Saturday, June 13

Preserving Herzl Street

Can urban renewal work? For Americans of the late twentieth century, there are few words more discredited than "urban renewal". This phrase, once innocent and hopeful, was battered to death by years of generously funded, well-intentioned government programs. The mistakes and unfortunate guesses inherent in the plan were discovered and made public only after years of implementation, first by the clarion voice of Jane Jacobs, and eventually by wide consensus. It is safe to say that many years will pass before planners in the U.S. will again dare to present plans that raze city blocks and streets in order to replace them with evenly spaced residential towers.

Strangely, this unfortunate history did not stop Israel's Housing Ministry from naming their flagship urban densification program "Urban Renewal" or in Hebrew, התחדשות עירונית.

Championed for the past 10 years by planner Sophia Aldor of the Ministry, this program seeks to renew built areas in Israel's cities by radically increasing the density of residential units on specific sites. For each apartment vacated by the current owners or tenants, 3 to 6 expanded units will be built, this time with parking, elevators, and obligatory safe rooms. When the towers are in place, the original tenants will be invited back in, and the remaining apartments will provide profit for the builders.

This process - evacuating tenants and rebuilding - gives these projects their more popular name "Pinuy-Binuy" or "Empty and Build". Seen in a larger context, these projects preserve the open green spaces beyond cities, by adding value to the "grey" space within the city and making it possible for developers to add more housing without breaking new ground.

Our office is now working on an urban renewal project in the center of Rehovot, on the corner of Binyamin and Herzl. This project is funded by the Ministry of Housing and administered by the City of Rehovot, and their engineering department. Our goal is to create useful and beautiful urban space within the confines of a technically oriented program of densification. We have the strong advantage of proximity to open spaces at the heart of the city, and the mandate to integrate some of the nearby cultural institutions of the city.

On the other hand, the prevailing design approach of the Rehovot engineering department is decidedly non-urban. A plan for isolated tower blocks would sail through the bureaucracy smoothly, while we struggle to define street walls, hierarchies, and urban spaces.

I'll be documenting our progress here as we continue to design.