Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bad for Beit Safafa, Good for Gilo? Extending Jerusalem's Menachem Begin Expressway Southward

The planned Menachem Begin Expressway South extension -- simulation (J'lm Municipality)
One of the most curious aspects of the Begin Expressway extension story is the absence of any comprehensive, city-wide angle on it.

When work started a few months back on the extension -- which is meant to provide the motorists of Jerusalem's southern neighborhoods and suburbs with direct access to the city's celebrated traffic artery -- a certain amount of media attention was generated; but that attention was entirely political in nature. Articles in Haaretz and elsewhere described an outrageous plan to run a multi-lane highway through the tranquil and picturesque village of Beit Safafa -- an Arab enclave in an otherwise Jewish-populated part of Jerusalem -- thereby slicing it in half and irreparably damaging the fabric of life there.

The issue, to the limited extent that the media have addressed it, has been given an exclusively sectoral spin. It has been framed as an evil Israeli plot to enable “settlers from Gush Etzion […] to drive to Jerusalem’s center or Tel Aviv without stopping at a single traffic light” -- at the expense of Beit Safafa's residents, who have been depicted  as easy targets for abuse by the Jerusalem Municipality due to their minority status. The residents, of course, mounted a protest which has been rejected by the Jerusalem District Court; they will soon be taking their appeal to the Supreme Court.

Highway revolts are nothing new, either abroad or in Israel, and in Israel it would be ridiculous to claim that they are restricted to the Arab population. I therefore find it astonishing that the Begin extension is being represented as an "Arab-Israeli" issue, rather than an urbanist one. While I sympathize with the Beit Safafa residents, I'm not at all sure that the matter at hand is one of ethnic discrimination. The Beit Safafa residents' claim that the city "has proceeded with work without carrying out a detailed plan for the segment of the expressway through the neighborhood, as required by law, and without allowing residents to file objections," sounds suspiciously like the argument mounted in 2010 by Jewish residents of Elmaliach Street in Katamonim Tet, when work preparatory to the Begin extension was launched without the residents having "received all of the material [and] documents necessary for them to properly formulate their objections."

In general, if one looks at things from a car-versus-human standpoint, one could easily argue that the Jerusalem Municipality treats Jewish neighborhoods no better than it does Arab ones. The Beit Safafa residents are justifiably upset that, due to the highway being build in their midst, their small children will now have to walk farther and cross a bridge in order to get to their nursery school. However, this is no different from the situation that currently exists in the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo (the Begin extension's planned termination point). Gilo's community council has proposed that footbridges (or even underpasses!) be erected across the neighborhood's dangerous main roads (see below), so that residents -- and especially children -- can get to schools and other public facilities without risking their lives.

It's not that the Jerusalem Municipality wants to torment and abuse its Jewish and Arab residents; it simply doesn't perceive that there is anything wrong with the car-oriented policies that shape development in the city's less central neighborhoods. Indeed it thinks of walkable urbanism as a city-center thing, as something to showcase in the Jaffa Road display window. The Municipality has jumped enthusiastically onto the creative class bandwagon and is actively striving to transform Jerusalem's "historic downtown" into a paradise of placemaking and urban amenity (that this effort is being paradoxically expended on a part of town that was walkable and attractive to begin with has not gone unnoticed). The idea is to attract tourists and hipsters who, it is assumed, will spend a lot of money and generate a trickle-down effect on the city's economy. The city's working-class outer neighborhoods, by contrast, are being left in their original state of car-dependent sprawl. While Beit Safafa is paying one sort of price for the prevailing urban policy, in the form of a multi-lane expressway that will slash through an area that is still human-scaled and walkable, neighborhoods like Gilo and Ramot have long been paying a different kind of price. They came "pre-slashed."

Gilo's highways

Since it's being claimed that the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, at Jerusalem's southern edge, is going to benefit from the Begin extension at Beit Safafa's expense, it might be worth looking at Gilo's true current status. Is Gilo a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly place for which direct entry to Begin will be a harmless added perk?

