Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Controversy over highrise plans for Neve Tzedek

The website of the Residents for Neve Tzedek non-profit shows a simulation of what the historic Tel Aviv neighborhood would look like surrounded by high-rises. Although the developers of the new projects are the ones in the media spotlight, each of them has the services of an architect, a professional who is supposed to be capable of controlling the impact of proposed projects on adjacent areas, particularly low-rise neighborhoods like Neveh Tzedek. Tall buildings are frequently the focus of controversy, not only from area residents who see themselves deprived of light and air, but also among architects.

There are those who argue that high-rises near Neveh Tzedek will solidify the urban fabric of the area and bring a more well-off population to working class south Tel Aviv. Others contend, however, that construction of tall buildings in the area damages the neighborhood both aesthetically and environmentally and imposes a particular burden on the area's infrastructure, which can barely support the neighborhood's current population.

In May of 2009, the local planning and building committee approved construction of a high-rise on the site of the former Lieber chocolate factory south of Neveh Tzdek. Preliminary plans for the project were developed by world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind in collaboration with local architect Rani Zis. The planning for the project has since been taken over by architect Avner Yashar. Yashar was involved in the planning of three of the towers in the area, so his take on the construction of tall buildings in the area is especially significant. He says the debate should focus on whether the buildings are planned well and not whether they should be built. "It's true that any opinion of mine on the issue is suspected of a lack of candor, but I think the magic of the city is the interface among opposites: large and small, dilapidated and well-tended, poor and rich," he said. "I believe that in another 15 years or so, Tel Aviv will triple its number of residents and all of them will have to be housed. There will be high-rises and in my view that's good and they should be embraced lovingly."

Each of the towers Yashar is designing in the area is on an unusual building site, creating variations in planning. The One Rothschild Tower is near the northern end of Neveh Tzedek. The Elhanan East Tower, which has come to be called Neve Tzedek by the Sea, is to the west. The third high-rise, the Lieber Tower, is on an expansive site to the neighborhood's east, in an area that once housed factories. Yashar said the Lieber Tower was approved about 20 years ago as a 17-story office building covering a large area. Newer city plans called for a higher building on a smaller plot of land. The Lieber Tower project sits on an isolated building site, unconnected to its surroundings. Yashar said the tower would be cut off from the surrounding urban area in any event and that a park, through which a future light rail line is to run, is planned between the tower and Neveh Tzedek.

Not all of the high-rises Yashar has planned are divorced from their settings, however. The One Rothschild Tower meets the ground with a kind of glass box, which Yashar says is integrated into a stretch of Ahad Ha'am Street. At Neveh Tzedek by the Sea, the architect's office planned what it calls a pavilion along the length of the street, a four-story building, with commercial space on the ground floor and loft apartments on the upper stories. "It's clear that, in its size, the tower is a divergence from the street, but that is how we attempted to integrate it into the setting and not just to focus on the height [of the project]," Yashar said.

Some of the buildings on the neighborhood activists' list of threats to the neighborhood aren't high-rises at all. Though higher than Neveh Tzedek's historic abodes, a 13-story building is not really a skyscraper. Nonetheless, the 13-story Elifelet Towers at Elifelet and Shlush Streets would have gotten shot down if proposed today. In August city hall announced a ban on construction taller than three stories in Neveh Tzedek itself. The Elifelet project is comprised of ground floor commercial space, two floors of offices and another 10 of apartments.

Project architect Gidi Bar Orian says the lowest 15 meters of the building is designed to fit in with the other buildings in the area, creating the impression, from the perspective of the pedestrian, that the building is simply an extension of existing construction in the area. "We chose not to build with glass, but rather to preserve the look of the construction in the area and its simplicity," he explained.

The Gvulot ("Border" ) Tower on Eilat Street is also on the action committee's list of high-rises, but it is just 11 stories tall. Architect Moshe Tzur, whose office designed the project, said they used the criteria of existing plans for the site and the architecture features unbroken frontage and emphasizes the low streetscape. Architect Shlomo Gertner, who is planning the Elhanan West project, says his design turns the adjoining street into a green boulevard and an extension of Tel Aviv's other boulevards. "We have reduced the area that the buildings occupy by constructing upwards. The buildings along the length of Elhanan Street create the feeling of continuity on the street because the lower floors have a similar design [as other buildings on the street]. The edge of the building is planned with a uniform height, relatively low, with correct spacing between the buildings, creating views of the sea," he says.

Gertner maintains that Tel Aviv is becoming more dense and Neveh Tzedek is becoming a low-density island in an urban ocean. "Residents of Neve Tzedek enjoy low-rise construction, but they cannot force themselves on the entire city. To preserve spaces and nature around the city, one has to create density and therefore turn the relatively low-rise construction of the past into taller building," he said.

Read the rest on Haaretz

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