Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Centers

A rather close family member of mine works for the Jerusalem light rail, and the light rail project is, naturally, a recurring topic of conversation in our household. Based on this, one might assume that I was an "early adopter" of that shiny and elegant new mode of local transit.

But I wasn't. Unfortunately, the light rail in its current configuration doesn't happen to come my way.

My three older children have been on the trains. As part of a staff event to which family members were invited, they actually got to ride along a stretch of the route about a year ago, many months before the light rail became operational. They even have cute tee-shirts to prove it.
I was probably home with a sick toddler. I don't really remember. Do I feel deprived? Not especially. That is, I'd be perfectly happy to go for a spin on those sleek and silent new trains -- just as I'd be happy to pamper myself for a day at a spa. But "going for a spin on the trains" would mean, for me, traveling downtown just for that purpose, and in my everyday life there's no realistic occasion for a trip downtown. A trip downtown would have to be prompted by more practical considerations than a desire to experience the light rail -- and the "revitalized" city center -- in all their glory.

Where downtown Jerusalem is concerned, I guess you could say I'm a bit detached.

On an abstract level, I can certainly understand all of the attention that is being lavished these days on the city center. The area was depressed for quite a while, and it's gratifying to see something happening there.

What I find disorienting, though, is the chicness and sleekness of it all. It doesn't seem like part of my world.

Skyscraper complexes encompassing office and commercial space, luxury penthouses for the wealthy and ground-level plazas for the masses are being approved for downtown Jerusalem by the Municipality. The Binyanei HaUma/city entrance area is slated to become Jerusalem's answer to Paris' La Défense business district (a comparison that deserves its own blog post, and then some). Suddenly nobody is satisfied with poor old downtown Jerusalem and its "country-bumpkin" atmosphere; everybody wants to see it transformed and modernized.

Suddenly the words "density" and "mixed development" are on everyone's lips.

I guess as a New Urbanist wannabe, I should be thrilled that downtown Jerusalem is being densified and reinvigorated. And I suppose I am -- but at a distance.

From my vantage point in southern Jerusalem -- the vantage point of someone whose everyday activities revolve around the needs of children elementary school aged and younger -- "downtown" is the Talpiot Industrial Area. In the time it would take me just to travel to the city center, I can pop over to Talpiot, run my errands, and be home in time for whatever I need to be home in time for.

Central Jerusalem is a place I never get to. Talpiot is my city center.

A city can have more than one center. It's allowed. Very likely, the fact that a city can support more than one center is a sign of its vitality.

Yair Assaf-Shapira, an architect and urban planner who blogs (in Hebrew) at planning Jerusalem , wrote a while back that the Jerusalem Municipality's "exceptional" approvals of commercial activity in the city's "periphery" or "margins" (i.e., Talpiot) pose a threat to business downtown. He has similar things to say about the Pisgat Ze'ev mall.

Assaf-Shapira's position appears to reflect current received wisdom in the Municipality, namely, that "priority should be given to the city center over the secondary centers that developed over the years and attracted commercial activity from the CBD ["central business district"], thereby contributing to its deterioration [...] Developing high-tech [תעשייה מתקדמת] should be preferred in [Talpiot] to developing commercial activity that harms the city center."

With all due respect to the local planning community and its concern for downtown Jerusalem (a concern driven by an awkward mix of hipster urbanism and old-time lefty nostalgia for the pre-1967 era, when Jerusalem's pesky peripheral neighborhoods had yet to be built), I have to think that this interventionist approach is incredibly wrong-headed. Restricting commercial uses in areas that serve the city's far-flung suburbs, and forcing people to travel way out of their way to the city center ... not cool. Why on earth shouldn't residents of Pisgat Ze'ev and Neve Yaakov in northern Jerusalem, or of Gilo, Har Homa, and Armon HaNatziv in southern Jerusalem, have good commercial facilities closer to home than Jaffa Road? What's preferable -- that people spend an hour in public transit, possibly switching buses and trains several times (with strollers and children in tow), to get to shopping facilities in the city center, or that they walk (or ride public transit for just 2 or 3 stops, or drive for 2.5 minutes) to local shopping?

