Open spaces are being eaten up, the coastline is barely accessible and property developers are devouring urban green spaces.
White Ridge is a construction project planned for the Judean Hills, on the slopes leading down from Moshav Ora towards the Refaim Stream. The project involves extensive construction in an open area that’s home to one of the most beautiful natural springs in the area – Ein Lavan. Plans are to build 5,250 residential units and some 300 hotel rooms along the upper part of the ridge. In 2017, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee began discussing a new plan for the area, which was, in essence, the renewal of the so-called Safdie Plan that was rejected in 2007. Despite the public filing more than 6,000 objections, the plan was approved by the district committee and continued to move forward. Its fate now lies in the hands of the National Planning and Building Council's Appeals Committee, which is expected to reach a decision soon. Meanwhile, the Construction and Housing Ministry is already discussing a plan to build another 1,500 housing units at the expense of more green space west of the new neighborhood.
What lies in store for the biblical landscape of the Judean Hills can already been seen from Khirbet Qeiyafa, the ruins of an ancient fortress city near the Elah Junction. The walls of the fortress city, dating back to the reign of King David according to some scholars, stand directly opposite those marking out the expansion of Ramat Beit Shemesh – two sets of walls built 3,000 years apart, and two fortresses that appear to be at odds with one another. The remains of the ancient city’s walls were uncovered in 2016, and Khirbet Qeiyafa was declared a national park, putting a stop to the expansion of Ramat Beit Shemesh southward. Plans to build thousands of apartments for the ultra-Orthodox public were approved in 2014, even though they call for building on an archaeological site, a portion of an ecological corridor and green spaces. A struggle waged by residents and environmental organizations succeeded to amend the plans somewhat, but not cancel them.
“The wadis are an integral component of Haifa’s urban DNA,” reads a master plan initiated by the Haifa Municipality and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Once, the wadis offered hiking trails from one Haifa neighborhood to the next; now, however, would-be ramblers are encountering an abundance of debris and the resulting pressure of construction plans – especially on the western slopes of the Carmel mountain range. The Berl Katzenelson Complex is an urban renewal project that was approved at the end of 2011, at the initiative of the Haifa Municipality and the Construction and Housing Ministry. The project has included the demolition of seven housing-project structures from the 1950s and the still-ongoing construction in their place of seven new buildings, nine to 15 floors high, with close to 500 apartments. The perimeter walls of the complex have been built just a few yards from the Ziv Stream, and a huge drainage pipe protruding from the wall is pouring liquid construction waste directly into the stream bed. The slopes of Wadi Ahuza are also dotted with construction waste dumped from work on Yosef Schechter Street. Every bush seems to be hiding an empty paint container or bag of cement.
In northern Herzliya, adjacent to the Apollonia National Park, two sets of plans center on the construction of around 4,000 housing units. The plans cover an area trapped between the Coastal Road, the neighborhood of Nof Yam and the Sharon Beach Nature Reserve, with some of the construction to take place on the site of an abandoned Israel Military Industries plant. In July 1992, a blast involving tons of explosives left two plant workers dead and 66 injured. Five years later, the plant was shut down, leaving severe soil and groundwater contamination in its wake. In the years since, the natural habitat has come back to life, with birds of prey and a herd of deer returning to the area. The construction project won fast-track approval in 2015. Environmental organizations and locals filed a petition against the plans, but the High Court of Justice allowed the development to continue, ruling recently, however, that there will be another hearing on the matter. Meanwhile, the soil and groundwater contamination problem has yet to be addressed and a risk-assessment study ordered by the court has yet to see the light. The developers are itching to get moving.
At almost any given moment, a residential street in Givatayim is blocked to allow trucks access to construction sites in the city. Trees are being felled, crowded high-rise buildings are being erected on narrow streets, and cars are forced to drive over sidewalks to get to a new underground parking garage. Givatayim is the second-most densely populated city in Israel, behind Bnei Brak. To avoid construction in open and green spaces, cities have to build upwards. The issue is how to do it properly. Originally intended as a program aimed at reinforcing structures against earthquakes, National Outline Plan 38, or Tama 38, has become a tool for urban renewal in expensive cities. Projects aren’t necessarily planned with environmental considerations in mind, with entrepreneurs focused instead on maximizing their profits. The result is unseemly, not to say ugly, over-crowdedness. The Tama 38 plans often also fail to consider the burden the additional population places on the existing infrastructure. There is, however, cause for optimism: Tama 38 will be abolished in less than three years and is set to be replaced by a different plan, discussions over which were supposed to have started recently.
