By Desmond Bentley
In the heart of modern Tel Aviv nestles an architectural throwback to the Holy Land’s pre-Zionist era. For the past half century, the buildings of Sarona, a 140-year-old Templer colony, served as government offices or part of the Israel Defense Forces’ Kirya headquarters.
Now the area is being converted into a contemporary “lifestyle center” combining luxury shopping with residential high-rises and cultural activities – while preserving the former agricultural colony’s unique character.
Some of the old buildings are being preserved in the Sarona project.
The Templers, a breakaway German Protestant sect with apocalyptic visions, sent hundreds of families to settle in the Holy Land in the 19th century to prepare for the Messiah’s coming. They founded outposts in the Galilee, Jerusalem, Haifa and at Sarona, on the road between Jaffa and Nablus. Beyond an ethos of hard work and self-sustainability, they brought with them an architectural style then unknown in the region: sturdy homes built of stone, with red-shingled instead of flat or domed roofs.
The entrepreneurs behind the new project were inspired by projects like Los Angeles’ famous The Grove, which was built on the ruins of an old farmers market.
“The concept goes far beyond the standard mall model,” explains Ofer Shachal, chairman of Ahuzot Hahof, the municipal company charged with coordinating the venture.
“The idea was to preserve some of the buildings for public use and others for commercial purposes, while giving the structures the respect they deserve. Sarona is not a museum – it’s going to be a lively, earthy area, with lots of gardens and green spaces for the general public to enjoy.”
It will also be free of cars. The public space will feature a constantly changing range of content and activities – concept markets rotating on fixed days, municipal events, festivals, cultural and musical events, an open cinema, modern art and more. In the children’s play area, safely distant from any road, youngsters will be able to frolic while their parents look on from surrounding cafés and restaurants.
Jaffa orange purveyors and Nazi sympathizers
This new multipurpose complex will be the latest twist in Sarona’s checkered history.
The original Sarona colonists focused on crops and products they could readily sell -- an economic innovation in an area where only subsistence farming was practiced. Few people know that the Templers were the first to market oranges under the Jaffa label.
British troops occupied Sarona in November 1917, and converted the community house into a field hospital. About 850 Templers were interned in Egypt the following year.
By the mid-1920s, Sarona had grown into a farming community with a greater emphasis on trade, and the settlement prospered as Jewish immigration and the growth of Tel Aviv began to affect its surroundings.
During World War II the Templers, who were fervent patriots and some of whom were Nazi sympathizers, were interned in their own communities by the British mandatory forces and eventually deported to Australia, where the group still exists. In 1962, they signed a compensation settlement for their lost property.
During Israel’s War of Independence, the now empty colony served as the fledgling country’s seat of government while Jerusalem was under siege. In the ensuing decades it housed government offices, including the headquarters of the Mossad security agency.
Where past meets future
The plans call for the 47-acre site to eventually be surrounded by ten high-rise residential-commercial buildings with tens of thousands of square meters of housing, hotels, commerce and a convention center. At their fulcrum: the historic Templer buildings.
Sarona is envisaged as a place where the past meets the future in real time. Like their original names, the unique character of the buildings has been meticulously preserved.
Thirty-three preserved original houses of the colony will find new purposes: 27 are earmarked to become shops, restaurants or cafés, while the others will be converted into a visitors’ center, a university study center and two museums.
Unlike, say, the nearby ultramodern Azrieli Center mall, Sarona is intended to attract high-end businesses: designer boutiques, contemporary art galleries and chef restaurants, rather than chain stores and eateries, as befits the place’s historical legacy.
“I expect that over the first two years the shops will change – but they will remain for the more discerning market,” says Shachal. “The shopkeepers will see what works. Free competition and market forces will dictate that.”
Leading Israeli chef Ran Shmueli intends to open a cooking school in one of the buildings. Two of the largest structures will become classrooms belonging to the Haifa-based Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” says Shachal. “In the modern world, many universities have branches outside their host cities. I think the presence of hundreds of students will give the area an added value.”
“It will all fit in with Tel Aviv’s existing leisure culture of restaurants, cafés and bars. The municipality knows very well how to suit cultural activities to the public.”
A lifestyle center
The “lifestyle center” model, developed in the 1990s as an alternative to the generic shopping malls that have spread throughout the United States, combines a balance of commercial and recreational uses, with public squares, manicured gardens and fountains. However, unlike in the United States, where such residential-commercial-recreational complexes are usually built alongside affluent suburban communities, Sarona is in the beating heart of a thriving metropolis.
