May 25, 2022

After 37 years, Mamilla eyesore nears completion

by Gil Zohar

Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie – who was recently vilified for his plan to build suburbs on the forested Judean Hills to the west of Jerusalem – is about to be vindicated by the opening of phase one of the $400-million Mamilla project, his first development in the Holy City, which he initially designed and which has been worked on fitfully for the last 37 years.

Forty stores forming part of an elegant 140-store, pedestrian-only shopping district along Mamilla Street are scheduled to open May 28 – even though the project is still in construction and won't open completely until well in 2008.

The long-delayed luxury zone will connect the Jaffa Gate with Independence Park along a 600-meter promenade. The two-level outdoor mall will be followed in October by the occupancy of the new / old high-end quarter's 50 condos spread over five buildings.

To date, 14 of those units have been sold, including two so far in May – all to non-residents, notes the project's sales manager Ben Wasserstein. Prices range from $1.1 million to $13-million, he adds. Some of the purchasers are Israelis who have been living abroad.

Moshe Safdie inspecting the about-to-open Mamilla mall (Gil Zohar)

The luxury condominiums, the smallest of which is 187 sq. m., are staggered so that none block the views of the Hinnom Valley.

"We're not building in the Israeli style," says Oded Bar Zvi, the project's deputy director-general for operations and maintenance. "We're building in the style of Alfred Alrov. This is the prime location in Jerusalem. Whoever wants to be near the Old City can't be any closer."

Early next year the Safdie-designed 207-room Alrov Mamilla Jerusalem Hotel will open, followed by an Aroma Café in March, completing the project formally known as the Mamilla Alrov Quarter.

Commercial space in the $150 million mall is being leased at $40 to $80 per square meter, says Bar Zvi, comparable to the Canion Malha which he used to head. Like most Israeli malls, commercial space is only for rent, he adds. Signage and store designs must be approved, creating a distinctive and hopefully exclusive shopping environment.

Tenants include international brands such as Rolex, H. Stern, Nike, Ralph Lauren, Nautica, Bebe and Tommy Hilfiger. Local chains include Castro, Ronen Chen, Steimatzky Books and Café Rimon.

"They've made here overseas," enthuses Bar Zvi.

The shopping mall is being marketed as a high-end destination, akin to Los Angeles' Rodeo Drive. "It is a bridge between the Old and the new parts of Jerusalem," says Shmuel Ben-Moshe, CEO of the Alrov Real Estate Company Ltd., "a bridge between the religions."

Safdie, whose Jerusalem office on King Solomon St. stands beside Alrov's adjoining the site, is especially proud to finally see his modified project nearing completion. “To see this project realized after all of this time, well, it’s actually looking better than what I expected. Despite all of the starts and stops because of the local bureaucracy, this new urban space is destined to change the gravity of tourism back to the heart of Jerusalem, where it rightfully belongs,” he proclaims. Given one can only have one initial impression, is it wise to open a luxury project that is still a construction site? "This one will have multiple impressions," Safdie beams. "I'm preparing a big surprise for the residents of Jerusalem. Come and see."

Like Safdie, Ben-Moshe and Bar Zvi, Mamilla Alrov's residential sales manager Ben Wasserstein gushes about the project. Alrov is a "visionary."

During a tour of the lavish $13-million penthouse with its spectacular view of David's Citadel, he opines "People outside can't imagine what's inside. It's a very exclusive project. There's only one Jerusalem." The 250 sq. meter rooftop alone is big enough to host a bar mitzvah, he marvels.

The price, for the record, includes parking, he notes. For the other units a parking spot is $22,000. Alrov is considering switching prices to Euros because of the recent depreciation of the greenback, Wasserstein adds.

Asked about the May 28 opening date, he answers that Alrov arbitrarily picked the date to be near the hoopla associated with the 40th anniversary of the re-unification of the city. Having part of the mall open will boost residential sales, he hopes.

* * *

Mamilla, a key 30-acre site situated west of Jaffa Gate and the Old City, represents a microcosm of Jerusalem over the last century. It was at the Stern House here that Theodor Herzl slept when he visited Jerusalem in 1898. During the British Mandate, the area became Jerusalem’s joint Arab-Jewish commercial center. Now that house has been demolished and reassembled nearby. Some of the numbers have been preserved on the stones, to suggest the building has been moved.

Five historic buildings have been preserved, including Clark House - a 1,001 Arabian Nights fantasia with horseshoe-shaped windows built by American Evangelicals in 1898, and the Hebrew University student mensa in the years between 1948 and 1967. As well, many building fronts have been incorporated though the structures themselves were demolished – a practice derided by preservationists as "facadism".

In the 1948 War of Independence, many of Mamilla's handsome buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged. The border between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan passed here; Arab Legion soldiers posted atop the Old City’s ramparts occasionally fired at pedestrians, and the once prosperous business district deteriorated into a border slum. Its eastern and northern edges were a no-man’s-land, with massive concrete anti-sniper walls, barbed- wire fences and minefields creating a buffer zone between Israel and Jordan. The bullet-marked Tannous Brothers building sign has been preserved as a memorial of those tumultuous times.

