Inside the Colorful New Transformation of Jaffa's Port


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Nov 19, 2023

Inside the Colorful New Transformation of Jaffa's Port

Great hopes are being placed on a colorful new warehouses project at Jaffa Port,

Great hopes are being placed on a colorful new warehouses project at Jaffa Port, alongside criticism from local residents and the heritage conservation council

Four years after construction began, the new warehouse commercial area at Jaffa's port opened to the public on Tuesday. The project, which cost 150 million shekels ($40.5 million), replaces warehouses standing in the port area since before Israel's founding. It has drawn both praise and doubt – as well as criticism for the decision to demolish the older structures.

"Only in the planning stage did we begin to understand what the Jaffa Port truly was," says Thea Kisselov, from the architecture firm that designed the reinvented warehouses. Jaffan architect Limor Yossifon also sees potential in the project. "The space could draw large crowds from elsewhere and serve as a cultural anchor for Jaffa's residents," she says.

On the other hand, Jaffa activist Oron Uri, is dubious of the project. "There will be enthusiasm at first," he says. "What I call a crowdfest. Afterward, the location will decline and become a sort of white elephant. And then the Old Man and the Sea restaurant will take over more restaurants under a different name."

It's far too early to know who's right. Meanwhile, the warehouses, whose construction began in 2019, hosted the recent Fresh Paint art fair. The opening of the warehouses is one of several public-private projects that are being launched in Tel Aviv-Jaffa – with no official connection to the upcoming municipal elections. Among the other projects are two new community sports centers in south Tel Aviv, a renovated LGBTQ Center in Meir Park, and renewal projects for public areas.

At the Jaffa Port, the new warehouses – 2 and 3 – join Warehouse 1, which was renovated over a decade ago. It appears like any other leisure complex in the city, like the Tel Aviv Port, the Old Train Station complex, and the Sarona complex.

But the complex in Jaffa will be more community oriented. Warehouse 2 will host the music performance venue Barby Club; the Elmina Theater, an Arab-Jewish bilingual theater for children and youths; a play center for kids; a clothing store; and a fisherman's market. A section is dedicated to the culinary arts, with a fine dining restaurant, a café, and a convenience store.

Warehouse 3, which is smaller, has been turned into a colorful hangar of containers, will be run by OutBox, a conscious design NGO. It is home to community businesses and is similar to other establishments in Tel Aviv like Beit Ariela or Mazeh 9 – a public place where people can sit, study, and hold events, conferences and small exhibitions. The center of the space has tables, chairs and additional furniture. The Atarim Group development company is responsible for managing the roofs of the warehouses.

At first glance, it's hard to tell that the warehouses are entirely new. It looks like they’re two original warehouses from British Mandatory Palestine that have undergone a facelift. The two Mandate-era warehouses stood abandoned and decrepit for years.

Around a decade ago, their ownership was transferred from the state to the city of Tel Aviv. Although they were selected for preservation, the municipality decided to demolish them, drawing criticism. The head of the municipality's conservation department, Jeremie Hoffman, blames the government in Jerusalem.

"[The warehouses] were completely rotted, and we realized that it was impossible to preserve them," he says. "We couldn't be responsible for something falling on a child. We preserved only the contours of the buildings."

This is heartbreaking for Tamar Tuchler, the deputy director of the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. "They had a dream of using the [warehouse] containers, and that's why they did the demolition. It broke my heart. There had been an agreement on a plan for preserving the Jaffa Port, which had been approved by the government. It would have been possible to preserve the warehouses. Warehouse 3 was in poor condition, but it also didn't have to be totally demolished. Warehouse 2 could have been preserved.

"There were a few rotted columns that would have had to be recreated," she says. "[Tel Aviv Mayor Ron] Huldai decided to destroy the [Mandate-era] customs house, and this project is a continuation of his broken promises of the past. They exploited the period of the pandemic to destroy these historical buildings. If you committed a crime, don't call that preservation."

Dutch courage?

