In the wake of the recent catastrophic earthquakes in Japan, a story of urban renewal brings hope for developers and residents. They attempt to implement a building scheme that encourages refurbishing dilapidated apartment buildings to withstand earthquakes.
The National Master Plan 38 (NMP 38) was introduced in Israel in 2005 to strengthen buildings built prior to 1980 as a measure to reduce earthquake damage. According to the scheme, the developer has the ability to build new units on the top of the building and the income received will help fund the refurbishment works to the rest of the building.
Thank you to Nir Golan for advising The Planning Boardroom of this interesting building scheme and also for sending this article. If you would like to also suggest an article please email me at email@example.com
By Shany Littman
Source: The Marker
It started off like a fairy tale: One fine morning, two nice young architects showed up at a dilapidated 1960s-era building with tiny apartments, bearing wonderful-sounding promises. The apartments would be doubled in size. The building would get an elevator, a fancy lobby and parking spaces, and its façade will be covered in marble. And, most importantly, the building would be able to withstand the earthquake that will inevitably come.
Some residents imagined their lives changing inside out. Instead of a moldy kitchen, a cooking area complete with the latest accoutrements. The minuscule living room would become a spacious guest room, the kids crowded who-knows-how-many into a room would be able to grow up with a modicum of privacy. And, most importantly, the value of the apartment would skyrocket.
But when it got down to details, things got complicated.
A young filmmaking duo, Vered Yeruham and Oren Reich, describe what happened in their documentary “23 Naphtali St.” The film is about an apartment building in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, and follows its residents over the course of four years.
Reich’s brother, Yotam, and his partner at Tema Architects, Pery Hamam, had had their eye on the building for six years. It is an enormous row-style tenement that was built in the early 1960s to house new immigrants. The three-story building has seven entrances and 56 apartments. The average apartment is 47 square meters, and some are even smaller.
There is a large front yard, neglected and full of weeds. Though unappealing, residents spend a lot of time here, to escape their cramped apartments. Out back is a massive unused area – doubtless enticing to developers, who can envisage the giant potential of the expensive tracts of land just lying there.
The building’s location is in stark contrast to its appearance. Naphtali Street straddles the line between the German Colony and Baka, both classy Jerusalem neighborhoods. Four-room apartments in Baka go for around NIS 1.8 million, and prices in the German Colony can soar to more than NIS 2 million. Emek Refa’im Street, the heart of the German Colony, is lined with restaurants, cafes and shops and is one of the capital’s entertainment and commercial centers.
Hamam and Yotam Reich wanted to get the building renovated with the residents’ cooperation. The contractors would receive building rights on the roof in exchange for renovating and expanding the existing apartments.
The architects had not initially been thinking in terms of National Master Plan 38 – a plan for bringing buildings up to earthquake safety codes that the government approved only later. But then the Construction and Housing Ministry allocated a preliminary budget for planning, and the Jerusalem Municipality declared the building’s renovation a pilot project.
In all the excitement over the perks that often accompany renovations under NMP-38 – a larger property, parking and elevator – the object of the plan is often forgotten: shoring up old buildings to survive earthquakes.
In the greater Tel Aviv area, several dozen such projects are underway, and dozens more are awaiting clearance by regional planning committees. But most run into bureaucratic and planning problems. The main difficulty, even before applying for building permits, is getting all the residents to agree.
It was precisely this obstacle that led Yeruham and Reich to conclude that the story of the building at 23 Naphtali St. contained a human drama that would make for a fascinating film.
“The architects’ idea was essentially to replace urban renewal projects,” which involve razing the building completely, explained Oren Reich. “They thought they would be empowering the residents. It was clear that building rooftop apartments would bring in a lot of money, with which they could double the size of [existing residents'] apartments and also reinforce the building against earthquakes. They envisioned the residents being a party to this.
“My brother and his partner were positive people would be blown away, but surprisingly, not everyone was over the moon. Some just asked a lot of questions, and others told them, ‘You’re just coming to take advantage of us.’”
Edna Mor, an architect who has designed many NMP-38 renovations, said the suspiciousness the architects encountered is typical of many such projects, which get mired in what she termed “greed.”
“In Ra’anana, I dealt with a building where we offered the whole package, including enlarging the apartments, and they wanted more and more and more,” she said. “It wasn’t enough for them. Some people think that unless they make demands, they’ll be suckers.
“We had a case of a relatively small building in Tel Aviv with two apartments per story, eight households in all. The occupant on the top floor wanted to add another floor, on which he would build two rooftop apartments. The other residents said they wanted him to build them mamadim [rooms reinforced to serve as bomb shelters]. We said that this was impossible under Tel Aviv’s master plan, but we would make the [building's] bomb shelter, which according to the Home Front Command suffices for the number of occupants in the building, usable. One resident said, ‘But my friend in Ramat Gan got a mamad’ and persuaded everyone else to object, so the project died. They don’t realize that Ramat Gan’s municipal regulations are different from those in Tel Aviv.”
The residents of Naphtali Street proved to be old hands who had already tried, unsuccessfully, to renovate their apartments under various schemes over the years. “It turns out this was the third round for this building,” Reich said. “The residents were seasoned veterans and incredulous. They had been sold dreams twice before.”
Yeruham and Reich had thought to tell a Cinderella story about a rundown building that was turned into luxury housing, and the impact it had on the people living there.
