Today's blogpost was written by Shira Zilberstein, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Rishon LeZion.
I hear older men whisper about it at the central vegetable stand. I saw a flyer for a two-year old art exhibition that engaged the theme. A local youth movement wants to use the concept as the basis for a new project. When I ask workers at the community center about “pinui binui”, “evacuation and construction”, Israel’s leading method of urban revitalization, they often roll their eyes.
In Ramat Eliyahu, a central-western neighborhood in Rishon LeZion, talk of “pinui binui” comes in whiffs with the wind. When founded in the 1930s, as residents of Tel Aviv and Jaffa fled south following the Great Arab Revolt, the neighborhood first existed as a remote haven. Cutoff from a city center and surrounded by sand, it built up slowly. From the 1950s onwards, waves of immigrants settled in the area, including Romanians, Russians, Yemenites and Ethiopians. In the 1960s and 1970s, when immigration accelerated, the government built cheap and fast railway houses to accommodate the population before permanent homes could be built. However, today, more than 2,600 of these “temporary” structures still remain. Plans for revitalization loom, and have loomed, for more than a decade now, but everyone-- residents, community members, developers, state employees, activists, lawyers—all remain conflicted and skeptical about courses of action.
“Ramat Eliyahu is going to be redeveloped soon out of necessity,” a neighborhood activist and longtime resident explained.
“Everyone talks about ‘helping’ Ramat Eliyahu. They know it needs investment,” agreed a resident of central Rishon LeZion.
Early efforts to redevelop Ramat Eliyahu began in 1995, when, to no avail, the municipal government tried to generate local income by merging the area with wealthier, neighboring communities. Since then, pinui binui has dominated the discourse. However, little agreement exists on on who would lead the project or what would be done.
In typical pinui binui models, developers lead projects to upgrade existing infrastructure. The Evacuation and Reconstruction Law, enacted in 1965, lays out the process in which residents sign contracts with developers to relocate to temporary housing, paid for by the developer, while their old buildings are rebuilt. Then, homeowners receive new, larger, upgraded apartments in their redeveloped buildings and developers get the rights to any additional homes and spaces created to generate a profit. In Ramat Eliyahu, two sets of private developers, Daniel Paz and Yosef Cohen of Advantage and Eli Levy of New Hope, each claim that they can effectively and efficiently carry out pinui binui projects and have been peddling contracts within the neighborhood for the past decade.
Given the scale, urgency, density and space complications of any project in Ramat Eliyahu, the municipality now wants to take control of redevelopment. Due to the neighborhood’s relatively low housing prices, the municipality claims that around 13,000 new apartments need to be built in order for pinui binui to be effective, but only 7,000 are possible. A bigger increase in density
requires a comprehensive plan to deal with transportation, education, environmental and employment needs.
The municipality’s plan involves using land in other areas of Rishon LeZion to absorb existing tenants. A special agreement with the State allows the municipality to sell supplementary land in the city at 16% of the land value to enable more than 2,000 homes to be built outside of Ramat Eliyahu. The plan involves the destruction of 2,400-2,6000 homes, the construction of 4,900 new units in Ramat Eliyahu and neighboring Nahalat Yehuda West, Nahalat Yehuda Illit, Narcissus and Nurit and the permanent relocation of about 1/3 of the existing population.
Complicating the municipality’s plan, some residents previously signed contracts with private developers, making it impossible for the State to take full control of that land and carry out their agenda. Additionally, no plans can go into effect until at least 80% of a building collectively agrees to either return to or leave the neighborhood. After years of stagnation, conflicting plans and empty promises, residents hesitate to trust any group. They feel pressured to make decisions, but see no desirable options. Residents complain that different plans “bullied” them into signing contracts, “erased the character of the neighborhood” or “cheated” them out of a good deal.
“Ramat Eliyahu has a big problem,” an artist-organizer in the neighborhood explained, noting that pinui binui projects bring environmental, cultural, physical and economic changes. They raise residents’ property taxes and maintenance fees, attract different types of businesses, create new community spaces and change patterns of life. “Residents could be demanding and organize to advocate for their needs and things like tax breaks, but they need a leader, knowledge and power to do that. Pinui binui projects only really work in places with lots of money and resources so residents can get the right lawyers and information and advocate. In Ramat Eliyahu, there is nobody to negotiate on behalf of the neighborhood. There is a problem of education and leadership.”
A survey conducted last year by a union of four national social action groups asked a sample of Ramat Eliyahu residents about their needs and desires. As a designer of the survey noted, “The survey found that people are confused and thinking individually. If they want to move, it is for themselves, so they can get out. If they want to stay, it is for themselves because they think they are going to be screwed over. There is no thinking about a community or an overall plan.”
At least most residents agree on one thing: amidst the maze of their Kafkaesque options, decisions and action will be coming soon. Whether plans proceed in favor of individuals, community, entrepreneurial or municipal interests, everyone remains wary.
An old building (L) in Ramat Eliyahu is juxtaposed by new high-rise buildings (R) that surround the neighborhood and are similar to the proposed structures for pinui binui.