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Shopping Sprawl

Are Israel’s suburban malls destroying its urban centers?

Daniella Cheslow
August 25, 2009
Udi, the Gecko Cafe proprietor, has struggled to draw customers to his location in Beer Sheva’s Old City.(Daniella Cheslow)
Udi, the Gecko Cafe proprietor, has struggled to draw customers to his location in Beer Sheva’s Old City.(Daniella Cheslow)

Shachar Udi remembers kicking back beers in the Schnapps Bar, located on the pretty stone-paved Smilansky Street in the Old City of Beer Sheva, when he had the idea to open a watering hole of his own. By the time he began drafting a business plan two years ago, Schnapps and most other businesses in the narrow alleys and low buildings of the Old City were gone, their customers drawn to new malls cropping up around Beer Sheva. Udi and his business partner rented the space that once was the Schnapps and converted it into a spacious restaurant with a coffee roaster in the back. They called it the Gecko Café, and it has now become one of the hundreds of small businesses in classic, European-inspired Israeli downtowns trying to hold the line against an onslaught of American-style suburban development. In the 14 months it’s been open, the Gecko has become an air-conditioned haven for tourists, students, and professors from Ben-Gurion University, two-and-a-half miles to the north. But Udi said drawing people into the Old City is a struggle. “It’s a very central area,” Udi said. “But the fact that there is nothing to do here prevents people from coming. People come here specifically for one place—to us or to Ahuzat Smilansky,” a neighboring restaurant. But mostly, he said, “they don’t come to the Old City because the activity is on the outskirts of Beer Sheva.”

Beer Sheva, also known as the capital of the Negev and home to 186,000 Israelis, is representative of a wider trend in suburban development in Israel, which is fast becoming the California of the Middle East in terms of commercial real estate. Until the 1990s, the Israel Land Administration locked away nearly all non-urban land as agricultural, with stiff restrictions for building on it. But after a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived that decade, the ILA softened the rules. By 2004, 121 exurbs, called “community settlements,” were up and running, served by gas stations, supermarkets, and shopping centers built legally and illegally on farmland. Israel’s first mall went up in a Tel Aviv suburb in 1986. Today, 145 enclosed shopping centers and malls are listed on the online directory And mall construction may soon accelerate thanks to a controversial reform passed in early August that will sell off some 200,000 acres of state-owned land (about three percent of Israel’s total area) to private developers—a likelihood that most local shopkeepers in more central urban districts aren’t happy about.

David Cohen, 57, opened a shoe repair shop 18 years ago on JNF Street in Beer Sheva’s Old City. “Twenty-five years ago, this was really a fabulous place,” he said from his shop, where belts hung from the ceiling brushed his black cap. “It was the only real center of the city, with banks, cinemas, and bars. It was hard to even find a store to open a business in.” But when the first mall went up, Cohen said, people started going there instead. “Then they built another one on Shaul Hamelech Street. Then they built the Avia mall. Now, instead of a midrachov (sidewalk) it’s a metrechov (deadwalk).”

City spokesman Amnon Yosef said that Beer Sheva poured 40 million shekels, the equivalent of $10.5 million, into the Old City in the past two years for preservation purposes. “There are amazing historic sites from the British and Ottoman eras; Abraham’s Well is here.” Yosef said. All summer, he added, the municipality sponsored a Wednesday street festival on Smilansky Street and a Monday evening concert series on the lawn of the charming stone Negev Museum. There is also a plan, he said, to build 500 residential units in town. Still, parts of the street grid have been torn up for months during an endless municipal repaving project. The young, short trees along the sidewalks are no match for the withering summer heat, and on nights without festivals and concerts the streets are eerily quiet. Beer Sheva’s eighth mall is under construction on the city’s western edge. “These are the powers of the market,” Yosef said.

