Jerusalem buildings at center of Olmert scandal long seen as holy mess

McClatchy Foreign StaffApril 3, 2014 

— Accountant Dani Sarnat had a particular problem when Israeli police recommended investigating former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in connection with a bribery scandal surrounding a Jerusalem luxury apartment project called Holyland.

Sarnat lived in an eighth-floor apartment in the complex, which he¡¯d bought in no small part because one of the bathrooms had a picture window that overlooked the stone-clad buildings of south Jerusalem and the green hills outside Bethlehem. But the vista soon lost its charm.

¡°For the first few weeks, each day, about 40 or 50 buses of tourists were coming here,¡± he said. ¡°It was part of the city tour of Jerusalem. They were all looking at us, and we felt like we were in a zoo.¡±

Olmert, who¡¯d served as the mayor of Jerusalem when the original permits for the construction of Holyland were issued in 1996, was convicted Monday on bribery charges, along with nine other defendants, including another former mayor, Uri Lupolianski. Tel Aviv District Judge David Rosen found them guilty of accepting bribes that had allowed the complex to balloon far beyond its initial building allowance, in what he called ¡°corrupt and filthy practices.¡±

The judge will sentence Olmert at the end of this month. But the residents of Jerusalem had long ago judged the Holyland project ¨C as a reviled eyesore.

Olmert ¡°is the only corrupt person in Israel who leaves behind his corruption a physical architectural monument,¡± said David Kroyanker, an architect who¡¯s written more than 100 books and articles about the history of Jerusalem¡¯s buildings. His assessment of Holyland, which was planned as two sets of five multistory apartment buildings connected by pedestrian bridges and two high-rise towers, is scathing.

¡°It¡¯s not in the scale of its location,¡± he said, a reference to the small plot of land the complex occupies. ¡°It¡¯s not in the scale of Jerusalem,¡± he said, a city where nearly all buildings are low-rise and more modest. And the design? ¡°The architecture is lousy,¡± he said, dismissively. ¡°All these towers connected with these ridiculous bridges.¡±

What will become of the complex now is anyone¡¯s guess. Construction has stopped, with 642 apartments finished of the 1,000 originally approved for the site. Michal Arbel, a spokeswoman for the Kardan company, which owns a 30 percent stake in the project, said all but four of the finished apartments had been sold.

From a distance, Holyland dominates the skyline, but up close it¡¯s a mix of sparkling luxury and surprising neglect.

In Sarnat¡¯s building, a soothing waterfall greets residents in the lobby. The elevator to the parking lot is made of glass, to allow for breathtaking views of Jerusalem. His own apartment has six bedrooms and five balconies, including a sundeck, a rooftop garden and a balcony off one of his two sons¡¯ bedrooms.

Outside, however, there¡¯s no way to ignore that the site is unfinished and unlikely ever to be completed. Holyland was planned to have 12 buildings, but only eight were constructed before the scandal erupted in 2010. Workers dug a foundation pit for a ninth, which remains open. Sarnat said the summer winds blow the dirt all over his home. The sales office, long closed, is in disrepair, with rubbish on the rooftop and cats prowling around the back of the property.

A spokesman for the Jerusalem municipality wrote McClatchy that the city is working on canceling the rest of the planned buildings. The municipality also sued Holyland¡¯s developers last October over alleged tax fraud.

The development has been controversial almost from the moment the city approved a project on the site, which before had held a modest hotel.

Naomi Tsur, who would serve as Jerusalem¡¯s deputy mayor from 2008 to 2013, was early to file an objection to the Holyland plan as the head of the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel in 1996. ¡°My main complaint was that it was too much, too high a percentage of building rights for the area concerned, and the plan also included the possibility of adding additional levels,¡± she said.

Tsur said there were no building codes at the time for the hill where Holyland sits; however, the plan was unusual in its vagueness.

After the initial plan was approved, several revisions changed the project dramatically. Holyland was supposed to include three hotel buildings; they were gradually replaced with residential towers, which grew taller with several revisions.

The corruption case against Olmert, which police began investigating in 2010, showed that these revisions were aided by bribery. The case centered on businessman Shmuel Dechner, who turned state¡¯s witness and admitted delivering millions of shekels to decision makers. Judge Rosen found that Dechner had made generous contributions to Olmert¡¯s election campaign, political colleagues and Olmert¡¯s brother, Yossi.

Graphic artist Eitam Tubul captured the zeitgeist in a 2010 political campaign poster he designed for a local party. In it, he rearranged the Holyland towers to show an obscene gesture.

¡°Jerusalem is full of wonderful buildings that are known all over the world, and then suddenly you have this block that you can¡¯t describe as anything but a middle finger,¡± he said.

One of Holyland¡¯s early designers was the late star architect Ram Karmi, who left the project well before it was built. In a 2010 interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Karmi said, ¡°those who carried it out murdered my concept and the buildings I planned.¡±

Kroyanker said Jerusalemites should be grateful for the city¡¯s hilly topography.

¡°Holyland is on the outskirts of the city,¡± Kroyanker said. ¡°It does not influence downtown. If the whole topography of Jerusalem would be a flat surface, like Tel Aviv, it would be different. You could see it from anywhere.¡±

Jerusalem is far from the only city in Israel whose mayor or former mayors are embroiled in charges of corruption, nepotism and fraud. Legal commentator Moshe Negbi pointed to the heads of Bat Yam, Ramat Hasharon and Ramat Gan, all near Tel Aviv, along with Upper Nazareth.

¡°I don¡¯t remember a time when there were so many corruption cases against mayors,¡± Negbi said.

Negbi said Israeli mayors held tremendous power to approve or deny building permits, leaving a clear path for builders to buy zoning variances.

Sarnat said he and his wife were planning to move; he said his children had grown and his apartment was too big for him. He said the scandal around Holyland had undoubtedly reduced his apartment¡¯s value, but he bought it 12 years ago at a relatively low price _ the equivalent of $800,000 _ during the time Jerusalem suffered daily attacks during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Michal Harel, an agent with Israel¡¯s largest real-estate firm, Anglo-Saxon, estimated that Sarnat¡¯s property would sell today for at least $1.3 million.

In the meantime, Sarnat said, life in the building is good.

¡°My sister-in-law said to me, ¡®Are you crazy to live there? It¡¯s a wound in the environment,¡¯ ¡± Sarnat said. ¡°I told her the only place in the city where you don¡¯t see this wound is here, when you live in it.¡±

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.¡¡

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