JERUSALEM — On a blistering afternoon in the hills west of Jerusalem, Israelis from all walks of life swam in spring-fed pools and picnicked in the shade of fig trees in a bucolic refuge known as Ein Lavan, as they have done for years.
But they may not have much longer to enjoy it.
Developers want to build a neighborhood of 5,000 homes, a hotel and a business district atop Lavan Ridge, a stone’s throw away.
This is no ordinary land-use battle between builders and conservationists. Supporters of the project insist they are motivated not by profit but by the desire to finance sorely needed urban renewal in Kiryat Menachem, an overcrowded, low-income neighborhood nearby.
And the battle could set a precedent for similar fights. Israel, a country with the developed world’s highest fertility rate, crams 200,000 more people each year into a nation the size of New Jersey, half of it uninhabitable desert. The resulting housing crunch is creating enormous pressure to build in the dwindling green spaces.
The preferred alternative is to add housing in Israel’s cities by replacing decrepit low-rise apartments with modern high-rises — building up, rather than out to prevent urban sprawl. Builders profit by selling the additional new apartments on upper floors, effectively using air rights to subsidize the new housing.
In Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, 86 percent of the 142,000 units expected to be approved by 2040 have been earmarked as urban-renewal projects.
But that doesn’t work everywhere.
Renewing Kiryat Menachem, opponents say, would come at the expense of a place that Jerusalemites treasure.
Kiryat Menachem, on Jerusalem’s southwestern edge, is within the borders that predate the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem.
A national planning body in May fast-tracked a plan to renew Kiryat Menachem’s 28-acre Hanurit complex, which currently has 646 substandard apartments, and turn it into 1,700 new units. But the planners were not able to include enough additional apartments for developers to make a profit, officials say. And adding more units is not an option: The area is already too dense.
Seemingly stuck, the planners cast their eyes on the virgin hills of Lavan Ridge. They worked out a deal with the Israel Lands Authority to subsidize the renewal of Hanurit by allowing builders to buy publicly owned land on Lavan Ridge at an 80 percent discount.
This purchase will allow the builders to put up a new neighborhood there of 5,000 homes at a hefty profit. The new homes would be a sweetener for the developers, not for Kiryat Menachem residents, who would unlikely be able to afford them.
But developing open countryside, rather than air rights, would pay for the urban renewal.
Ortal Matzliah, 33, has lived in her parents’ 580-square-foot apartment in the Hanurit complex almost her whole life. As a girl, she shared a bedroom with two siblings. Families with five or six children get by in leaky, run-down apartments of just 430 square feet, she said.
Under the planned renewal of her complex, present owners would get an additional 270 square feet per apartment, she said. Elevators would spare her what is now a four-flight walk-up.
“We’re not only talking about a personal change but also a social change: to bring a better-off population into the neighborhood,” Ms. Matzliah said. “They’ll only come if you have good buildings — not the way it looks today.”
Ms. Matzliah said she was torn. She, too, loves hiking Lavan Ridge.
“We want to see that the green will remain,” she said. “But, you know, we want to live the way other people live — a good life.”
Opponents call it a devastating blow: Thousands of trees would be chopped down. Wildlife would be endangered. Construction could destroy the mountain aquifer that feeds the springs.
And Jerusalem’s 930,000 residents would have one less place to cool off and escape from the concrete and tumult of the city.
“We are not like on the coast; we don’t have a beach,” said Odelya Robins-Morgenstern, 16, who runs a WhatsApp group opposing the project. She called Ein Lavan a “sacred space.”
“We don’t have a Sea of Galilee,” she said. “This is where we go. You can go to Ein Lavan on Friday, and there are 200 people there. It’s where I go with friends. It’s where I go sometimes for some peace and quiet.”
Odelya acknowledged that officials had promised that construction on the ridge was supposed to leave the natural pools undisturbed. But they would no longer serve as an escape, she said.
“Who’s going to want to go into a spring when you’re going to be watched by people standing on their balconies?”
There is another option, some critics say, which would be for the government subsidize Kiryat Menachem’s urban renewal directly instead of ceding green space to developers.
“We won’t accept this demagogy that the need for supplementary land justifies harmful plans,” says Dror Boymel, head of the planning at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, a conservation group. He said the plan was just the latest foray in Jerusalem’s westward expansion into the virgin hills.
A better solution, he said, was for the government to “put its hand in its pocket” and give the builders a cash subsidy.
But Amit Poni-Kronish, head of the Jerusalem Urban Renewal Initiative, says there is simply no budget for such payments, especially given the current global economic crisis.
“If we have to choose between nature and rebuilding these old housing projects which are not safe for earthquakes, don’t have safe rooms, and if Lavan Ridge could help that, I’m for Lavan Ridge,” he said. “I think this is the only justification to hurt nature.”
Planners insist that they have worked mightily to mitigate environmental harm. They said that they had shrunk the project, leaving parkland near the springs and a hiking trail unmolested, and that they would plant a tree to replace each that is uprooted.
Even the deer that live in the woods would be given a special corridor of their own. As for the aquifer, if it is damaged, officials have vowed to pipe in tap water to let bathers keep enjoying Ein Lavan’s pools.
Opponents have appealed the project to the National Planning and Building Council. Its decision is expected soon.
But even the opponents are torn.
Chanan Sack, 18, has been one of the more vocal activists on the issue, updating 1,600 people on a WhatsApp group and lobbying lawmakers and city officials. He said he felt for the residents of Kiryat Menachem, where he lived as a young boy.
“We were seven siblings in that little house, and we had to divide the living room with a bookcase,” he recalled. “Those people deserve better conditions. But you don’t solve one social blight by creating another.”