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Downtown merchants not digging the digging

by josh August 13 2008
City planningMunicipal newsShopping

All your merchants are belong to us

Downtown's main thoroughfare is officially a big balagan. The most central stretch of Jaffa Rd. has been narrowed by dividers to only accommodate one lane of traffic. In the past few days, a makeshift sidewalk in what used to be the middle of the street has been erected, in order to allow commuters to wait for their buses while intense digging takes place behind their backs.

The Jerusalem municipality and the transportation ministry's actual carrying out of a plan to build a light rail through the heart of Jerusalem has apparently blindsided Jaffa Rd. merchants, who last week found their shops located not in one of the busiest shopping areas of Jerusalem, but instead on a narrow one-way street where nobody would want to be.

Yes, it seems the construction of the Jerusalem light rail has hit the "all hell break loose" phase. Preparations for laying tracks are moving ahead full steam on Jaffa Rd., annoying commuters and angering merchants along the once bustling way, who say the construction will kill their livelihood, according to The Jerusalem Post.

"This morning they destroyed us," city store owner Shimon Malka said on Israel Radio. "There is nothing left for us to do here but pack up and go," he said, demanding that the city relocate businesses adversely affected by the construction for the next year and a half.

"This is ruining our business," concurred merchant Nissan Zuckerman. "We have no work because people are not coming to the city center. It is a catastrophe," he said.

An emergency meeting of city merchants Monday discussed possible legal measures against the city, including asking a court to issue a stop-work order or holding a district-wide strike, participants said.

In June, municipal opposition leader and mayoral candidate Nir Barkat confronted Mayor Uri Lupolianski about the merchants at least getting some just compensation, in the form of tax credits, for having to endure the near closure of their road. Lupolianski responded that the merchants did not even want compensation, an argument that probably doesn’t hold much water in light of their loud protestations last week.

In fact, the rift between Lupolianski and the downtown business owners only seems to be widening, not unlike holes in the asphalt, a meeting two days ago between the two parties descending into nasty shouting, finger-pointing, calls made to security forces and even fainting. It was almost as heated as a Knesset floor debate.

Merchants can rest easy knowing the Barkat stands a decent chance of taking over the mayorship in November. Getting a politician to keep to pre-election platitudes may be another story. Hopefully, the 2010 date set for the completion of the tracks will be kept, so long as they plan for where to put the dirt. Getting the rail lines complete will be an important step in untangling Jerusalem's clogged streets and making them more pedestrian- and neighborhood-friendly. Shoppers might flock to Talpiot or Malcha Mall instead of Jaffa Rd. for now, but for many merchants, the once-glorious thoroughfare is all they've got.

Photo of digging in downtown Jerusalem's Jaffa Rd. by Ben Jacobson for Jerusalemite.

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