The Jaffa Port is one of the oldest in the world, and is mentioned several times in the Bible. Jonah "he went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish." The Book of Chronicles has Hiram, the king of Tyre, writing to King Solomon: "I will tell them to start cutting down trees in Lebanon. They will cut as many as you need, then tie them together into rafts, and float them down along the coast to Joppa. Your workers can take them to Jerusalem from there."

For many years, the port was a gateway to the area, but was also known as dangerous because of its rocks and shallow water. It's said that Dutch seafarers of the Middle Ages had a common saying, "Going to Jaffa." This meant a long and tiring journey from which they might not return.

However, in his Hebrew-language book on Jaffa, Eli Schiller describes the yearning for this dangerous land voiced by one of the pilgrims. "Jaffa, located on the side of the mountain, was visible before our eyes, and we felt the heady fragrance of the citrus groves, borne toward us by a breeze this morning, as though allowing us to be perfumed by the taste of the Holy Land. After you have seen the landscapes of the Land of Israel once, it will be etched in your soul forever."

But Schiller also relates the difficult conditions of docking in the port, from an 1897 tourist guide. "The ships cannot enter the port and they must anchor at a distance of over 1,500 meters [5,000 feet] from the shore," the guide states.

"Bridging from ship to land is done with the help of sturdy boats that belong to the Arabs, with well-trained sailors bringing the pilgrims and their baggage to the beach," it continues. "The boats are forced to stop at some distance from the ship and then the Arabs, who excel with their strong physique, carry the pilgrims on their shoulders. The fee for this service is one piastre."

The port was developed during the twilight of Ottoman rule, mainly under Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the 19th century. It was in this period that the prominent lighthouse and the Ottoman customs house were built, along with a pier along the water whose construction required drying up a section of the sea.

The momentous opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further increased the port's economic activity. The British, after occupying the area from 1917, also invested in developing the port. One step was building a new customs house to replace the Ottoman one – which was demolished in 2020 in the face of protest by the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites.

But the British found the port inefficient. In 1933, authorities destroyed most of the buildings, which had been housing private companies, and started to dry out another part of the sea. In fact, the ground on which the new warehouses stand was underwater back then. During the Great Arab Revolt in 1936, the port was shut down and Tel Aviv Port was built further north. In 1985, the Jaffa Port was made into a marina for yachts.

Regarding problems arising from how the port was planned, architect Nili Gal-Mester says: "It wasn't planned as part of the city, and its connection with Jaffa is also a problem. But now, with the extension of the promenade southward and its reaching to the Jaffa Port, it's becoming significant."

Architectural language

Around a decade ago, the city hired Kisselov Kaye Architects to try and rectify the disconnect between the port and the city right beside it. In the early 2000s, this firm succeeded in renewing the area surrounding Jaffa's flea market and transforming it into a popular shopping and leisure destination.

Partners in the firm say they took urban connectivity into consideration for the new warehouses. "It's connected to Jaffa via the promenade, and there are also alleys from the direction of Ajami Street that reach the port," says Thea Kisselov. "Everything is open and can be connected.

"We marked six sections in the port, from the north, where the customs house that connected to Tel Aviv stood, and up to the marina, with its yachts and fishing boats," she says. "We recreated the original angles of the warehouses, and our design has created an open area between sections, with many passages, doors, and gates.

"There are many places for sitting outside between the buildings," she continues. "The streets leading to the port were marked as needing improvement. We hope that the opening of the light rail on Jerusalem Boulevard will also boost traffic from the east to the sea."

East of Warehouse 3 is so-called Container Square, designed by landscape architect Havi Livne, with awnings and seating areas. "The square connects the port to Jaffa, for the residents and the children who will go down in the afternoon to spend time and play there," says Kisselov. "The warehouse protects the square from the sea breeze."

Itay Ben Haim, another partner in the firm, says that "the strategic plan is to create an area that connects Jaffa's Old City and the flea market. The word ‘complex’ was never said here."

Another partner, Boaz Kayle says that the process of increasing urban connectivity "takes a great deal of time. In the end, everything will be connected. Our strategy is that this mustn't be a complex."

