War over vacating most expensive land in Israel

Sde Dov airport in the north of Tel Aviv, which serves hundreds of thousands of travelers in domestic flights every year, will soon close to benefit real estate ventures that will change the face of the city.

al-monitor The Mediterranean Sea coast and a runway of Tel Aviv's Sde Dov Airport are seen from a helicopter, Tel Aviv, Israel, July 20, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool.

May 31, 2019

In about a month, on June 30, the last airplane will take off from Sde Dov airport in north Tel Aviv, serving mostly flights to and from Eilat in the south of Israel. Nearly 81 years after it was established by the British, in September 1938, Sde Dov will take another significant step toward turning into one of the most exclusive residential and leisure complexes in Israel, on the Tel Aviv beach. The planned development, which was approved in February by the committee for preserving the coastal environment, and was submitted to public disagreement in April, sprawls over 2,500 dunam (618 acres), and would include 16,000 housing units, 6,900 of which would be affordable housing, and 514,000 square meters (127 acres) of public buildings, 126,000 square meters (31 acres) of commercial buildings, 323,000 square meters (80 acres) of industry, 200,000 square meters (49 acres) of hotels and 385 dunam (95 acres) of parks and public gardens. 

Sde Dov is the last open space left in Tel Aviv. As long as it has been used as an airport, the city could not expand northward. For a city struggling with a serious housing shortage and high real estate prices, it would seem that the plan should have been applauded, but in reality there are some who see it as a terrible idea and a threat, including the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, who believes that closing the airport is a “miserable decision.” He has been trying to promote an alternative plan that includes leaving the airport in operation and reducing construction at the site.   

“This airport is used by the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Its closing would severely harm the mobility of area residents," one of the leaders of the opposition to the project, social activist Roy Mimran, told Al-Monitor. He runs a Facebook group called "Preserve Sde Dov.” He said, “New construction would make the city denser, when it already suffers from a population explosion and would create transportation chaos. In addition, the giant towers would destroy the skyline of many city residents, would harm the air quality in neighborhoods and would harm the health of area residents. It’s not too late to cancel the venture.”    

The opposition to closing Sde Dov airport is relatively new. As early as 1961 the Tel Aviv municipality demanded the airport to be closed, with the support of residents who saw it as a nuisance. Later, the date of its closure was set for Sept. 1, 1967. At the same time, the state started selling some of its land to private developers who sought to build on it once the airport shut down. But as the years passed, the date of its closure was postponed again and again and the number of flights arriving and departing increased. In the first 11 months of 2018, for instance, there was an increase of 5% in the number of travelers using Sde Dov to fly to Eilat and back — more than 720,000 passengers. 

In the meantime, the landholders — about 2,000 private owners — have grown impatient. An agreement was signed between the landholders and the state in 2007. The owners agreed to give up 50% of their rights to build and their demand of compensation for the state’s use of the land they own, in exchange for vacating the airport and advancing the real estate ventures, with the notion that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. According to the landholders, the rights they ceded are worth more than 5 billion Israeli shekels (roughly $1.4 billion).

Despite the concession, Mimran believes that the venture is a surrender to the tycoons. “This grandiose project will serve the tycoons and hurt Tel Aviv residents,” he said. “For their concession they received larger construction percentages in the remaining land. If it weren’t for [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, this plan would have been tossed in the trash long ago. According to a report we received, Kahlon met with some landholders not long before the [April 9] election. A few days later [April 3] the plan was submitted to the regional committee.” 

On the other side, there are some who are convinced that the opponents of the plan have their own financial calculations. “The opponents have social considerations, but they are also financial,” said Danny Ben-Shahar, professor of Real Estate Finance at the Faculty of Management at Tel Aviv University and director of the Alrov Institute for Real Estate Research. He told Al-Monitor, “Tel Aviv is the richest city in Israel, and like shareholders of a successful company its residents are not eager to increase the number of shares and to share their wealth with others. Many Tel Aviv residents, including me, for instance, have been spoiled by an airport close to home. But that doesn’t justify taking up such expensive land, when Ben-Gurion International Airport is just 20 kilometers [12 miles] away.”

“These are people who would want to see Tel Aviv as it was once, a hipster city with four-story buildings and parks. They don’t want to see huge neighborhoods of giant towers that would turn it into a city like Toronto today,” Ben-Shahar added. “A project like Sde Dov is part of a trend that has gradually changed the planning fabric of the city.”

Despite this, Ben-Shahar supports the project, conditioned on the proper preparation of infrastructure in the area. “I think there’s no option but to accept this change,” he noted. “We must suit ourselves to the needs of the present millennium. Around the world we see a trend of clearing out factories and airports — large consumers of land that sit on valuable lands, for the sake of housing and offices.” According to Ben-Shahar, it’s an excellent opportunity to open up the city to diverse populations. “It’s important to use the expansion of the city in order to maintain the heterogeneity of residents by means of affordable housing plans, so that there’s no exclusion of weaker populations that would expand the inequality that’s already widespread.”

The issue of inequality and harm to weaker populations is also the cause of opponents of the project. One of the main arguments against closing the airport is the fact that it now functions as a vital connection for residents of the periphery, which lacks infrastructure for jobs, culture, commerce, higher education and medical treatment. According to opponents, closing the airport would increase inequality.

Heading the opposition to the plan are residents of Eilat. “Sde Dov is the connection of the city of Eilat to the world, to Tel Avivian civilization,” the mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, told Al-Monitor. “There are close to a million travelers on the Eilat-Sde Dov route every year — a majority of them city residents. There are more than a hundred patients [Eilat residents] who fly to Tel Aviv for medical treatment every day. There are many doctors who come to Eilat from Tel Aviv every day, and tons of tourism that contributes to the city on this route. Closing the airport would be a death blow to the city.” 

Halevi argues that closing the airport would have serious ramifications in terms of human lives, as tourists will be encouraged to drive to Eilat. “The State of Israel is taking down domestic air traffic and burdening the roads, which are already the most congested among OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries. What’s even scarier is that more than a million people would travel on the bloody road that leads to Eilat and the number of accidents will rise. What’s happening here is idiotic.” 

Halevi believes that in this case big money is hurting the citizens. “It’s the most expensive piece of land in Israel and large forces are stirring this pot. People forget that the State of Israel wasn’t created for profit. If it’s all about money, we can shut down this country,” he concluded. 

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