Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station: Chronicles of a White Elephant
16 April 2020 - calcalistech
The city’s giant, brutalist eyesore of a public transportation hub, designed to be the largest and most innovative bus station in the world, opened with great fanfare in 1993. Its story dates back four decades earlier
In Israel, in 2020, a matter of public consensus is extremely rare. And yet, when it comes to the brutalist monstrosity that is Tel Aviv's new central bus station—whether people are calling for its renovation, demolition, or even nationalization—everyone agrees almost every possible mistake has been made from the start. In its nearly three decades of existence, this complex has become one of the most notorious real estate projects in Israeli history. Its story encompasses global marketing campaigns appealing to Jewish sentiments, bankruptcies, and legal complications. More than anything, perhaps, it is a story that illustrates the problems that occur when the lines between personal connections and the good of the public become blurred.
The sprawling cement complex, which spans 230,000 square meters and is one of the largest bus stations in the world, was inaugurated with much fanfare in 1993. But its beginning—as well as the seeds of its eventual failure—can be traced back four decades earlier, to 1953.
In 1953, the infrastructure department of Tel Aviv, then a young city, conceded that the old Tel Aviv central bus station, opened in 1941, had become too small and crowded for the number of people immigrating to the area. Hebrew-language daily Davar reported as early as 1945 that "masses of people breathe in dust, petrol fumes, diesel, and the finest of curses. All around it, buses mount in waves, unable to make their way in as a result of the human swarms that gather on its platforms." Neve Sha'anan neighborhood, until then a pastoral co-operative, turned at once into a crowded, noisy place hardly suitable for human habitation. Those who could, fled. Those who could not, demanded that the authorities act to remove the blight from the neighborhood.
A municipal committee did not convene until 1960. Its unanimous conclusion was that Tel Aviv required not one, but two bus stations. The existing station was to remain in its current location but would undergo renovations to ensure it and the surrounding neighborhood could co-exist peacefully. A second station was to be constructed in Tel Aviv's north, where the Tel Aviv Savidor Central railway station and Tel Aviv 2000 terminal stand today. The city started planning the renovations.
But a new player joined the pages of history at this point: millionaire real estate entrepreneur Arie Piltz. Piltz immigrated to Israel from the Polish city Łódź at the age of 16 and slowly started to grow wealthy from real estate ventures. Among his projects are iconic Tel Aviv landmarks such as Dizengoff Center, Israel's first shopping mall, and Israel's first office building El Al House.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the central bus station had already worked its influence, turning Neve Sha'anan into one of Tel Aviv's most problematic areas. Entrepreneurial senses tingling, Piltz started buying lots in the neighborhood. At the same time, in 1964, the city began looking for a location for an interim bus complex while the existing one was being renovated. Piltz was quick to offer a big lot in the area. And it is precisely to this point in time to which the first flaw in the new central bus station project can be traced.
"The entrance of the millionaire Piltz into development in the transportation sector is a telling turning point in this story, as Piltz considered—and is still considering—his participation as an opportunity to increase his fortune by putting the emphasis on the commercial venture intended to envelop the central station. The professional matter of transportation interests him less," Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Arie Avneri wrote in 1965.
Avneri recognized from the get-go that Piltz's participation in the planning committees for the station could shift the focus from public interests to the millionaire's own business interests, and so it was. Piltz, who already had a considerable reputation in Tel Aviv, leveraged the officials' flexibility to offer his lot as a permanent location rather than an interim one, gaining a direct foothold in the design and development process. The city, in a somewhat libertarian act, chose to take what should have been a project for the public and hand the reins over, in essence, turning it into a private project. Piltz's demand to maximize the commercial areas of the new stations was met, and the public's transportation needs were forced to accommodate Piltz, rather than the other way around.
