JERUSALEM – One scorching afternoon in the hills west of Jerusalem, Israelis of all walks of life swam in spring-fed pools and picnicked in the shade of fig trees in a bucolic sanctuary called Ein Lavan, as they have done for years.
But you may not have much time left to enjoy it.
Developers want to build a neighborhood of 5,000 homes, a hotel and a business district on Lavan Ridge, which is just a stone’s throw away.
This is no ordinary land use struggle between builders and conservationists. Project supporters insist that they are motivated not by profit but by a desire to fund much-needed urban renewal in Kiryat Menachem, a crowded, low-income neighborhood nearby.
And the battle could set a precedent for similar battles. Israel, a country with the highest birthrate of any developed world, is pushing 200,000 more people each year into a nation the size of New Jersey, half of which are uninhabitable desert. The resulting real estate crisis creates enormous pressure to build in the dwindling green spaces.
The preferred alternative is to add housing to Israel’s cities by replacing run-down low-rise apartments with modern high-rise buildings – not to prevent sprawl. Builders benefit from the sale of the additional new apartments on the upper floors, effectively using the air rights to subsidize the new apartments.
In Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, 86 percent of the 142,000 units expected to be approved by 2040 are earmarked for urban renewal projects.
But that doesn’t work everywhere.
The renewal of Kiryat Menachem, say opponents, would come at the expense of a place that Jerusalemites treasure.
Kiryat Menachem, on the southwestern edge of Jerusalem, is within the pre-1967 Middle East War, when Israel conquered Arab East Jerusalem.
A national planning agency in May accelerated a plan to renew the 28-acre hanurite complex of Kiryat Menachem, which currently includes 646 substandard homes, and converted it into 1,700 new units. However, according to official figures, the planners have not been able to add enough additional housing for developers to generate profit. Adding more units is not an option: the area is already too dense.
Seemingly stuck, the planners cast their eyes on the virgin hills of Lavan Ridge. They have signed a contract with the Israel Lands Authority to subsidize the renewal of hanurite by allowing home builders to buy public land on Lavan Ridge at an 80 percent discount.
This purchase enables the builders to build a new neighborhood there with 5,000 houses at a high profit. The new homes would be a sweetener for the developers, not the residents of Kiryat Menachem, who probably couldn’t afford them.
However, developing an open landscape instead of air rights would pay off for urban renewal.
33-year-old Ortal Matzliah has lived almost her entire life in her parents’ 580 square meter apartment in the Hanurit complex. As a girl, she shared a bedroom with two siblings. Families with five or six children live in leaky, shabby homes measuring just 400 square feet, she said.
Under the planned renovation of her complex, the current owners would get an additional 270 square feet per apartment, she said. Elevators would save her what is now a four-flight climb.
“We are not only talking about a personal change, but also of a social change: to bring a better-off population into the neighborhood,” said Ms. Matzliah. “You will only come when you have good buildings – not what it looks like today.”
Mrs. Matzliah said she was torn. She, too, loves to hike Lavan Ridge.
“We want to see that the green stays,” she said. “But we want to live the way other people live – a good life.”
Opponents call it a devastating blow: Thousands of trees would be felled. Wild animals would be endangered. The construction could destroy the mountain aquifer that feeds the springs.
And Jerusalem’s 930,000 residents would have one less place to cool off and escape the city’s concrete and tumult.
“We’re not like on the coast; We don’t have a beach, ”said Odelya Robins-Morgenstern, 16, who runs a WhatsApp group that opposes the project. She called Ein Lavan a “sacred space”.
“We don’t have a Sea of Galilee,” she said. “Here we go. You can go to Ein Lavan on Friday and there are 200 people there. I go there with friends. I go here sometimes to find some rest. “
Odelya admitted that officials had promised that the construction of the ridge would leave the natural pools undisturbed. But they would no longer serve as an escape, she said.
“Who will want to go into a spring when you are watched by people standing on their balconies?”
There is another option, some critics say, which would be for the government to directly subsidize the urban renewal of Kiryat Menachem instead of ceding green spaces to developers.
“We will not accept this demagogy that the need for additional land justifies harmful plans,” says Dror Boymel, head of planning at the Society for Nature Conservation in Israel, a conservation group. He said the plan was just the final foray into Jerusalem’s westward expansion into the Virgin Hills.
A better solution is for the government to “put its hand in its pocket” and give the builders a cash subsidy.
However, Amit Poni-Kronish, head of the Jerusalem Urban Renewal Initiative, says there is simply no budget for such payments, especially given the current global economic crisis.
“If we have to choose between nature and rebuilding these old, earthquake-proof housing projects, we don’t have safe spaces, and if Lavan Ridge could help with that, I’m for Lavan Ridge,” he said. “I think this is the only justification for harming nature.”
Planners insist that they have worked mightily to reduce environmental damage. They said they had shrunk the project and left the parkland near the springs and a hiking trail undisturbed, and they would plant a tree to replace any uprooted ones.
Even the deer that live in the forest would have their own corridor. If the aquifer is damaged, officials have vowed to discharge tap water so bathers can continue to enjoy Ein Lavan’s pools.
Opponents have challenged the project with the National Planning and Building Council. The decision is expected soon.
But the opponents are also torn back and forth.
18-year-old Chanan Sack was one of the more vocal activists on the matter. He updated 1,600 people in a WhatsApp group and stood up for lawmakers and city officials. He said he felt for the residents of Kiryat Menachem, where he lived as a young boy.
“We were seven siblings in this little house and we had to share the living room with a bookcase,” he recalled. “These people deserve better terms. But you don’t solve one social sickness by creating another. “