I love Haifa and I am worried.
I am sure Yona Yahav, Haifa’s mayor, also loves Haifa. I think he has a vision of what this city can be. And I am worried. Work has now begun on Jaffa Street and some of the shop owners are worried. Renovations are supposed to take about a year and the promise is that the new pedestrian mall, another stage in development of the port area, will be a fashionable and attractive place for both tourists and residents.
Revitalization of the downtown area is a worthy project. I get excited when I think of what the waterfront of Haifa can be in the future if the plans come to fruition and there are already signs of its potential.
For example, the opening of a new downtown campus associated with Haifa University has remarkably improved the appearance of a formerly hideous area. There is an aesthetic open space in front of the building and it is quiet and inviting. I smile every time I enter the building to teach because it brings back (not so great) memories of meeting with tax inspectors when the income tax authority was located here. I think I am one of the lucky ones to come here — I live a short bus-ride away from the port campus and therefore I do not have to park a car.
Parking seems to be a major problem connected with urban renewal projects around the world. This was the issue that was raised over and over as I talked with shop owners on Jaffa Street to see how they feel about the renovations and what they anticipate once the dust will have settled and the noise will have gone.
By the end of the second week of construction, some had already complained of doing about 60% less business than before because there is no more street parking. However, this was a mixed bag — there are two private lots on the street where construction has begun and, while they cost more than street parking, they are available. In addition, there were a few stores that rely more on Internet sales than on walk-in customers and they will obviously not be affected by the changes.
Some of the business people on this street are worried about their ability to survive the period during which the renovations will take place. They still have to pay rent even if sales are dramatically reduced. Furthermore, there are no reductions in city taxes (arnona) during this time. Food-based businesses, if they are licensed, can get discounted arnona rates, but this was a decree on the part of the Ministry of the Interior and the city government apparently has no authority to reduce taxes. In any case, arnona discounts for food-based businesses are permanent and have nothing to do with relief being provided because of the renovations in the streets. And, I have heard, it is not easy to get a license.
Fences around the construction have drawings of the completed project: a pedestrian mall with outdoor cafes and a single lane of traffic along one side. If it works and brings more people downtown for shopping and entertainment, eventually the businesses may benefit, the more upscale ones, that is. Parking will supposedly be provided outside this zone within walking distance.
You can see in the two photos below (the first provided by Google maps and the second my own photo) the difference between the original state of the street and how it is now. The third image is a photo I took of a drawing of what it should look like when completed.
None of the shopkeepers I spoke to were confident that the work will be completed in the time allotted and one even suggested that we can be sure it won’t be finished until the eve of the next elections (in three years). He was willing to put a wager on that, but I didn’t place any money on the table. I am, perhaps, naïve enough to believe that a year should be sufficient.
A few years ago the main shopping street of Hadar was torn apart for upgrading of the public transportation system. I went up to speak to some of the shop owners there to see what they think, now that the construction is long over. Herzl Street certainly seems much quieter now than I remember it having been.
Without exception all business owners talk about serious losses and the situation is, surprisingly, worse since completion of the project than it was even during the worst part of the construction itself. Many wonder if they will survive and I was told that shops frequently open and close and are reopened by optimistic individuals who then are not able to make a go of it either. Rents are too high and the only ones not complaining are those who own their shops outright (and own perhaps several shops, some of which they lease at exorbitant rates). One old man still has his key-money shop and his rent is rock-bottom. Even if he pulls in only 100 NIS a day, he can still get by, unlike the others.
The main reason given for loss of business is that there is no more parking on the street, and almost no parking in the area at all. The key-money shop owner explains that even if prices are lower in Hadar than elsewhere, it is far more convenient to shop in the malls and so that is where people will go. Another shop owner told me that nearby Nesher and Tirat HaCarmel attracted Haifa businesses with their lower rates of arnona and there has been a migration of shops out of Haifa. Danny, the owner of a shop on Jaffa Street, says that businesses in the downtown Haifa area pay a lot of money in arnona and do not get anything back in return. He is not optimistic regarding the renovations.
I searched the research literature to see what has been learned over the past decades of urban renewal in other parts of the world. It seems that a great many of these projects fail. One recommendation that emerges from the research is to promote:
Community Involvement. Ensure that citizens, particularly residents of surrounding neighborhoods, have continuous opportunities for input and involvement. It is also important to keep the opinion-makers and the media informed about the revitalization process, as the public image of downtown during the early phases of revitalization is generally negative. One example is creating a local cable TV show highlighting individuals and businesses helping turn around the downtown, putting a human face on the revitalization effort.
There are several other recommendations coming out of the study on urban development referred to above and I hope that those involved in city planning in Haifa have read the research.
However, some of the locals are afraid that, instead of working with the long-time businesses and residents, the city wants to get rid of them and that that explains the apparent lack of interest of the mayor in the impact of the project on their welfare and that of their families. Some talked about how many businesses have closed down and how life there is not like it used to be. Danny said that even the prostitutes have abandoned the area. I laughed with him then, but now that I think of it, maybe that was the point. Doesn’t mean that I’m not worried.
I hope that Haifa’s urban renewal project will be one of the success stories and that people here won’t be abandoned. Not like Hadar. In fact, Danny even suggested a way that the city could show that it cares — to find a way to offer first-two-hours-free-parking in local lots. I was told that an accessible parking lot was in the plans and that would make Danny’s idea realistic.
Is someone there in City Hall listening?