When Piltz was not satisfied with the plans submitted by the first architects, he brought on Ram Karmi, a leading Israeli architect who specialized in brutalism, and with whom Piltz had worked on several projects before. Karmi submitted his first plan in 1965, outlining residential areas, hotels, offices, and commerce areas, and even a communal garden on the roof in addition to transportation uses. Piltz was still unsatisfied. Over the next few years, Karmi prepared three more plans, each time increasing the space given to commercial areas following Piltz's demand for more space to sell. In August 1967, the district's planning committee signed off on city construction plan 1045—42 dunams (42,000 square meters) of commerce, transportation, and parking spaces. In November 1967, the pathways to the station were approved—the same bridges that to this day are a thorn in Neve Sha'anan's side, ugly and always raining down dirty drain water.
This structural injustice, which turned every public space under its shadow into an undesirable area rife with criminal activity, can be observed with a mere glance. Why were upper bridges even needed for the station, when first-floor parking could have served the buses much better? The idea was to divide inter-city traffic from intra-city traffic. In essence, buses coming in from outside Tel Aviv would park on the sixth floor, while buses moving within the city would embark and disembark on the first floor. That way, all passengers switching between the two would need to pass four commerce floors—an excellent illustration of how foreign interests can directly impact and complicate our everyday lives, at least on the public planning level.
On December 14, 1967, the cornerstone for what was then the world's largest planned bus station was placed—at the heart of a neighborhood. Kikar Levinski Company, the company Piltz set up explicitly for the station, started marketing commercial space at the station to raise money for its construction. In a campaign brochure, it was stated the construction was to last three years, and the result would be an innovative large building, a "city under a roof," and the biggest and most modern bus station in the world. Piltz and his team visited various Jewish communities around the world and managed to raise $60 million. Construction was underway. And then, in 1972, when the skeleton for floors 0-5 was already built, construction stopped all over Israel due to an unexpected national deficit in cement. Two years were added to the station's due date.
Eight years after the new station's cornerstone was placed in a grandiose ceremony, construction was once again frozen, for the next six years. Neve Sha'anan was left to contend with both the crowded and neglected old bus station, and the monstrous, sprawling bridges that led to the 42-dunam husk of the new station.
In 1975, Israeli construction company Solel Boneh announced it would limit work on the new station project. The reason was a disagreement with Piltz and partner Egged Israel Transport Cooperative Society Ltd. regarding the lack of financial guarantees. Solel Boneh's blow was one from which Piltz could not recover. The Tel Aviv planning committee reconvened, and in its current iteration had much less patience for the real estate entrepreneur, especially after it turned out the scope of construction far exceeded the actual plans. When Piltz failed to submit new "realistic plans" by the deadline, the committee asked to approach the courts for a warrant to halt construction work. "Piltz thinks the committee is in his pocket," they claimed.
The committee wasn't, but perhaps someone else was. Suddenly, the city's engineer declared—to the astonishment of everyone, including Tel Aviv's general attorney—that Piltz visited his office a few days before and asked for a two-week extension. Piltz was known to be close to the city engineers—the previous one started working for Piltz on the station project as soon as he finished his tenure with the city. But while Piltz may have had the handle on regulation, finances were another thing.
The years 1972-1976 were terrible for Kikar Levinski Company. The Yom Kippur War, also known as the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, left behind a damaged, split society and unstable political reality. Times were hard. Cement remained scarce. The company proved unable to complete construction and racked up enormous debt. In 1977, after two government committees established to discuss "Tel Aviv's white elephant" published their conclusion, the matter of Kikar Levinski Company and its possible liquidation reached the court. And then, in October of that year, the right-wing bloc, led by the Likud party, won the majority of parliament seats, bringing an end to almost three decades of left-wing Ma'arach and its predecessor, Mapai, being in control. If before, the possibility of Israel nationalizing the project and completing it was still on the table, now it was no longer up for discussion. Development ground to an immediate halt.
