German Colony residents protest light rail plans

Emek Refaim Light Rail Photo: Master Plan

Many in Jerusalem's Germany Colony are up in arms over plans to route the light rail Blue Line on Emek Refaim Street.

Betzalel Simchovich, owner of a business on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem, is one of a sizeable group of residents and merchants who oppose the passage of the light rail through the German Colony neighborhood in Jerusalem. Two years ago, the Jerusalem Municipality decided to change the route of one of the Blue Line branches that will connect the Gilo and Malcha neighborhoods in southern Jerusalem with the Ramot neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. The route was previously planned to pass through HaMesila Park, built on the leftover tracks of the old Jerusalem-Tel Aviv railway, but the park has become a municipal success in recent years, and the residents are opposed to its elimination. The municipality is therefore seeking to move the route to Emek Refaim Street, the German Colony's main thoroughfare. Traffic surveys conducted by the planners of the line, a team responsible for the Jerusalem transportation master plan, show that during morning rush hour traffic, 70% of the traffic on Emek Refaim Street consists of vehicles passing through the neighborhood, thereby causing traffic jams, soot, pollution, and noise. According to the planners, all the buses will be rerouted away from the street, and most of the traffic passing through will be diverted to other important arteries. The buses and cars will be replaced by the clean, high-speed, and non-polluting light rail.

"The proposed plan is bad," asserts architect Prof. Moshe Margalith, UNESCO chair on modern heritage and Tel Aviv Institute for Study and Research of Architecture: Environment, Culture and Community head. "It considers only the transportation aspect from a superficial perspective. The two tracks that are to become a single track will create a bottleneck. It's a narrow street, and putting a light rail into it is like using a heavy rope to thread a needle.

"Emek Refaim is one of only three streets in Jerusalem that has residences, commerce, social and cultural activity, and street entertainment. The German Colony, Greek Colony, and Emek Refaim Street are living evidence of the city's historiography and cultural heritage. They are the municipal living room of the entire city. The street will be unrecognizable, among other things due to the presence of a safety fence separating vehicular traffic from the railway. The entire street will have a transportation character like that of Keren Hayesod Street, but much narrower. The place's unique features will thus be lost."

"When they said that a light rail would travel on Emek Refaim Street, I said, 'Hey, how did that happen? How soon? Businesses will obviously collapse, but it will be very pleasant and quiet afterwards," says Mordecai Avraham, chairman of a group opposed to the light rail going through Emek Refaim Street. "In contrast to Jaffa Street, a train will pass through Emek Refaim Street in one direction or the other every 3.5 minutes on the average. It will make things difficult for pedestrians and vehicles, which will have to wait at a traffic light for the train to pass. The quiet side streets will be widened to handle the traffic diverted from Emek Refaim, and they will be blocked with traffic, noisy, and given the absence of sidewalks in most places, dangerous," Avraham adds.

Senior economist Avraham Snapiri mentions another problem. "Since there will be only one track in the northern section, trains will have to wait four minutes for trains to pass in the opposite direction. There is no such project anywhere else in Israel, and if something happens to the track, all the trains in Jerusalem will grind to a halt," he points out.

Opposed to the absence of a plan

Architect and Emek Refaim Street resident Ehud Halevy, on the other hand, thinks that the railway will make it possible to renovate and preserve the street in accordance with the master plan for the German Colony and Greek Colony, and that it is an opportunity to obtain a large government budget for renovating and upgrading the street.

Realtor and local resident Hava Teperberg believes that the railway will help preserve the atmosphere and the streets, but emphasizes that the residents are anxious, and want to know whether there will be land expropriations and fences moved, what the new traffic arrangements will be on the side streets, and what the streets and sidewalks will look like.

Teperberg says, "The planners showed us a small sketch that is nothing more than an exercise in imagination. Had the plan been a detailed one, it would have quieted some of the residents' fears."

Critics of the plan are anxious about not only the traffic arrangements, which they say are unclear, but also about the construction period, which will cause many businesses to close down. Tour guide and merchant Ruth Dana draws attention to the serious blow to tourism in the German Colony during and after the construction work.

A 111-page report

The German Colony is one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Jerusalem. 25% of the residents are over 65, the highest proportion of any Jerusalem neighborhood. Many of them are academics, serve in high-ranking positions, and are civil servants. The residents, who fought to defend the German Colony's unique urban ambience through the preservation of historic buildings, such as the Templar House, the Lev Smadar Cinema, and the Jerusalem Swimming Pool, have not given up this time, either. Although they knew that the plan was on the way to being deposited at the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Commission, the last stage in the approval process, they appealed to coalition and opposition city council members for more time to study the plan. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat granted their request, and gave them three months, during which they were asked to examine alternative routes to Emek Refaim Street for the light rail. The mayor undertook not to deposit the plan before the end of this period.

City Council opposition member Laura Wharton asserts, "The mayor is competing for a place on the Likud Knesset list, and my feeling is therefore that he will not devote enough time to things affecting the city and its residents. I'm very worried about it."

At the end of three months, after very hard work by some 50 residents, a detailed 111-page report was submitted. The report examined three alternatives: Emek Refaim Street, Harakevet Street, and Hebron Road-Hatnufa Street-Pierre Koenig Street. The residents hired six experts, who wrote an opinion on the matters they investigated pertaining to the three alternatives. "It was very difficult for us to assess the alternatives in cost-benefit terms, because we did not receive the data. No one examined the numbers. The only thing written in this plan is that the company that dealt with the matter estimated the total cost of the line at NIS 8 billion," claims Snapiri, who considered the economic aspects in the report.

