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by michael September 11 2007
Municipal newsCity planningShoppingThings to do

It can be difficult to keep abreast of urban and cultural development in Jerusalem. Seemingly contrary to the city's timeless character, construction is constant, municipal planning ambitious and popular tastes fickle. Brand new housing tracts and businesses spring up quickly and cultural life flourishes and dies out in neighborhoods with surprising rapidity, all in deference to the dominant factor in Jerusalem city life: the trend. The trend rules all.

The trend dictates the sudden establishment of 10 Thai sandwich bars in the space of a few months, and oversees their equally sudden disappearance a couple years later. The trend instigates the abandonment of the identical dive dance bars of the Russian Compound, formerly Jerusalem's hottest night district, and the transfer of its center of gravity around the corner to the hip bar/restaurants of Shlomtzion Hamalka St. The trend spurs the municipality to distract city residents with a dizzying array of overambitious, poorly planned public projects whose finismamillaconstructionfrozen20012.jpghing dates charge ever more boldly into the distant future, from the as-yet-theoretical light rail to the elegantly overwrought bridge spanning one of the city's ugliest quadrants.

And lately, the trend is interested in upscale. And upscale ground zero is Mamilla, the neighborhood directly outside of the Old City's walls around the intersection of King David, King Solomon and Agron streets. Although objectively some of the most valuable property in the city, the neighborhood was rendered a largely uninhabitable "no man's land" between 1948 and 1967, due to threat of sniper fire from Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem, and the habitable parts became home to some of Jerusalem's least appealing urban blight. Not long after the 1967 war, however, the municipality began emptying out the neighborhood to prepare for a large-scale business and residential development. Enter the Mamilla Compound.

The municipality explains it thusly:

The style of the Mamilla project is meant to segue between the old and the new – between the alleys, domes, arches and courtyards of the Old City and the convenience and comfort of contemporary style, infrastructures and technology. The project is four-pronged: the David’s Citadel Hotel – the first part of the project – is standing and running; a large parking lot servicing Old City visitors is fully functional; the construction of a shopping center along the main thoroughfare has been a contested topic for several years and construction on it has recently resumed; and two residential projects are in various stages of completion and occupation. Terraced dwellings and a low profile afford most locations a view of the Old City walls, and precast units made of composite materials ensure that construction is of the highest and most up-to-date quality available. David’s Village is one of two residential quarters, and includes a large parking lot, a boulevard and a park.

It's true. The David Citadel Hotel, a megalithic study in Jerusalem stone, marble and soft lighting is open. The parking lot is open. And even David's Village is opened and occupied, although only nominally; many Jerusalem residents consider the Village, an ultra-expensive courtyard of luxury apartments, to be a failure, as it attracted chiefly rich foreign buyers who use the apartments as vacation residences, leaving the neighborhood a ghost town for most of the year.

And now, even the Mall is open, as of a few weeks ago, and after much controversy. Part of the master vision for Jerusalem's urban growth by Moshe Safdie, the Canadian architect notable for making many of the things he touches look like a set of blocks, the mall's construction was often stalled, victim to the insecurities of urban planners during the unstable early years of the millennium. The "Safdie Plan" for expanding metro-Jerusalem's residential areas suffered a major defeat recently when the slated construction of massive satellite neighborhoods in the Jerusalem forest to the west of the city was halted due to widespread environmentalist outcry.

But the Mall is open, and now it's merely a question of whether it will succeed. The entire Mamilla development relies on the assumption that Jerusalem can sustain a luxury shopping/residential area, which is far from given. The relative failure of David's Village raises doubts, and Jerusalem residents themselves are not noted for being spendthrifts. The livelihood of Mamilla thus revolves mostly around foreign visitors willing to drop large amounts of cash on luxury items and lodging. These visitors certainly exist - they are the city's lifeblood - but are there enough of them to make Mamilla flourish? Only time will tell....

Photo of the Mamilla project's construction site, with activity frozen in the fall of 2001, from the Jerusalemite/IT Magazine archives.

Photo of the Mamilla mall today by Ben Jacobson.

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