As Tel Aviv grew, the Kirya and its environs became prime real estate. Plans to redevelop the area in the mid-1970s ran aground after preservationists successfully campaigned against demolition. Soon after, the municipality declared 18 of the Templer structures to have a distinct architectural style that must be preserved, effectively recognizing Sarona’s heritage value.
“It became clear at some stage that Kaplan Street and the surrounding government offices and army base would have to change their designation,” Shachal recounts. “The real breakthrough was when we came to understand that today the technical possibility exists to physically move buildings and rearrange the complex. When Ron Huldai became mayor [in 1998] he made this his pet project. The whole process involved strategic thinking -- envisaging long term how it would influence the city’s development. A concept evolved that incorporates commercial, residential and leisure uses for the original buildings, without destroying the original winery and olive press, for example.”
“Restoring buildings this old and made from these materials is a very special operation, and the contractors who undertook the work understood this from the outset,” says Shachal. “It took a long time to relocate some of the buildings by physically moving them very slowly and carefully.
“The municipality oversaw the process, examining every aspect with a fine-tooth comb -- from what type of wood to use in the window shutters, to how much sand to mix in the cement. It took a long time as a result. Now that most of the work is complete, we can breathe a sigh of relief.”
The operation has been both lengthy and expensive, he says. “Over 6 million shekels were invested in the gardens and green spaces alone. We didn’t destroy one tree -- some were relocated, others were looked after like babies by agronomists.”
Indeed, the rehabilitated local flora and the shade offered by mature trees are part of the place’s special ambience.
Shachal notes that throughout the work, at least one section of green space was always open to the public.
The preservation, accessibility and development work is almost complete, and the Sarona lifestyle center’s opening is scheduled for October.
All around the former Templer colony, construction projects are either underway or are slated to begin in the coming years.
“The construction of the surrounding buildings depends on many factors, such as the issuance of building permits,” notes Shachal. “It’s in everyone’s interest to build them. They will all eventually blend together, but it will be a gradual, incremental process.”
A 1.4-kilometer underground ring road with seven entrances/exits and links to 12,000 subterranean parking spaces will eventually straddle the complex. Local traffic arteries will be connected with the nearby Hashalom train station and planned light rail station on Yehudit Boulevard.
“Ahuzot Hahof specializes in parking lots – both on-street and off-street parking – as well as bicycle routes and similar infrastructure,” says Shachal. “We have introduced the country’s first cellular-operated parking spaces, which eliminate the need for parking meters.”
A third of the 12,000 subterranean parking lots will be designated for the general public, and the rest for residents of the surrounding high-rises and employees of the area’s businesses.
A large underground parking lot under the nearby Gindi building has been opened as the project’s first stage, under an agreement with its owners that for the first two years parking fees will be low.
The Sarona management company, which operates under the aegis of the municipal Ahuzot Hahof corporation, is developing the project together with two groups of entrepreneurs: the Irani-Rogovin partnership and Sarona Ltd. (which is composed of several private companies and investors).
Shachal sees Sarona as playing a pivotal role in the city’s future urban fabric.
“As a Tel Aviv resident myself, I can say it will change the center of the city forever,” he says. “In terms of urban integration, I think it’ll be a success.”
“When you look today at the area south of Sarona – Ha’arbaa Street and, a little further south, the old wholesale vegetable market [now a building site for residential high-rises], this area in general is being upgraded. It’s like what has happened in London -- it’ll eventually become a contiguous area spreading southward, with commercial and cultural activities that will answer residents’ needs day and night. It’s a great challenge.”
Like two other successful Tel Aviv projects based on cooperation between the private and public sectors -- the Tel Aviv Port and the Hatachana complex in the old Jaffa railway station -- Sarona is a distinct urban space based on a historic site and operated by one body. However, unlike the other two, Sarona lies on a major urban thoroughfare and its location alone will guarantee an estimated 17,000 passers-through a day. And that’s not counting the tourists and out-of-towners expected to flock to the city’s latest attraction.
The eclectic architectural blend of old and new will be a major draw to Tel Aviv. “Not many cities in the world succeed in combining old, low buildings with modern high-rise structures,” notes Shachal.
It appears that the biggest challenge to the entrepreneurs and architects behind the project is retaining the Templer colony's intimate and charming character, despite the numbers.