I think Jerusalem's planning cadre has become too "center-centric" in its urban thinking. The idea that the city needs only one center, and that that center should be lavishly developed while peripheral commercial areas are neglected and/or subjected to restrictions on the kinds of commercial activity that can be conducted within them, reflects ignorance of how working Jerusalemites -- middle-class families based in neighborhoods that aren't terribly close to Jaffa Road -- really live.

On the other hand, I have to say I'm glad that my little south-Jerusalem commercial hub in Talpiot hasn't been declared a "priority" area, which would doubtless smooth its rough edges and harm its funky character. Although the Jerusalem Development Authority website does mention some kind of plan to "redesign" the TIA -- to downplay its light-industry component and introduce elements of "accessible housing" [מגורים זמינים] and "employment" (i.e., office buildings for high-tech), this doesn't strike me as the same kind of large-scale sanitization and elite-ization effort that is underway downtown. And for this I am grateful. Everything I like about the Talpiot Industrial Area reflects the fact that planners have pretty much left the place alone.

When I think about Talpiot, the term loveably chaotic spontaneously pops into my head. Actually, the word spontaneous also pops into my head when I think about Talpiot. Other words and expressions that, for me, are associated with this part of town include: anarchic, hodge-podge, chock-a-block, haphazard, tumultuous, heterogeneous ... you get the point.

I love it that nobody thinks the Talpiot Industrial Area needs a glamorous new transit solution entailing a decade of road work (shudder), or that skyscrapers should be built there to increase its "density" (already dense enough, thank you), or that the area needs to become a "magnet for high-tech" (yawn).

I love it that you can do the following in Talpiot: purchase high-end housewares and low-end footwear; get your car fixed; bowl; do one-stop back-to-school shopping at a bargain outlet; sip a cappuchino at a cafe table; triumphantly snag a free parking spot after circling around weird little service roads for half an hour; "sneak" around the back of a building to get to a factory outlet for ladies' hats and grab some gourmet peasant bread while you're at it; pile a shopping cart with several weeks' worth of groceries; go to a shiur; check out tile and fixture samples for your latest home renovation project; get a driver's license; get married.

Where else but the Talpiot Industrial area can you enjoy fine pastries at an outdoor cafe table, situated on a gritty industrial walkway overlooking factories and auto repair shops? HaLechem shel Tomer:



I often think that Jane Jacobs would have approved of the Talpiot Industrial Area -- not necessarily its lack of a residential element, but certainly its vitality and the spontaneity and naturalness with which the area developed its diverse mix of commercial uses. By contrast, I don't think she would too impressed by the grandiose plans currently in place for Jerusalem's entrance area. She liked development from the bottom up, not top-down "strategic planning."

TLC for the TIA

All this being said, there are areas where Talpiot could stand a little tender loving care. Not overbearing strategy, but some minor tweaking -- preferably driven by those who use the area -- merchants and shoppers.

Here's my wish list:

-- A little bit of regulation to ensure appropriate pedestrian access to shopping areas. Talpiot is home to two malls (Hadar and Achim Yisrael) that are pedestrian-friendly, meaning that they have regular street-front entrances -- and to two other malls (Rav Chen and Lev Talpiot) that are entirely pedestrian-hostile (you basically take your life into your hands trying to get into them on foot). There ought to be municipal ordinances regulating this issue.

-- Get some kind of substantial green public space in there. We're talking about a major commercial hub -- surely the level of human traffic in the area justifies the creation of a modest park. There's currently nowhere in the TAI where you can take a break from shopping to just sit and get some fresh air, or bring your kids to decompress between errands. What's more, there is no existing venue that can accomodate the kind of public events (e.g.,concerts, speeches, fairs) that one would normally expect to find in a bustling urban commercial district.

There are still some parcels in the TIA that are undeveloped/in development, and which the Municipality apparently has earmarked for "higher-tech" industries [תעשיות מתקדמות יותר] than those currently served by the area (though, thankfully, not in an aggressively "strategic" way). IMHO, anyone who wants to build an office tower in the TIA should be required to incorporate some kind of open green space into the plans -- a small park, or a plaza with a funky fountain. It's by no means far-fetched to expect Talpiot-area developers to provide the public with some amenities. That's what's happening, after all, with the upscale high-rise projects under development in downtown Jerusalem.