“If you build elevators, then the condominium association fees can’t remain NIS 20 a month,” Reich said. “So a type of selection emerges. Not everyone can pay.”
But plans are one thing, reality another. It soon became clear that the initial opposition the well-intentioned architects encountered would not be easily brushed aside.
The film opens with the struggle of Adaya Distelman, the energetic chairwoman of the condo association, to obtain the necessary number of signatures for executing the renovations. Distelman works her way through all 56 apartments. Some owners won’t even open their doors.
Distelman does not deny that the thought of making the building earthquake-proof was not at the forefront of her mind when the dream was hatched. “I want a bigger home,” she said. “It’s a teensy apartment. You can’t live like this. I have two daughters. The eldest no longer lives at home and the younger one is 14. It’s awfully hard. Bella, another resident who appears in the film, has four kids. They’re really in bad shape.”
“Once the residents grasped that we weren’t conning them and that what we were offering was truly possible, all of a sudden they said, ‘Then why add only 45 meters per apartment?’” said Yotam Reich. “Suddenly they wanted more.
“One of our biggest arguments was over the elevators. We wanted to install big elevators that would be wheelchair accessible. But the stairwell landing is small, so the elevators had to be external. We designed an elevator that would be embedded in the expansion, but that meant the apartments would have two entrances, one from the landing and another from the elevator. The residents wanted an elevator on the landing and a single entrance, and they brought in consultants who showed this was feasible. We had endless arguments about this.
“Additionally, there were some who forgot that an elevator only goes straight up, in a vertical line, and wanted the elevator to reach a different room in their apartment. It was very difficult to explain that this is impossible.”
A new dream appears
Distelman managed with great effort to obtain the signatures of the requisite two-thirds of all residents. But then, when it seemed like work was about to commence, a new fantasy cropped up: a brand-new building.
At the initiative of some residents who opposed the plan, a contractor appeared with two magic words: urban renewal. Urban renewal also requires cooperation between developers and residents, but it involves having the residents vacate the old buildings, which are razed. New buildings then go up in their place, and the residents receive new apartments or their monetary equivalent. The developers rent substitute housing for the residents in the interim.
The incentive for residents is new and bigger apartments. The developer gets the right to build additional stories, which makes the investment worthwhile.
But if NMP-38 projects have a hard time getting off the ground because a majority of residents must give their consent, urban renewal plans face even greater obstacles. Residents are afraid of leaving home for an unknown length of time and worry about the developer going bankrupt and leaving them penniless. Moreover, they know that building from scratch will likely alter their quality of life dramatically. The new buildings are usually taller and bigger, which means more neighbors and higher maintenance costs.
The number of signatures needed to get the ball rolling is also different. NMP-38 requires the consent of 66% of the residents. In urban renewal projects, even if 80% consent, that merely entitles them to sue the objectors for compensation. It’s no wonder that only one urban renewal project has been completed in Israel to date.
The people behind the idea of urban renewal for 23 Naphtali St. were actually residents who had no voting rights in the matter either way, because they do not own the apartments they live in. The “rebels” occupied apartments managed by the public housing company Prazot (Jerusalem’s equivalent to Amidar ). About a fifth of the building’s residents are Prazot clients.
Reich and Yeruham described the scene where urban renewal representatives come to the building as the height of absurdity. That evening brought recognition that their film would not capture the new building sparkling in the Jerusalem sun. Cinderella would stay in her tattered dress.
“The urban renewal folks promised the residents things on an insane scale,” Reich said. “They said they would tear down the building and also the building opposite, and pay to relocate them anywhere they liked in Jerusalem for two years, in rental apartments that would be one and a half times bigger than their current ones. Plus they would receive a bank guarantee for one and a half times the value of their apartment. And after two years, they would come back to luxury apartments straight out of a picture postcard.”
The residents did not let facts get in their way. “At one meeting, the city engineer came and explained to them that the municipality would never approve urban renewal there,” Reich said. “He told them it’s not really an option. It made no difference to them. They didn’t get that he even had a say in it. They didn’t believe him. They thought he just came to bum them out, that he had some stake in this. Instead of listening to him, they thought could demand more and more stuff from the contractor.
Reich and Yeruham had the frustration of documenting a process that was stuck.
“This is a film that deals with the way human weaknesses trip us up,” Reich said. “Some people were angry that the elevators would reverse the apartments’ relative value, because whoever lives on the third or fourth floor would suddenly have an apartment worth more than his first-floor neighbor’s. They ran calculations on everything and wanted to be compensated. These are people nobody was interested in before, and suddenly they have this crazy power and can enter into negotiations from here to eternity.”
“I think of this in terms of getting a hat that grants three wishes,” Yeruham added. “Or like the fisherman and the magic goldfish, as one of the architects says at the end of the film: asking for more and more until finally they go back to the point where they began.”
Yotam Reich said the crawling pace at which the project moves ahead is not exceptional. “This repeats itself in every [NMP-38] project we do. I call them lifetime projects. The residents want you, and then kick you, and then come back to you.
“Now the project is coming back to life. A lawyer entered the picture who has already got the residents to sign. We have 66% consent. The application was resubmitted. I think it’ll work this time.
“The residents realized that urban renewal was no go. With the NMP, despite the inconvenience, you remain in your home, so it’s much easier to obtain consent. I just hope the earthquake doesn’t beat us to it.”