Gerard Heumann

The ‘Center of Life’ fiasco

Computerized simulation of competition's winning entry. The placement of the wide 24-story tower enough to disqualify this project in seconds in any fair competition. (Farhi Zafrir Architects)
Computerized simulation of competition's winning entry. The placement of the wide 24-story tower enough to disqualify this project in seconds in any fair competition. (Farhi Zafrir Architects)

“Center of Life” is the name given to an extremely large and strategically located area at the southern end of Beit Hakerem. Its urban context includes Herzl Boulevard, a major public transport corridor with the Yefe Nof light-rail station and Yad Sarah’s national headquarters opposite, Shaarei Zedek Medical Center to its southwest. In the area today stands Ziv High School, community center and sport centers and a football field built over a municipal water reservoir as well as a large parking lot.

We are speaking here of one of the largest, most valuable and most important potential development sites in all Jerusalem.

Over three years ago, Jerusalem municipality prepared a plan for the area totally unrelated to its statutory designation as an “area slated for public building’, treated as just another banal and soulless real-estate property to be exploited to the full. The city’s terribly muddled design was forcefully rejected by the neighborhood, hundreds of thousands of shekels in public monies, our money, once more down the drain.

Following this colossal failure Jerusalem City Engineer Yoel Even, a civil engineer with no education whatsoever in architecture and urban design, decided on an architectural competition. This national competition, sponsored by the municipality under the auspices of the Israel Architects Association, offered three prizes totaling 145,000 NIS. Headed by Even, of course, were eight judges, most of them either lacking experience at urban scale or having close past and present ties to the municipality, in clear conflict of interest.

The competition’s guidelines ignored two major problems: first, the existing water reservoir and pumping station with its service road, preventing any logical future development along both Herzl Boulevard and Byte Street. Second, the mistaken approved alignment of Aharonov Street right up against the existing residential buildings, sure to draw massive through traffic while creating an overly large precinct totally unrelated to the scale of neighborhood. By disregarding these problems, the municipality made the proper development of this important site all but impossible.

The program of the competitition called for, inter alia, additions to the existing high school, new middle and elementary schools, kindergartens, student dormitories, assisted living facilities and parking – totaling between eighty and one hundred and ten thousand square meters, an extremely large, complex and difficult project. Given the planning problem’s complexity just fifteen design proposals were submitted nationwide.

On the 8th of November 2021, Farhi Zafrir Architects of Tel Aviv was declared the winner of the competition. Preserving most of the municipality’s past planning blunders, the architects added a few of their own.

By keeping the fenced and mainly vacant football field, adjacent to Herzl Boulevard in place and treating it as if it were Teddy Stadium, the architects were forced to pack the remainder of the site like sardines in order to meet the building program.

But perhaps the worst element in their plan is the wide 24-story tower adjacent to Byte Street just meters away from Ahuzat Beit Hakerem Retirement Homes, three times its height. Proposed as well was a lifeless new road sure to draw heavy traffic through historic Brachyahu Street just nine meters wide, which they connected to Byte, an arterial road. Incredible but true the published winning proposal showed only computerized perspective simulations but not the plan – the key document!
Incomprehensible is why this project was chosen above all others. Many residents believe that the Farhi Zafrir Architects firm was selected before the competition even began, the entire competition a bluff.

Twenty-two months on and counting, the competition’s winners have still not presented a legible plan showing clearly its environmental context. The presentation that finally took place in May 2022, was extremely disorganized. A clear site plan is still not in the hands of the Beit Hakerem Community Council. Once more failing intentionally to show their plan’s relation to its neighbors, the architects presented massive building volumes reminiscent of New York City, bearing no relation whatever to the green and intimate character of the Beit Hakerem neighborhood.

Where this is going from here nobody knows, least of all, residents of Beit Hakerem, who are extremely well-informed regarding this area. They are sure to fight this plan.

Gerard Heumann – Architect and Town Planner, Jerusalem

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