No free lunch — or parking — on HaLamed Heh Street

cafe michael corner shot

Over the past decade, HaLamed Heh Street, a mainly residential thoroughfare in Jerusalem’s fashionable Old Katamon neighborhood, has evolved into a mini-shopping hub with an upscale vibe. In addition to more basic amenities, it is home to a wine boutique, an artisanal bakery-cafe, and a religious book store whose Judaica-filled display window enlivens the scene.

A new restaurant, Cafe Michael, was recently added to HaLamed Heh’s business mix. Run by a duo of trained chefs and offering culinary events such as reservation-only chef’s dinners, Cafe Michael aspires to transcend the cliché of the Israeli dairy cafe and — to judge by a glowing review in Haaretz— is succeeding at the task.

A recent article in the local Hebrew-language weekly Kol Ha’Ir also mentioned Cafe Michael, though not in a culinary context. The article noted that seven parking spots are going to be “arranged” along a segment of the street where parking has long been prohibited, ostensibly to benefit Cafe Michael, which sits opposite. Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch of the Hitorerut party is credited with catalyzing the “arrangement.”

The Jerusalem Municipality’s decision to add free on-street parking may seem like a smart move that will help small neighborhood businesses. However, a closer look at HaLamed Heh Street adds some nuance and casts doubt on the wisdom of the decision — which flies in the face of today’s more sustainable approaches to mobility in cities and even contradicts the spirit of recent Israeli legislation on parking.

HaLamed Heh Street’s secret sauce

As noted above, quite a few businesses operate successfully on HaLamed Heh, with no parking arrangements other than free curbside parking on the west side of the street where most of the stores are located. Until Berkovitch’s recent intervention, parking was prohibited on the east side, presumably because the roadway is relatively narrow for a street that serves two bus lines.

What draws customers to Halamed Heh? Is it the parking? A disinterested observer might fix on any number of business success factors, none of which are related to car storage. The large resident population, for instance, generates foot traffic; moreover there is a bus stop which attracts people from nearby streets.

Then there is the spontaneous, non-master-planned quality of HaLamed Heh — its attractive, traditional architecture and its human scale.

One of the piquancies of the street is that its stores and restaurants operate out of structures that were not designed as commercial buildings. Unlike the standard “commercial center” that features in Israel’s many master-planned neighborhoods, Halamed Heh has the spontaneity of a street that grew gradually and organically. Its buildings span a spectrum of ages and styles, and some have been adapted to different uses over the years.

What do all of these “business success factors” have in common? They have nothing to do with cars or parking, and everything to do with … people, and especially people on foot.

This shouldn’t surprise us. As a 2013 report by the New York City Department of Transportation, The Economic Benefits of Sustainable Streets, attests, environments designed with the comfort of pedestrians in mind are good for business. NYC DOT’s former commissioner, Janet Sadik-Khan, is famous for having taken street space away from cars and given it back to people in the form of pedestrian plazas — most notably at Times Square.

times square pedestrian plaza -- Jim Henderson, Wikipedia
Jim.henderson — Wikimedia Commons

It’s reasonable to assume that Cafe Michael’s operators didn’t think that abundant free parking was going to be a major factor in their success, or they never would have chosen HaLamed Heh as the site for their venture. They had a distinctive business model to offer — high-end cuisine and foodie events — and they apparently were attracted by the picturesque and pleasant environment of Old Katamon — the very thing that is liable to be jeopardized by the presence of more cars on the street.

Parking needs: perception and reality

Parking is a contentious issue for cities the world over. Car-oriented 20th century planning — the same kind of planning that gave us regimented shopping centers, bland towers and streets devoid of the character that makes HaLamed Heh so lovable — created a situation where most of us feel we have to drive in order to get around. Free curbside parking has come to seem like a basic human right, though that assumption is now being challenged.

An entire school of thought has grown up around the research of a UCLA professor named Donald Shoup, whose book The High Cost of Free Parking makes a case for parking as a commodity that needs to be priced, rather than an automatic entitlement.

One idea popularized by Shoup is that on-street parking should, ideally, be priced to achieve an 85% occupancy rate, so that drivers arriving at a given destination don’t need to “cruise” for parking, generating congestion, wasting fuel and contributing to air pollution.

It might be argued, then, that what HaLamed Heh’s businesses really need in terms of on-street parking (if in fact they do need any) is paid parking that keeps the existing spots from being hogged, ensures turnover, and enables customers arriving by car to slip in and out relatively quickly — thereby preventing situations where drivers are tempted to violate parking rules:

It’s worth noting that the recently-instituted parking “intervention” on HaLamed Heh was actually sparked by parking violations along the strip of curb directly opposite Cafe Michael. According to one of the restaurant operators, the curb opposite the restaurant wasn’t clearly marked as a no-parking zone, and prospective customers who parked there were slapped with NIS 500 fines. Under the circumstances, the operator claimed, those customers could not be expected to continue patronizing the restaurant.