How does the Jaffa Port differ from the Old Train Station complex or Tel Aviv Port?

Kaye: "It's like day and night. Our starting point in planning the two warehouses was to connect. There are also ideas about operating shuttles from the direction of the light rail. There will be security at the warehouses, but the atmosphere is not at all complex-like. It was important to us to respect the old, but transparency is also important to us. We wanted people to always see from outside what people are doing inside, and for there to be uses that spill over into the public space."

Connecting the port to Jaffa will require additional development in the surrounding area. The Jaffa Hotel has been adjacent to Warehouse 2 for a while, in a building that was once the British customs house. In addition, between three of the streets opposite Warehouse 1, there's a lot of over an acre with a historical building that is set to be demolished.

Reality Investment Funds, a group of real estate funds, is planning to build a mixed-use project at the site, Lamina, with a hotel of some 100 rooms and a residential complex of small apartments. The height will vary from four stories to six stories.

Architect Avishay Kimeldorf, the head project manager at Reality, says the project will be an important contribution to Jaffa. "It will have public and commercial uses and bring additional residences and hotels, which are insufficient at the port," he says. "There will be public passageways. It's not a closed complex."

Hoffman, of the city's conservation department, agrees that it takes time for areas that have undergone preservation work to become connected to the actual city. "The Lamina project should have as many passageways and alleys as possible, just like old Jaffa."

Kisselov says that they chose cargo containers for the interior design of Warehouse 3 "because that's the architectural language of a port. The containers provide a sense of movement and a journey and grittiness. And we found it appropriate to recycle containers. They float in the hangar space, supported by steel constructions, something that respects the exterior, which recreates the one from the Mandate period."

To avoid a fate similar to that of the older buildings, a corrosion consultant accompanied the planning team. "We made every effort possible to avoid future erosion of the building," says Ben Haim. "There are several layers of paint on every material. This is a challenging environment in terms of planning, operations, and maintenance."

Back to the sea

Liron Hershkovitz, co-founder and CEO of OutBox, sees potential benefits to the local economy created by Warehouse 3. "We’ll bring Jaffan small businesses here, from makers of tea infusions and olive oil to ceramics artists," he says.

"Another aspect is repurposing and recycling," he adds. "We want trash brought here, like furniture that residents throw out, so that we can refurbish it. Like places such as Beit Ariela or Mazeh 9, the warehouse will function as a public place that's for sitting, studying, lounging, and events. Everything is still just on paper right now, but there isn't such a place in Jaffa, one that includes a large number of people who experience culture as a community."

Oron Uri, the son of journalist Uri Dan, has lived in Jaffa his entire life and is active in community causes. He isn't optimistic about the project, and is angry that the municipality failed to include the residents in the decision-making process.

"The municipality ostensibly consulted the public, but it was clear that it was a done deal," he says. "Most of those who were sitting there were horrified by the municipality's vision. Some were shouting. Someone said in sorrow that the port was going to lose its character. And that's exactly what happened. No character."

Uri doesn't like the choice of the colorful containers. "For thousands of years, there was a port here that never saw a ship carrying containers," he says. "In my opinion, the design that was chosen is actually cheating the public. At least we were able to prevent the bridge that they planned to stick between Warehouse 2 and Warehouse 3."

You’re critical, but the public will probably vote with their feet.

"There will be enthusiasm at first, but most of the residents of Tel Aviv and the adjacent cities will stay away from the site and it’ll join the fate of Warehouse 1. I also don't understand the planning where it doesn't face the sea. In a place like a port, it's logical for the public to spend time opposite the sea, to sit facing the west. But they created an area for public seating and entertainment that faces the homes of residents."

Architect Yosifon, the curator of the nearby Architect House, is more optimistic. "I was impressed with the intentions and the plans for events," she says. She doesn't mind the choice of using containers as a design solution, "especially when they’re placed inside the iconic structure that was renovated, although I would have chosen more subtle coloring."

Dutch courage? Architectural language Back to the sea