shell, home to squatters and drug users. It took until 2005 for Mordoch to receive permits to open businesses in the train yard adjacent to the station, where the restaurants Colony and Hachatzer now operate. The other adjacent yard houses a supermarket, a music club, and buildings belonging to the venture-capital firm Jerusalem Venture Partners. With the city’s decision to use a remaining empty lot next to the train station for annual events such as the beer festival, as well as more temporary attractions like the current Ice Festival, it made sense to refurbish the train station as an urban meeting point, the link between sites and neighborhoods.

“It’s more important to use a site like this, rather than just saving it as a museum,” opined Shapira. “If it’s used, it’s more authentic, because that’s the function of a place like this. You want people to use it, to say, ‘Let’s go to the station,’ to appreciate the atmosphere. If people enjoy this place, then we’ve created something educational in all of this.”

But just to be clear: This is, first and foremost, about business — a Jerusalem destination  that will attempt to appeal to all stripes, with cafes and restaurants that will be open on Shabbat, a community Kabbalat Shabbat service run by the nearby International Cultural Center for Youth, and culinary workshops and puppet shows.

Visitors will be able to choose from a variety of dining options, including full restaurants and cafes, as well as a ReBar fruit shake stall, Vaniglia ice cream parlor and Fresh Kitchen, a healthy-menu cafe. There will be two strictly kosher sit-down options, and nonkosher options will be plentiful as well, including Tel Aviv chef Nir Zook’s food market-style stall eatery, a sports bar with American-style burgers and the new site of Adom, a French bistro owned by a local restaurant group that’s moving its flagship restaurant from downtown Jerusalem to the Station.

When asked if he was concerned about adding so many nonkosher, open-on-Shabbat outlets in Jerusalem, Mordoch demurred. “I’m a private businessman,” he said. “No one will tell me what to do, and I won’t tell them what to do.”

Shas leader Eli Yishai happened to be touring the complex on the same day, but merely grinned and said “We’re working on it,” when asked what he thought about having the complex open on Shabbat, always a controversial topic in Jerusalem.

Mordoch isn’t looking to exclude anyone from The Train Station; rather, he wants everyone to feel comfortable in its “pluralistic atmosphere” — from bike-riding Jerusalemites who want to breakfast out on Saturday mornings to Shabbat observers who, he hopes, will stroll over on Saturday afternoons with their own water bottle in hand. A native Jerusalemite, he commented that he loves the fact that his own mother goes to the Western Wall on Shabbat mornings, whereas he heads to the beach.

The 52-year-old Mordoch is not related to the famous Mordoch of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (although he knows him), but he’s been in the leisure and lifestyle business for most of his professional life. Having owned and partnered in a string of bars, clubs and restaurants, including the nearby nonkosher resto-bar Colony and the kosher chef restaurant Ha’Hatzer, he first entered the refurbished-train-station market with the renovation of HaTachana, the Neve Tzedek train station site in Tel Aviv, which opened three years ago.

In his studied, casual ensemble of pointy oxfords, well-worn jeans and a mandarin-collar jacket, the lanky Mordoch is warm and friendly, and clearly a sharp businessman. He invested NIS 15 million in the station site, and each restaurant added another NIS 2-3 million, bringing the total investment of the Build-Operate-Transfer train station project — the ownership of which will revert back to Israel Railways in 10 years’ time — to some NIS 40 million. It’s a relatively inexpensive project for Mordoch, who said he earns approximately NIS 300 (about $82) per square meter in Tel Aviv, compared with at least NIS 100 less in Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is different from the Tel Aviv Station; this is not Neve Tzedek,” said Mordoch, referring to the chic Tel Aviv neighborhood that abuts HaTachana, and which is lined with upscale boutique hotels, cafes and shops. “The local neighborhood here in Jerusalem is very important to me, and we gave a lot of thought to the neighbors when we set this up.”

To that end, they don’t expect excessive noise from the station, which will have a bar and restaurants open late at night, as well as occasional evening events on the deck.

“The train station is like a nature reserve,” promised Mordoch. “It will be quiet.”

With nearly a dozen hotels within walking distance of the Station — which is located across from the Khan Theater, and directly behind the controversial Four Seasons Hotel construction site at the juncture of Emek Refaim Street and Bethlehem Road in the tony Germany Colony neighborhood — Mordoch and his fellow planners pushed hard to complete the renovation in record time. They accomplished it in just nine months, whereas it could have taken at least two years, he said.

Mordoch worked on the plans for some seven years, and he and his crew teamed closely with the city, which has been pushing its own string of public projects, including a five-mile walking and biking path along the nearby defunct railway line. That path is eventually meant to join a ring of bike trails around much of West Jerusalem. Mordoch’s ultimate plan is to make the Station a center of all that activity, where visitors can also rent Segways and electric bikes for riding around the city. The Station is also within walking distance of the nearby Jerusalem Theater, the Cinematheque art-house theater, the Shruber Movie Center under construction in nearby Abu Tor, and the Smadar Cinema in the German Colony.

“We can bring people together here,” Murdoch boasted. “That’s how I do things in Jerusalem.”

The First Station plans on opening for business at the start of May with the gallery featuring 120 years of Israel Railways, a traveling exhibition that will open in Jerusalem. The first major event will be on Shavuot, May 14, from 10:00 am – 6:00 pm.

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