A year ago, developers declared that the luxury tower block on Arlozorov Street in Tel Aviv was declared fully occupied and that the penthouse had sold for around 200 million shekels. In the old part of north Tel Aviv, thrusting skyward from narrow streets and three-story apartment buildings there’s a 29-story monster, clad from head to toe in shiny glass and aluminum. The tower was built on the site of the old Dan Bus Company Depot, and, although the developers were required to mop up the contamination left behind by the bus facility, the construction of the tower does very little else in terms of public benefit – a small public park and an underground parking garage. These meager benefits, it seems, are far outweighed by the damage to the urban fabric as a result of the construction of the tower, which casts its shadow over the neighborhood and blocks out the sun.
One fine day, the old ficus tree outside my house was suddenly cut down, and the stump that was once the trunk was turned into a coffee table by the foreman on a nearby construction site. The fate of the majestic Norfolk Island pine on Tel Aviv’s Peretz Hayut Street – a conifer defined as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – has already been decided, and it would take a miracle to save it. Permission to chop down the tree, believed to be around 70 years old, was granted to allow the construction of a parking basement. These are just two examples from several thousand a year. The scandalous ease with which trees are cut down is illustrated by the bare facts: From January to March 2020, permits were issued throughout Israel for the felling of 15,461 trees (for construction purposes only) and the relocation of an additional 1,574. Local residents have no right to be informed in advance of the plan to fell a tree in their neighborhood, so there’s precious little they can do to stop the chainsaws. The lives of the trees are also threatened by less official practices, such as excessive pruning, the severing of roots, spraying and poisoning. Felling permits are sometimes conditional on the planting of new trees after the construction, but these saplings will struggle to survive in the concrete-soaked earth.
Residents of Ashdod woke up one fine morning to discover that a crane set up on the beach had started construction work on a new Hilton Hotel, just yards from the waterline. The plan was approved a decade and a half ago, almost under the radar, just before the Protection of the Coastal Environment Law came into effect in 2004. Residents and environmental organizations launch a battle against the massive construction work, but the Ashdod Municipality was intent on pressing forward with hotel development along the city’s northern shoreline and approved the construction of two four-story hotels, up to a height of 14 meters. Recently, the developers submitted requests to increase the height of the two structures, along with the number of rooms. They’ve already been given a green light to do so.
On the beach in Ashdod, around 100 yards from the waterline, stands the skeleton of the Saint Tropez boutique hotel – like a white elephant stuck in the sand. Plans for the construction of the hotel were originally approved in 1990, long before the restrictions imposed by the Coastal Environment Law of 2004. The environmental committee that did review the plans required the developers to pave a public walkway, flanked by flora, between the beach and the hotel to soften the blow of another controversial decision: allocating a portion of the public beach for private use. Construction began in late 2013, accompanied by fierce and vocal opposition from residents and environmental organizations. The original developer then went bankrupt, and the project was acquired recently by businessman Jacky Ben-Zaken, who wants permission to build more. Approval for the plans is now in the hands of the Israel Planning Administration’s Southern District Planning and Building Committee.
Tel Aviv’s Atarim Square was inaugurated in 1975, but its glory days soon turned into years of neglect. During the Gulf War in 1991, then-mayor Shlomo Lahat said he hoped that an Iraqi Scud missile would hit and destroy the square. His successor, Ron Huldai, one the other hand, decided to resolutely promote a grandiose plan to demolish the square and build three 40-story towers for residential and hotel use. The plan sparked heated opposition from the city's residents and turned into a legal battle that’s been going on for years. The municipality has submitted a document in which it undertakes to build just two towers, of 25 floors each, but no final plans have been filed and an end to the battle still appears a long way off.
The impressive sandstone cliff that form’s a large part of Netanya coastline is steadily eroding – a combination of the forces of nature and human interference, such as construction projects along both the top and at the foot of the cliff. The Netanya Municipality, which approved the construction of the towers along the cliff, did make efforts to prevent crumbling, but all proved ineffective. Now, it’s seeking to address the problem with an engineering plan that will increase the amount of sand on the beach. Under the plan, 12 breakwaters will be built to ward off the waves that are eroding the cliff. The plan also involves supplementing the beach sand with sand from far out at sea in an effort to prevent the waves from eating away at the foot of the cliff. But the municipality also wants to use this sand for other purposes – widening of the stretch of coast in the south of the city. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel fears that such a move will turn a natural and quiet stretch of coastline into a regulated and commercialized beach area. A tender for the development work is set to be published any day now.