Not exactly. In fact, it already suffers from the highway slash-through syndrome that Beit Safafa residents are seeking to avoid, and its symptoms will likely increase in severity once the Begin extension is added to the mix.

Gilo's unfriendly main street (HaGanenet segment)
Gilo is already bisected to some degree from north to south by Dov Yosef Road, and from east to west by another long road whose various segments are named HaRosmarin, HaGanenet and Tsviya-VeYitzhak. These roads are, in essence, highways, not neighborhood main streets or boulevards. Dov Yosef Road does not pretend to be anything other than a traffic artery connecting Gilo with the Malha Mall and the current Begin entry point at Golomb Street. By contrast, there is both residential construction and commercial activity along HaRosmarin, HaGanenet and Tsviya-VeYitzhak; however, these east-west roads (which, depending on the topography, either border a wadi or slice through built-up areas) are exceedingly wide, and range from four to six lanes with formidable dividers extending along much of them. Their main purpose is not to concentrate commercial or social activity within the neighborhood, but to channel automobile traffic to and from Dov Yosef Road and the Derech Hevron traffic artery to Gilo's east.

Gilo's main shopping complex is situated at the intersection of Tsviya-VeYitzhak and Leshem, and consists of a tiered outdoor center that is an accessibility nightmare and an adjacent indoor mall that cannot be reached safely by pedestrians.
Gilo central shopping complex
The complex's unfriendly design, unwalkable location, and proximity to the much larger Malha Mall, which most Gilo residents are able to reach within minutes by car, have been deadly to business; most of the Gilo Mall storefronts have lain empty for years. Zeidenberg Park, whose entry point lies diagonally across the road from the shopping center, represents a major investment in terms of play equipment and landscaping; but its location deep in a wadi and consequent invisibility at street level, as well as the multi-lane road that divides it from the shopping area, preclude any meaningful interaction between the sites. Gilo's community center, pool and library are nowhere nearby, having been situated in a strictly-residential enclave at the eastern end of the neighborhood; most residents, one may assume, access these amenities via private car, just as they would travel by car to amenities outside the neighborhood.Where a more human-scaled main street might have concentrated local commercial and social activity in a lively and effective way, an internal highway and car-oriented planning have separated the existing resources and made synergy between them impossible.

Gilo is not the only Jewish Jerusalem neighborhood to be divided by a highway; Ramot, at the city's northern end, is similarly bisected by Golda Meir Boulevard, and similarly characterized by a pedestrian-hostile distribution of local amenities. That is how these neighborhoods were planned. The assumption was that everyone would have cars, and use them not only to get to their jobs in other parts of town, but for most local errands as well.

Having established that the practice of running highways through Jerusalem neighborhoods is rooted less in discriminatory tendencies than in an auto-centric planning orientation, we are now free to look at the Begin extension, and its potential impact, from a broader perspective, one that encompasses not only Beit Safafa but the extension's supposed "beneficiary" neighborhoods, as well.

Will the Begin extension enhance the livability of Gilo, and of the other south Jerusalem neighborhoods and suburbs that it is meant to serve?

The Begin extension will terminate in Gilo, by the Tunnel Road interchange through which Gush Etzion motorists enter and exit the city. Gilo's community council is gushing about the extension's potential benefit to the neighborhood, in the form of "quick access" to "Jerusalem." I'm not sure, though, that Gilo residents currently feel cut off from "Jerusalem." As noted above, they already have quick access to the Malha Mall via Dov Yosef Road, the expeditious, if perilous, thoroughfare that actually brings them most of the way to their current Begin Expressway entry point at Golomb St. They are also quite close to the Talpiot Industrial Area, via Derech Hevron. When I recently stopped by the Gilo Mall in search of a new pencil case for my son and left empty-handed because the toy-and-school-supplies store (one of the few that I remembered as still being operational) had closed down, I was able to get to Talpiot by car in just a few minutes' time to continue my quest.