-- Relatedly: There are a few strips of neglected green/shady space along Pierre Koenig -- between the Hatenufa and Tzeret intersections (i.e., between the old Triumph building and the Carmel/Beitili building), and across from the Hadar Mall:



These strips could, perhaps, be upgraded into small promenades or pocket parks
. Why not make something of the little bit of nature that already exists in the TIA? Instead of allowing people to jam their cars between the trees along the Hatenufa-Tzeret strip ...



... why not fence the strip off from the adjacent parking lot and cultivate it a bit, install a bench or two and a couple of small animal-shaped climbing structures? These green strips always look to me like wasted opportunities.

-- Put some sane limits on outdoor advertising in the area:



The intersection of Pierre Koenig-Poalei Tzedek does not have to be a billboard-fest. Hasn't it occurred to anyone that drivers rounding the traffic circle there don't need any more visual distractions than they already have?



Also, what's with those tall advertising "stalks" lining the street in front of the Hadar Mall? When the mall first went up a decade or so ago I thought they were temporary installations meant to inform the public about what stores they could find inside. Nobody needs them now -- we all know what's in there. They create a tacky, carnival-like atmosphere along the street:



Replace the advertising stalks and those stunted potted trees with some shrubbery and some real trees that give shade! The building set-back is pretty large; one would expect more greenery in front of it. Sounds like a good formula to me -- replace billboards with trees!

The items on my wish-list are point-specific things that, I think, could be accomplished without turning the Talpiot Industrial Area into a "strategic project," or doing away with the grit, grunge and spontaneity that make the place loveable and fun to spend time in. All that's needed is recognition on the Municipality's part that the area is a legitimate urban commercial center, one that attracts a large and diverse local population, and is therefore entitled to appropriate municipal services.

4 comments:

Molly said...

Great post and very enlightening! Since the destruction of the city center, thanks to the light rail, I haven't been Downtown in a while. I finally went down there and I agree with you...to me the place is fake pretty. Sure there is a new huge beautiful building that houses the Mashbir...but the old department store building sits empty and dilapidated...what's with that? Nowadays I also hit up Talpiot for everything. In fact I just paid homage to the little industrial zone with a music video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nk2qRhj4yPs. Enjoy and thanks for reading our blog, we enjoyed yours!!

Julie@walkablejlm said...

Cute ... I'll definitely be humming this as I go about my Talpiot errands ...

יאיר said...

So poetic - it really made me sad, partly because as far as I know TIA is on the drawing board, and probably won't retain for long the qualities you illustrate.

Secondary commercial centers are great (I also enjoy going to TIA), and definitely have a role in city life. But it's not new or hipster urbanism nor nostalgic, to want to keep them secondary, or at least specializing. The idea of a strong main center goes back to the 19th century.

One last word - As said, I also go to TIA (and to Malcha Kanion and other centers I see as counterproductive citywise), but I never see people using its sidewalks like pedestrians. Most of the people I see there are walking to or from their car. It says something, doesn't it?

And thanks for letting me know about your blog!

Julie@walkablejlm said...

Yair, thank you for your detailed comment.
I'm a little unclear as to the kind of "specialization" that's being planned for the TIA. Based on what I've read, there is an effort underway to encourage high-tech activity in the area, which I suppose means large office buildings. Don't people who work in high tech want a decent place to shop and a variety of eateries to choose from during their lunch hour? A multiplicity of services so they can conveniently run errands during and after their work day?
I'm not sure what you mean about using the TIA sidewalks "like pedestrians." I'm sure lots of people walk into the area from Baka, Katamon and Arnona, and run multiple errands there on foot. I don't live walking distance to the TIA, but I will often park my car in Baka near a favorite playground, let my daughter play there for a while, and then walk into Talpiot to shop.
Street life isn't just about sitting at chic cafe tables and sipping frappachinos; it's about people going about their business -- and there's plenty of that going on in Talpiot.
My point, though, was that if the area were granted some legitimacy as a commercial center, things could be softened and prettified a bit, so as to enhance the pedestrian experience.