According to Margalith, who compiled the report, the findings showed that the Emek Refaim alternative was the worst of the three, the most damaging, and the most expensive. He says that the Hebron Road-Hatnufa-Pierre Koenig alternative is the best. He is proposing connecting Emek Refaim Street to the Blue Line railway stations at both ends of the street by means of a shuttle or electric bus. Margalith asserts that this alternative, which bypasses Emek Refaim, adds four minutes to a trip, and the train may have to wait this long anyway for an oncoming train to pass.

Among other things, those who favor the light rail route on Emek Refaim claim that the duration of a trip could be unnecessarily lengthened by the alternative passing through the Talpiot neighborhood, thereby affecting the line's efficiency. They assert that this alternative was already considered and rejected when existing plans were formulated, and is therefore not a real alternative.

Hearing at the Districting Planning and Building Commission at the end of the month

The report prepared by the residents was submitted to the municipality on November 28. On December 1, the mayor submitted the plan for deposit at the Jerusalem Districting Planning and Building Commission. The residents claim that they were misled. In response, they filed an administrative petition at the Jerusalem District Court on December 22. The petition argued that there had not been sufficient consultation with the residents about the new route, and that the residents had provided and paid for a report about the alternatives, a long and detailed professional document, which the municipality had not considered in depth in the plan that was deposited three days after the report was submitted. The petition also asserted that the information about the plan was not accessible enough to facilitate material and effective public discourse.

The petition notes that in the meeting at which the report was submitted, the municipality's representatives unexpectedly stated that the plan was ready for deposit. The petition states that the respondents therefore clearly never had any intention of changing the local outline plan according to the alternatives, or of taking those alternatives seriously.

Furthermore, the summary report by the transportation master plan team submitted to the mayor in November 2016 stated explicitly, "None of the additional alternatives (other than the one submitted in the outline plan) has yet been considered in depth." The transportation master plan team said in response, "The objection listed in the report shows the team's fairness. The alternatives proposed by the residents, which were known to us from independent examinations we conducted during the years of planning, show that some of them are clearly impractical from an engineering standpoint, or lengthen the duration of a trip for no logical reason, while unfairly inflicting social damage on tens of thousands of residents of the other neighborhoods on the route, or which the city's elected representatives are unwilling to accept, such as the elimination of HaMesila Park or putting the light rail into a tunnel with no engineering justification."

Following the petition, the District Court scheduled a hearing on January 29. The Court dismissed the petitioners request for a stay of proceeding pending the hearing, while emphasizing that any ruling would also bind the Jerusalem municipality in the future.

At the same time, several residents of the nearby Gonenim (Katamon) neighborhood have sent a letter to the mayor expressing their support for the Emek Refaim light rail route. Itamar Shahar, one of the Gonenim residents who signed the letter, said, "In my opinion, the report is very biased and slanted against the line. The arguments against it were very irrelevant. The municipality's attitude towards the report was to the point."

As soon as the plan was submitted for deposit to the District Planning and Building Commission, the time began for submitting objections to it. The opponents, who have filed a request for registration as a non-profit organization, received an extension until March 6 at their request from the Commission for submitting objections. They held a meeting a week ago, which they say 350 residents attended, aimed at recruiting support for the organization, explaining the plan and the objections stage to the public, and helping the public submit objection. The leaders of the group opposing the Emek Refaim route claim that they now have 600 registered supporters, and they expect the number to increase to thousands. "We are just getting started, and we will not allow the light rail to go through Emek Refaim," Avraham declared. "We are the guardians of Jerusalem."

On the other hand, the planners of the line are confident in the justice of their case. The Jerusalem transportation master plan team stated, "Many of the residents want clean modern transportation for them and their children. The success of the first line has led to an enormous demand from all the city neighborhoods demanding that the light rail also reach them, and we are planning to reach them also with implementation of the great plan, which includes the construction of 10 light rail lines, plus public transportation lanes, by 2030.

"Traffic on the small streets of Emek Refaim is not expected to change; it will remain moderate, as befits small streets. The frequency of trains on Emek Refaim will be reasonable or lower, so the passage for private vehicles from the alleyways will be comfortable and safe. The Ministry of Transport's safety regulations require a separation barrier only 30 centimeters high on the sections of the street with both vehicles and trains. This divider can be made of curbstone; there is no need for a fence. At the request of the residents, the team is considering the possibility of adding a station. A specification of the trees for preservation and those that will have to be moved appears in the plan presented to the residents and their representatives. It has been submitted to the District Commission, and is open for public perusal, together with all of the other plan documents and appendices.

"As soon as the residents submitted their report, we gave detailed consideration to the proposals, most of which were already considered years ago. We addressed the residents' proposals professionally and respectfully, and held a preliminary meeting with them to clarify the details and questions. We presented the answers to them and to the mayor and his deputies in a discussion of over three hours. This attitude of the mayor and public servants is praiseworthy and an outstanding example of cooperation."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on January 23, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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Emek Refaim Light Rail Photo: Master Plan
Emek Refaim Light Rail Photo: Master Plan
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