Gerard Heumann

Building preservation in Jerusalem a disgraceful sham

In his latest report, State Comptroller and Ombudsman Matanyahu Englman detailed a mile-long list of Jerusalem Municipality’s massive failures in the field of preservation.

A change to Israel’s Planning and Building law in the early 1990s recognized the need for sites and buildings of cultural, historic or architectural value to be preserved, renovated, repaired and maintained, thereby guarding our heritage for future generations. One would expect that in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, with its thousands of historic buildings and sites, that preservation would be an important and revered priority. Sadly, that is far from the case.

Preservation has several basic and built-in conflicts, never more evident than under the misguided leadership of Mayor Moshe Lion who stands behind the extremely rapid and poorly planned urban development unprecedented in the history of the city. Cowtowing to greed, the city has allotted real estate developers the upper hand, often at the cost of destroying historic buildings. And too, buildings slated for preservation present problems for their owners who may wish to expand them for which there are solutions, canceling the capital gains tax for example. There’s the difficulty of finding a balance between private and public (local and national) interests.

Even after several decades, the list of buildings and sites designated for preservation is far from complete. A comprehensive and clear policy is nowhere in sight, fully integrating preservation into urban design and city planning. A statutory plan protecting sites and buildings slated for preservation has, needless to say, has not been prepared.

The Preservation Committee’s composition is problematic in that its heads have at times doubled as heads of the Local Planning and Building as well or are members of the same political party, in clear conflict of interest. Few are professionals. Hundreds of buildings and sites have not yet been approved. On to the lack of transparency: protocols of its meetings demanded by law have been incomplete, poorly, recorded and not published, leaving the public uninformed. Decisions can take years.

Given its lack of priorities, low budget and limited manpower the city’s Preservation Department has poorly – an understatement – supervised sites and buildings, its coordination with other municipal departments is poor as well. Not one of its architects is an expert in preservation.

City Engineers, responding to the will of Jerusalem’s mayors, have failed to exercise their powers to prevent illegalities over many years.

The predictable consequences: buildings slated for preservation have at times illegally been destroyed. Many historic Jerusalem neighborhoods have been severely damaged. Irreparable damage has been done to important sites and buildings, including within the Old City, the visual basin of the Old City impacted.

State Comptroller Englman’s leading recommendation: to complete and have approved the Jerusalem Master Plan No. 2000 presently utilized as a “policy plan” as policy plans are no substitute for legal statutory plans.

Within the municipality, there’s recently been talk of long-awaited reforms, a most difficult task as they’ll have to start from zero. Jerusalem Municipality’s Preservation Department and Committee are today most probably, the worst in the country.

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.