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What is the fate of Jerusalem’s First Station?

CM 12/08/2021

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Most of the Jerusalemites and the visitors who spend time at the First Station may not be aware of it, but the fate of this local gem is unclear, and it may not survive the large construction projects in its vicinity, which have already been approved at several levels. Another threat to the venue could come from the owner of the plot, who may decide not to renew the license, which has enabled the establishment of this lovely enterprise. 
The station opened in 1892 as part of the Jaffa–Jerusalem railway, but the idea to reclassify it came out of a desire to save the old building, which was deteriorating at an increasing rate, due to neglect, abandonment and squatters. On August 14, 1998, the last train left the station, and the following day the terminal was officially closed.
During former mayor Nir Barkat’s tenure, the decision to obtain a license from the owners of the plot, Israel Railways, led to the publishing of a tender for an entrepreneur who would be ready to invest millions of shekels to completely renovate the building – within the limits of classification codes – and develop it into a leisure compound. And as such, Jerusalem-born businessman Avi Mordoch invested millions in the renovation of the compound.
The model was vaguely similar to the project in Tel Aviv, but soon, those involved gave it a more Jerusalemite character, more focused on leisure, family facilities and activities for children. Since 2013, restaurants and cafés opened, the center changed its look a few times, but the mixture of culture, music, sports activities and Kabbalat Shabbat services open to all was what made the setting successful. 

The First Station also became a symbol for coexistence, the Jerusalem way. Besides a few events like “Praying Together” (Jewish, Muslim and Christian prayers) close to the High Holy Days period, the Jerusalem way is that religious and secular, haredim and Arabs, young and less young find their way into the station, sticking to the idea that there is room for everyone. Repeated attempts from some of the ultra-Orthodox representatives at city council to close it down for several reasons have never been realized, and the famous status quo is respected, no matter what some of them complain about.
One of the issues brought up by city council member Yohanan Weitzman (United Judaism) was that the original land designation was not for leisure or business but only for the needs of a railway. Weitzman threatened a few times that if an orderly request to change that designation is not submitted to the local and district planning committee, then there will be no other solution than to shut it down. He was not happy about the activities taking place there on Shabbat, but as long as the municipality was cautious not to fund such activities transgressing the holy day, nobody could prevent a private entrepreneur from running leisure activities for children on Shabbat. And indeed there are to this day activities on Shabbat and a few non-kosher restaurants, but it has never bothered haredi, religious or Arab residents from enjoying the place. 
 The pandemic changed everything. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) The pandemic changed everything. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
That was the situation on the ground until March 2020, when the pandemic hit and changed everything. Mordoch, quickly realizing that the businesses there would not survive without customers and no income, decided to ease some pressure on tenants’ payments, such as rent. It helped a bit, but not for all – and some of the restaurants and coffee shops had to close. When it seemed the pandemic was over, things began to come alive again. But now, with a resurgence in COVID cases and more restrictions being implemented, the future again seems unclear.
However, this is not the major problem threatening the goings-on of the First Station. Today, less than two years before the license expires, nobody knows if it will be extended. Mordoch’s official attitude is “business as usual” – his staff members have recently set up a few stalls from Arab-owned eateries to help them hold on as there are no tourists in the Old City. More restaurants have opened recently, with most moving to a digital waiting service, allowing them to overcome the lack of staff – a problem being felt by everyone since the start of the pandemic – and there are more free activities being offered, especially during the summer vacation. This summer, the First Station has been full of visitors, city residents and domestic tourists, and there’s nothing to hint at the eventual change that might occur within two years. 
Regarding the question of what will happen in two years, and what are Mordoch’s intentions, sources close to him say that for now the First Station is full of activities and energy, and all that needs to be done is maintain the joyful atmosphere of leisure and recreation. Regarding the future, the source said, “nobody knows what will happen within two years, so meanwhile we’re continuing with our projects as usual.”
However, other sources say that not knowing two years in advance whether the establishment is going to keep operating or be forced to shut down is not a simple thing, and that this lack of clarity affects the development of additional projects. As a result, all eyes are on Israel Railways’ management, which does not hurry – and that is an understatement – to reveal its intentions. 
An Israel Railways spokesman said there are plans to extend the railway to the First Station compound and build a new station there. According to the plans at the district planning committee, the station in question is planned to be built underground at the southern end of the plot. The spokesman added that it is too early to know by now what will happen to the First Station when the license expires in 2023. 
Large parts of the plot on the southern and northern sides of the First Station have been acquired by three entrepreneurs, one of them being Mordoch himself, who have plans to build several projects there. These plans have been submitted and approved by the local and district committees for planning and construction, and they will include housing units, hotels, business areas and public spaces in three separate projects, and will also include a few mid-rise buildings. The height of these towers has been limited to eight stories due to their proximity to the Old City.
What will remain of the First Station as it is now once these projects are implemented is unknown. The owners of the restaurants and cafés in the compound, which have already endured a year and a half of the pandemic, have no clue what will happen two years from now when Mordoch’s license ends. 

Source: Jerusalem Post

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