Poor pedestrian access and too close to Malha: empty storefronts in the Gilo Mall

  Gilo has a negative image. It is not thought of as a potential destination for the younger, educated people who have been organizing in Jerusalem in recent years under the Hitorerut BiYerushalayim and Ruah Hadasha rubrics, despite the fact that housing there is relatively affordable and access to the commercial and recreational hubs of Malha, Talpiot and Emek Refaim is convenient (a comparative advantage over such farther-flung northern Jerusalem neighborhoods as Ramot and Pisgat Zeev). The problem appears to lie with Gilo's inferior urban qualities -- its walkability deficit, lack of local shopping, inaccessible public amenities, etc.

These problems are ostensibly being addressed by Gilo's master plan project; yet the material that has coalesced up to now seems curiously shallow and unconvincing. One gains insight into the Gilo plan when one looks at the position papers that serve as background it, and which were drawn up with "resident involvement." These papers talk about remodeling and invigorating the main shopping area, densifying the neighborhood, improving walkability and public transit, improving linkage to the rest of the city, creating local jobs, and all sorts of things that are usually associated with good urbanism.

However, the most emotionally charged sections of the position papers are those that deal with roads and with parking. The sense of Gilo residents' preoccupation with where they are going to put their cars, with maintaining traffic flows and not being caught in traffic jams, is palpable, and is reflected on a practical level in the demand for added roads, road widenings, more extensive parking areas around the commercial centers and neighborhood amenities (including parks), and parking minimums of 2 spaces per unit in all new residential construction. The position papers note, matter-of-factly and neutrally, that Gilo is a "bedroom community," and that most residents get around by car, even within the neighborhood; these facts are presented as a status quo that is not up for negotiation. That the neighborhood's auto-oriented scale might be the root cause of its unattractiveness to the younger generation is an idea that appears not to have been entertained.

Under these circumstances one is tempted to ask, Shouldn't Gilo residents be given what they want? If they want more and wider roads and more places to store automobiles, shouldn't they get them? And if they want immediate entrance to the city's north-south automobile artery, why not provide it? They have been conditioned to depend on their cars, why try to change things?

But surely the counter-questions also need to be asked. Having already mentioned Gilo's stillborn shopping district and pedestrian-hostile main street, let's consider whether the extension is likely improve the status of either. Will encouraging Gilo residents (and the residents of nearby Har Homa and Gush Etzion) to use their private cars to travel, via Begin, to jobs, shopping and recreational facilities at the opposite end of town (in addition to relatively nearby Malha) have a beneficial effect on local businesses? A successful shopping area might conceivably be developed on HaRosmarin St., near the Trampiada/Tunnel Road entrance, to serve both the residents of that part of Gilo and those of Gush Etzion who pass through Gilo on their way to and from downtown Jerusalem (just as the Moshe Dayan Blvd. shopping complex successfully serves Mateh Binyamin and Neve Yaacov residents who pass through Pisgat Zeev). Will the direct link to Begin and consequent complete bypass of Gilo itself facilitate or hinder such commercial development in eastern Gilo? Will it do anything for Gilo's moribund existing shopping center? Will the perceived necessity of providing smooth access to Begin from within the neighborhood make a narrowing of Gilo's main east-west roads -- so desirable for walkability reasons -- at all a realistic prospect?

If efforts to improve public transit to and from Gilo are ever indeed undertaken (Mayor Nir Barkat's re-election platform claims that a "Blue Line" from Gilo to Ramot via the city center will be advanced during his next term), will they have any chance for success, given the Begin extension's implied encouragement of private car use?

All of these questions apply, in varying degrees, to Har Homa, the future Givat Hamatos neighborhood (wedged between Beit Safafa and Gilo), and the Gush Etzion suburbs. Will easier and closer access to Begin have a positive effect on commercial development in these areas? Will it encourage people to switch from private car to public transit? Will it foster good urbanism in these areas? Will it make them more desirable to a younger, less car-oriented generation?

In my next post, I hope to raise some additional questions regarding the Begin Expressway extension -- questions relating to the extension's impact on other parts of Jerusalem.


harel said...

Well written and fascinating!

Aryeh Freidson said...

great post.
I might add that as far as I know, the local buses do not use Begin Road, which prevents fast transit within the city.

looking forward to your next post.