New immigrants of the aliya waves of the 1950s took over the abandoned buildings, while the once fashionable shops became garages, carpentry workshops and small factories.

The municipality expropriated Mamilla in 1970 and appointed the Karta Central Jerusalem Development Co. Ltd. to see to its evacuation, planning and development. Karta – which is owned by the Ministry of Housing and Construction (75 percent) and the Jerusalem municipality (25 percent) - began removing the tenants and workshops, relocating them elsewhere in Jerusalem, and setting its planning activities into motion at the same time. Today's Talpiot industrial area grew up from businesses displaced from Mamilla.

At the behest of then Mayor Teddy Kollek, architect Moshe Safdie, along with Gilbert Weil, drew up a grandiose development plan which envisioned Mamilla as a living bridge of urban activity between the Old and New Cities.

The concept was based on an underground street system overlaid with mixed development. The plan involved destroying all of Mamilla's 19th-century buildings apart from the landmark St. Vincent de Paul Church and Monastery. Other features included a pedestrian promenade, parking for l,000 cars, and a bus terminal. (With the new Mamilla underground lot, there will be parking for 1,600 cars and 60 buses.)

Jerusalem had never known a project so complex and sophisticated. The planners and Karta had no trouble persuading the authorities of its quality and the need it would fill.

Nevertheless, Safdie’s project generated fierce opposition in various professional circles and the general public. Preservationists questioned the need to destroy all of Mamilla’s buildings. Many felt that Jerusalem did not need so large a scale of development alongside the Old City. Others feared – presciently – that the financial means required for building the project all at once could not be raised.

The Municipality's Town Planning Department drew up an alternative scheme, offering a more modest development. Under this proposal, many facades along Mamilla and King Solomon Streets would be preserved; development would be based on an above-ground street system; a pedestrian plaza would be created in front of Jaffa Gate; all buildings in the center of Mamilla valley would be demolished.

In 1986 after 16 years of controversy, during which time Mamilla remained an eyesore in the heart of historic Jerusalem, construction on the scaled-down project began. But Safdie’s altered vision was delayed yet again; the contractor who won the tender to build the “Valley Road”, a new street now officially named after Yitzhak Kariv which would allow Mamilla Road to be converted into a pedestrian-only zone, went bankrupt and fled the country. Karta was left with a huge hole in the ground adjoining the neighborhood's now-abandoned and derelict buildings.

Under a new contractor the access road to the Old City was finally completed. Many of the decrepit buildings leading to the Jaffa Gate were demolished in 1988.

The following year Britain’s Ladbrook Corp., which controls the Hilton Hotel chain, won out over several international consortiums in its bid the build the project's main hotel.

Following a flurry of litigation, that investment ended up being taken over by Alrov Mamilla Commercial District (1993) Ltd., controlled by real estate developer Alfred Akirov, who has built Tel Aviv landmarks including the Opera Tower and Treetop Towers. Today the former Hilton hotel is operated as David's Citadel.

Last August the Jerusalem District Court upheld the two arbitration rulings in the costly, time-consuming dispute between Alrov and Karta. The latter was compelled to pay Alrov NIS 100 million in compensation. Karta had asked for the rulings by arbitrator Judge Shalom Brenner to be overturned.

In 1989, Karta, which owns the land rights, signed a contract with Ladbroke Group plc to develop a 100,000-sq.m. residential, hotel and commercial project on Mamilla St. and King David St. In 1994, Alrov became a partner of Ladbroke, replacing it as the developer. Karta and Alrov each then accused the other of breach of contract, and filed lawsuits.

In his first arbitration decision, Brenner ruled that Karta’s refusal to sign the application for changing the Local Outline Plan was illegal and in breach of contract. But he decided that Karta’s countersuit against Alrov was justified in two points: the maintenance cost of the site’s parking garage, and user fees for the building. Karta appealed the ruling, but lost when the Jerusalem District Court upheld it.

In his second arbitration decision, Brenner found a causal connection between Karta’s refusal to sign the Local Outline Plan and a delay of at least 23 months in the Mamilla project, which caused major financial damage.

In the third arbitration hearing, Brenner ruled that Karta must compensate Alrov for the loss and prevention of profits in the amount of $9.6 million, after financing expenses. Those rulings cleared the way for construction to finally resume.

In a related matter, in February Africa Israel Housing, a subsidiary of Africa Israel and its project partners sold the remainder of the subsidiary’s rights at the David’s Village – a luxury housing project adjoining David's Citadel decried by many as a ghost town whose foreign owners only live there during the High Holy Days and Passover. The rights were purchased by a group of investors headed by Robert Rachnitz in a transaction estimated to be $40 million.

The land sale reportedly brought Africa Israel Housing an estimated after tax profit of NIS 30 million.

Is the Mamilla Alrov Quarter charming? Safdie invites visitors to see for themselves.