Sha'ar Hayam is a construction project on the cliff overlooking the Sironit Beach in Netanya. First approved in 1973, and following a spat that lasted until 2017, the plans illustrate how public space eventually ends up in private hands. The plot of land allocated to the project started out as an open expanse owned by the Netanya Municipality on which a municipal pool was built. It was subsequently sold to private parties, in a process that opponents of the project say raises suspicions of corruption. The plan then underwent several amendments that led to an increase in the building rights and a land-zoning change, from hotels to residences. The Israel Union for Environmental Defense filed a petition against the planned residential tower, charging that it’s set to be built less than the required 110 yards from the beach. The legal battle led to a compromise, whereby developers would demolish the section closest to the waterline and allocate an area facing the sea for public use.
The development and construction plan for the Achziv neighborhood in northern Nahariya was approved in 1994. Under the plan, 70 standalone homes and a series of structures of four to eight floors were to be built adjacent to a virgin strip of beach. Originally, the plan called for the construction of some 800 housing units and around 800 hotel rooms. Bordering the Achziv National Park, the neighborhood is set apart from Nahariya and is located on land contaminated by asbestos from a plant that once stood there. The contamination has caused a suspension of the construction work three times already. Furthermore, to the east of the neighborhood is an industrial plant that works with hazardous materials. Opposition from citizens and environmental organizations led to court hearings in which all sides, including the District Planning and Construction Committee, agreed that the project had been poorly planned. Under the ensuing compromise, construction was pushed back 220 yards from the shoreline, with public areas and more green space in the vicinity promised too. The settlement, however, isn’t enough to prevent the damage that’s being caused by massive construction work along untouched coastlines.
Sand is becoming a rare commodity along Israel’s coastline, with increasingly narrow beaches boasting stones rather than sand providing stark evidence of the phenomenon. It all started in the 1960s, when Egypt built the Aswan Dam and thus put an end to the supply of sand and alluvium from the Nile River. The climate emergency and the resulting increase in stormy weather conditions is also causing more and more sand to be drawn back into the sea.
Sections of the promenade along the beaches of Haifa and its surrounding suburbs have collapsed due to the dwindling sand, and the foundations of the lifeguard booths have been exposed. Construction of the new port in Haifa is only making matters worse. The breakwater that protects the port from the north and east is causing a change in the flow of sand in the bay. With a portion of the sand now amassing on the northern side of the breakwater, the beaches are undergoing dramatic change.
The story of the Hof HaCarmel Towers isn’t a new one, but it’s far from over. Shortly after the towers were occupied in 1997, they turned into a symbol of poor planning and ugly architecture that places a wall between the sea and the city. The trauma caused by the towers put an end to the real-estate frenzy along the beachfront and accelerated the enactment of the Protection of the Coastal Environment Law in 2004. Approved in 1978, the plans for the towers allowed the Hof HaCarmel Towers Company, controlled by Yitzhak Tshuva, to erect six buildings – for residential, hotel and commercial use – on a 25-acre area near the beach. Following a battle waged by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the height of the second tower in the project was restricted. The remaining four structures have yet to be built. The legal battle led to a precedential ruling by the High Court of Justice under which Israel’s beaches are intended for public use and efforts must be made to prevent all private use of the beaches as in the case of the Hof HaCarmel Towers. The parties are now expected to begin talks on an alternative site for the remainder of the project.
The issue of construction on beaches requires special attention. On the one hand, it has long been accepted that beaches are public property – unique natural assets, like the sunshine and the sea breeze – to which the public should have free and unfettered access all along the coastline. On the other hand, profitability considerations bring tremendous pressure from real-estate developers in terms of building as close to the beach as possible.
Israel’s Mediterranean coastline stretches some 122 miles, of which around 80 miles are accessible to the public (less than an inch per person), after taking away the areas reserved for use by the military, power stations and ports. Just 12.5 miles of the coastline are official public beaches – in other words, less than a tenth of an inch per person.
Efforts have been made over the years to protect the coastline. In the 1980s, regulations were adopted to prevent construction less than 110 yards from the waterline, and these were bolstered in 2004 by the Protection of the Coastal Environment Law. In addition to providing for the establishment of the Knesset’s Coastal Environment Committee, the law also determined a special and strict approval procedure for any construction or substantial development change at a distance of less than 330 yards from the shorelines.
The problem is that the law does not apply to the large number of plans approved before its enactment. As a result, dozens of plans that don’t meet environmental standards and infringe on public rights remain in effect.
Assisted in collecting data for the article: Yael Dori (IUED), Lydia Murdbinkin and Uri Nachmani (Green Trend), Yair Assaf Shapira (Jerusalem Institute for Policy Studies), Attorney Itamar Shachar, Yair Gil, Amir Wiener (Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel), Guy Sommer, David Haberfeld, Osnat Binyamin, Shai Hershko.
Photographer Jonathan Bloom's website: www.jonbloomphotographer.com