The BIG Shopping Centers, an Israeli chain of malls that build on the outskirts of cities and at highway junctions, are surely a testament to that power. The first BIG went up, with its bright red and blue signage, on retired industrial land at the eastern edge of Beer Sheva in 1997. The seven acres of retail space, served by 1,400 parking spots, was soon joined by two more big-box complexes and a rambling Tiv Taam supermarket. BIG’s founder, Yehuda Naftali, absorbed mall culture while living in California. “Little Israel learns all sort of things from Los Angeles,” said Hay Galis, the vice president of operations at BIG, in a phone interview. “When Yehuda returned from the States 15 years ago, he thought that if these shopping centers give a convenient answer to American consumers in L.A., he could bring the model to Israel.”

Indeed, the similarity in architecture and style is uncanny. In aerial photos, BIG Beer Sheva’s enormous shopping complex resembles a series of white flat-roofed rectangles floating on an asphalt sea. On the ground, the lot is full of cars. Pole-mounted speakers blare sales announcements and pop music across the asphalt. Expansive stores carry endless lines of cell phones, towels, home furnishings, books, and coffee, far more than what is on offer in the Old City.

Galis denied that BIG is damaging the Old City. He said the company is just answering to the changing desires of the Israeli consumer. “What killed the city centers was the lack of investment from the municipalities,” Galis said. “Our customer wants parking and accessibility, and that the stores will be new, and the sidewalk clean and comfortable instead of broken. The municipalities didn’t know how to properly invest in their infrastructures.”

Many Old City businessmen agree. “What we want is to keep the culture of a street,” said Adir Ohayon, who manages the gourmet Ahuzat Smilansky restaurant next door to the Gecko. Ohayon said he calls Beer Sheva’s city hall every two days, “but everybody we appeal to, for reductions in property tax or other services—no one helps. Today we called to ask them to clean up the garbage, sweep the streets and plant new trees.” Yosef said in response that the city has offered free parking and tax breaks, but that turning the area around takes time.

Israeli architect and urban planner Yodan Rofe sees in Israel a reminder of other sprawling regions. “The BIG is horrible,” said Rofe, who works at the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Sde Boker in the Negev. “It’s the 1950s style of the U.S. A big parking lot surrounded with shit.” Five years ago, Rofe co-founded Merhav: The Movement for Israeli Urbanism to encourage city development around pedestrians and public transportation. “Israel has some similarities with the Bay Area,” said Rofe. “There’s a strong city in the center—in Israel it’s Tel Aviv, population 350,000, the same as San Francisco’s. And it’s becoming a sprawling metropolis.”

While Beer Sheva residents may lament the unsightliness of big malls, they admit that there’s really no shopping alternative. Pastry chef Doron Degen, 35, said that BIG helps him keeps his three toddlers in check when he goes to the pharmacy, nature store, and supermarket. “It’s not so much a question of the malls, but of what else is there? When people want to do something in Beer Sheva, they go to BIG. If they want a drink, they go to Draft Bar. If they want to eat they go there too.”

Amiram Gonen, a Hebrew University geographer and a suburban expert worries that Israel is entering the Golden Age of Sprawl. “Large tracts of lands are available far away from the city,” Gonen said, “which means that the distant, environmentally important pieces of land will be able to be sold in one big block.” The developers who buy the land, according to Gonen, are looking to build up whole quarters or towns—not just single-site edifices.

Rofe said he hopes that with the right investment, the Old City will beat the large-scale retail at Beer Sheva’s edge. He added that since so many Israelis still do not have private cars, the old-style city centers have a chance. “I think most downtowns are hurting in relative terms, but they are still surviving in absolute terms” Rofe said. “We did research on pedestrian walkways in Kfar Saba, Ra’anana, and Ramat Hasharon,” well-off cities around Tel Aviv. There are still quite a lot of people going to these centers, and normally on foot or with public transportation.” But maintaining this balance will require investment from the cities, he warned. Otherwise, “Israel is making the same mistakes the United States made ten years ago, and with a lot less space to waste.”

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.