As time went by, people who bought commerce spaces at the now-dormant project, sometimes investing all of their savings and taking out loans, started putting pressure on the government and the under-liquidation Kikar Levinski Company. In 1982, a government committee established to consider the issue announced: the government should not bail out the project. Instead, a private entrepreneur should be found to complete it according to its original purpose. A 1983 state comptroller report placed some of the blame for the situation on the city of Tel Aviv.
In 1984, Mordechai Yona and his real estate development firm Heftsiba won the tender for the project, raising money for it by selling what commerce spaces remained unclaimed, and raising funds on the Tel Aviv stock exchange. Construction commenced in 1987, with Ram Karmi rejoining the project and architect Yael Rothschild brought on as an interior designer.
The station was opened with much fanfare in August 1993, in a ceremony attended by the likes of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Minister of Transportation Yisrael Kessar. Though the station was touted at the ceremony as "the most innovative and modern in the world," after it took almost two decades to build, no one was buying into the narrative.
In Karmi's original design, an entrance on the third floor connected it directly to Neve Sha'anan Street to create an illusion of a continuation of the street. But in the mid-1990s, terror bombings became the Israeli reality. When the Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, started in September 2000, buses became literal death traps. The station's street-facing entrances were shut, and security was beefed up substantially at the remaining pedestrian entrances. The station became a cement fortress. Another change that dictated the future of the station was the closure of its first floor to bus traffic. Originally intended to serve inner-city transportation, the first floor was rededicated as the "entertainment" floor after it was discovered that bus traffic on that floor created a hazardous smoggy, smoky environment. A seventh floor to serve inner-city buses was added in early 2000.
The continued neglect of both the old and new bus stations meant Neve Sha'anan now housed only those original residents too poor to leave. Newly arrived labor immigrants from Africa, the Philippines, China, Thailand, and the crumbling Soviet Union also settled in the area, and criminal elements such as drug dealers and pimps started operating there uninterrupted.
Today the station is owned and operated by Nitsba Holdings 1995 Ltd. and its owner Koby Maimon, who bought it in 2015 as part of a receivership process it entered after the managing companies racked up high debts. Nitsba was the station's biggest controlling shareholder as well as its largest creditor, and Maimon was the only one willing to buy the station. Regardless of how it was acquired, the fact that the station remains private does not give regulators much leeway. Tel Aviv's new city plan mandates that the station be split into two and relocated to the 2000 terminal at Tel Aviv's Savidor Mercaz train station and a location near Holon intersection. Still, it has no clause explaining what will become of the new bus station after its transportation activity is shuttered.
Over the years, the floors of the new bus station have given rise to a unique microcosmos that stands witness to the ability of a community to take its destiny in its own hands. The station now boasts a thriving Filipino food market, various artist workshops and galleries, and a Novy God market that takes up most of the central plaza of the fourth floor. Tel Aviv's Yiddish museum is housed at the station, as is the Karov Theater and renowned nightclub The Block. Refugees can find legal counsel at the station, and a kindergarten for their children. The Levinski clinic provides medical treatment to those with no insurance and no-cost HIV tests. People from opposing sides of Israeli society have eked out a living together.
That is just a glimpse of the potential south Tel Aviv could achieve once entrepreneurs are allowed to operate under regulators who only take the public interest into account, and not the financial interests of wealthy private entrepreneurs.
It would be unfair to place the blame for Neve Sha'anan's current problems only on the shoulders of the new bus station. That would absolve the regulators and leaders who, for years, had viewed the neighborhood as a receptacle for all the worst aspects of Israeli society, a place with a weak resident group that lacks the power to contest the planning decisions that turned the neighborhood into what it is today.
Only the fact that new and shiny projects are now popping up in the neighborhood provides Neve Sha'anan with any real hope—a strong resident core that is coming together to set a different tone. Neve Sha'anan, it turned out, needed to wait until its population grew and changed, and until Tel Aviv's center started moving south, to start seeing relative improvement. One thing has not changed, though—even in this aspect, the regulators are leaving the fate of the residents to free-market powers and capitalists.