Ensuring that the city clearly marks no-parking zones is one thing; converting no-parking zones to free-parking zones is another. I asked the Cafe Michael operator whether he didn’t think that adding another layer of parked cars to that segment of the street might uglify the area and make it less attractive to customers. He shook his head no, laughing. “There can never be too much parking.”

If you look at the strip where the new free parking spots are going to be “arranged” by the Municipality, you see a number of obvious spatial-geometric problems. The parking will be coming at the expense not just of the roadway, but of the sidewalk, which at 3.5 meters across is not especially wide in its current state.

sidewalk across from cafe michael with parked van1

The Cafe Michael operator assured me that, since the Municipality will be handling the matter, enough room will be left on the sidewalk for wheelchair access. That‘s great, but what about parents with several young children in tow? What about people with other equipment or disabilities? Will they be forced to squeeze around side-view mirrors?

 old man on sidewalk across from cafe michael

Also: the strip of additional parking will make it harder for cyclists to safely negotiate that segment of the street. There is no bike lane on HaLamed Heh. It’s a street with limited space and many different kinds of competing users, one of which — the driver — is being privileged at the expense of the others.

Apart from taking street space away from pedestrians and cyclists, the additional curb parking planned for HaLamed Heh can also be expected to increase overall traffic volume on the street. A recent academic paper, summarized here by Eric Jaffe of CityLab, looked at nine different American cities and concluded that parking provision in cities “is a likely cause of increased driving.”

It has often been noted that Millennials are much less enamored of the automobile than their parents were and more oriented toward walkable urban lifestyles. The Cafe Michael operator with whom I spoke certainly fits the Millennial profile — young, energetic and entrepreneurial. Yet on parking he echoes sentiments more aligned with those of an older generation, indicating that Israel, for all its Start-Up Nation ingenuity, is way behind the West on attitudes toward transportation.

This generational anomaly plays out in Jerusalem city politics as well. Deputy Mayor Berkovitch, the photogenic Millennial and supporter of all things youth-oriented, has consistently backed policies that promote driving. He has been behind the expansion of free and low-cost parking options in the city center — the pedestrian paradise whose renaissance has coincided with the elimination of cars from the area. The fact that a pilot project offering free entry to the Safra parking lot met with little response from the public — Berkovitch himself acknowledged in a Facebook discussion that “very few vehicles went in there” — seems not to have shaken his belief that adding parking in urban areas helps business.

Ironically, it is an older Jerusalem politician — former Deputy Mayor Tamir Nir of the Yerushalmim party, who recently ended a two and a half year stint as holder of the city’s transportation portfolio — who has been most active in advancing the cause of sustainable transportation and reduced car dependency in the city.

Parking minimums: no free lunch

Recognizing that limited city space can be put to more productive uses than parking, and that public transit and various ride-sharing frameworks and technologies will be playing an ever-greater role in urban mobility, Israel’s Finance Minister recently signed off on new minimum parking requirements for residential and commercial construction, based on proximity to mass transit. “Shoupistas” would likely regard the measure as insufficient, but it is a first step toward reducing Israelis’ reliance on the automobile.

Beyond the curbside parking dilemma discussed above in connection with Cafe Michael, HaLamed Heh Street is a kind of living museum of Israeli attitudes toward off-street parking — from none to tons. There are small surface lots whose aggressive signage warns off the unwary, and there are built-in garages.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, ground-level garages protruding from building facades were all the rage in Jerusalem. That period left its mark on HaLamed Heh in the form of some of the city’s ugliest buildings:


We’ve thankfully moved past that particular architectural moment. Garages in new residential construction tend to be less conspicuous now, at least in Jerusalem’s more upscale neighborhoods. However, these less unsightly forms of off-street parking come with their own problems. Underground garages are even more expensive to build than street-level ones, adding considerably to housing costs. And parking accessed from the side or rear of the building can sometimes give rise to unfortunate consequences on the street, as may be seen below.

Notice how high the wall is? The ground-level apartments of this new building on HaLamed Heh have front-facing private gardens. To ensure the owners’ privacy, high walls were erected, creating unpleasant blankness on the street.

Why put the gardens in the front, rather than the back, which is more private? Because the entire rear of the building is taken up by parking.

garage entrance from side alley

Meals don’t come for free, as I’m sure the proprietors of HaLamed Heh’s eateries would agree. Likewise, with parking: it always exacts a cost. In parking, as in life, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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