New life and new strife for a Haifa neighborhood

New life and new strife for a Haifa neighborhood

By Miri Reilly

The city of Haifa is engaged in a drawn out campaign to persuade residents of protected rental housing in the old German Colony to move out in return for compensation as part of the larger plan to renovate this part of the city.

By the end of this year, the German Colony Rehabilitation Administration hopes to finish building a pedestrian mall on Ben-Gurion Boulevard, ending Stage One of the plan to renovate the neighborhood. But there are many obstacles to further progress.

The administration is engaged in torturous negotiations with the residents of the old homes because they enjoy protected tenancy, meaning that they pay very low rent and would naturally expect to be paid substantial compensation in exchange for moving out. Few of these people ever thought the value of their homes, many of which are in need of renovation, to double or even triple over five years. The core of the dispute is just how much the value of the properties has actually appreciated, since the compensation to be paid is proportional (by law) to the property's market value. Various surveyors are still disputing the assessments.

Last week, the rehabilitation administration reached agreement with one more tenant. Alex Shadmon, the chairman of the administration, says that each of these deals can take months to conclude. "The renovation project for the German Colony, which is part of the tourist region in Haifa's lower city, will make it into something like what Nahalat Shiva is for Jerusalem," he said, referring to the gentrified neighborhood in the capital's center.

There are about 50 houses built by the German Templars before or around the turn of the century in the German Colony. Most of them are on Ben-Gurion Boulevard, where the new mall is slated for completion toward the end of this year. According to a municipal brochure, this will be part of "a kilometer or urban aesthetics." The brochure envisions people "taking a stroll down the mall, sitting down to rest on the benches and enjoying the view from the Baha'i gardens on the slopes of the Carmel and the sea at the end of the road."

But on its way to realizing this vision, the renovation is making life fairly difficult for the people who live the neighborhood or have small businesses there. While building the mall, the sidewalk was expanded at the expense of yards, and the city expropriated about 9,000 square meters of land on both sides of the street.

The city also told owners of garages and other small businesses that are not suitable for a tourism area that it wants them to move. Last July, the Haifa Magistrate's Court rejected a petition from the owners of a garage to issue an injunction against the municipality to stop the renovation project. The owners of the garage claimed in their petition that the extensive roadwork blocks the entrance to their garage and causes them damage.

The city is now negotiating with the owners of 10 business that it wants to move. In some cases the move is coordinated with the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), and the owners receive compensation from the city. In other cases, the disputes get to court. The municipality would not say how much compensation it is offering, claiming that the negotiations are still in an early stage.

In the meantime, work on the mall is continuing. The new Ben-Gurion Boulevard will connect the world center of the Baha'i movement to the planned restaurant area near the port of Haifa. The renovation job includes work on the facades of the houses, eight small piazzas and two larger ones.

The budget for the renovation project is NIS 45 million, but the pace depends on the speed which the money, provided by the city, the Tourism Ministry and the ILA, comes through.

The owners of small businesses in the area are not too happy with the project. Shadmon, asked why the municipality had not conducted a survey among the residents and owners of small business, said it was obvious that the work would disrupt business and a survey would have delayed the development project. On the other hand, he is sure that the project will be worthwhile in the end.

Two new commercial centers are under construction in the area, and these are supposed to provide the new neighborhood's commercial muscle. The City Center project being built by the Mirage group (controlled by businessman Gad Ze'evi) is not yet finished, while the second project undertaken by the Angel group is partially occupied. The second project includes an old Templar house built in 1870.

Three hotels are also being planned in the area, one on the corner of Hagefen Street and Ben-Gurion Boulevard. The other two are planned in old age homes that the city is interested in turning into hotels after suitable renovation.

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