Merom Yerushalayim’s new condominiums. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Having recently acquired Toronto’s troubled 65-storey Trump International Hotel and Tower, now rebranded as the St. Regis Toronto, Joseph Waldman – one of the principals of the city’s Rothner Highgates Group – has set his sights on Jerusalem.
The Antwerp-born developer and his partner, Ricky Rothner, are looking to Merom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Heights), a project of 218 luxury condominiums located on Malchei Israel Street at the highest point in central Jerusalem.
Notwithstanding that the Holy City is awash with unsold luxury apartments and unfinished high-end towers, Waldman and Rothner, together with their Jerusalem partner Shmuel Narkiss, have found a niche market. They’re targeting Charedim, a segment of Israeli society stereotypically characterized as having low economic status. With only 34 of the 172 units in Phase I left unsold and the unit owners occupying their homes since Passover, the Merom Yerushalayim project has succeeded beyond expectations.
Prices start at NIS 35,000 ($12,500 Cdn) per square metre. Who are the purchasers of these more than $1 million homes? They’re equally divided between North Americans and Europeans with a smattering of Israelis, said Merom Yerushalayim’s sales manager Yehuda Eagle, who fluently banters with clients in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.
Designed by Jerusalem’s Braidman Agmon Architects, the project adds seven residential buildings to five historic buildings, which are being preserved and given new functions. The derelict Schneller Orphanage, with its distinctive Bavarian onion-dome cupola, is slated to become a museum of Jewish heritage. Another 19th-century structure will be refurbished as a synagogue and a third as a yeshivah for teenage boys.
Of the seven new residential buildings, five have been completed. Two are eight floors high. Three were built to a height of five storeys, pending a zoning-density change to permit an additional three levels. The housing blocs are clustered together and nearly four-fifths of the historic compound has been set aside as green space. Parking is underground.
Waldman hedges about the schedule of the final two buildings. While a huge hole has been excavated for them, construction will depend on sales, he said.
Acknowledging that he will keep a condominium for his family’s use, Waldman told the Jewish Independent, “Try not to write about me. I’m a simple guy. I don’t want kavod [honour].”
The Schneller Compound has a storied past. In 1860, Johann Ludwig Schneller (1820–1896), a Lutheran missionary from Basel, Switzerland, established the orphanage for nine survivors of the Druze massacre of 10,000 Maronite Christians in the mountains of Lebanon. By the next year, the orphanage had taken in 40 boys, and soon also began accepting girls. For eight decades, the Syrisches Waisenhaus (Syrian Orphanage) flourished, expanding to include an institution for the blind and a vocational school. It provided both academic and vocational training to orphaned boys and girls from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Germany. By the end of the 1800s, it had become the largest compound outside of the Old City.
During the Second World War, British Mandate officials interned and deported the orphanage’s German staff. The sprawling site was turned into the largest Allied ammunition dump in the Middle East. In March 1948, with Britain quitting Palestine, the base was seized by the Zionist military organization Haganah. Following statehood, and until 2008, it served as an Israel Defence Forces camp.
When the Israeli army redeployed to bases in the Negev, the state-owned property was put up for sale by the Israel Lands Authority and ultimately purchased by the Rothner Highgates Group. Before construction could begin, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) carried out salvage digs – and archeologists discovered a winepress and bathhouse that served Rome’s 10th Legion Fretensis.
While Charedim have opposed other archeological digs, these excavations were carried out without incident.
“This is an excellent example of many years of cooperation and deep and close ties with the Charedi community,” said IAA Jerusalem district archeologist Amit Re’em. “The general public is used to hearing of the clashes between the archeologists and the Orthodox community around the issue of the graves, but is unaware of the joint work done on a daily basis and the interest expressed by the ultra-Orthodox sector. The Israel Antiquities Authority is working to instil our ancient cultural heritage in this population, as it does with other sectors.”
Respecting Merom Yerushalayim’s Charedi character, the project’s marketing wing, Sun-Chen, sends out a weekly Hebrew-language commentary on the Torah portion. Rothner Highgates’ promotional video depicts preparations for Shabbat and, towards the end of the advertisement, it says that the development is “20 minutes from the Kotel, three minutes from Geula. Close to the centre, close to the heart. Merom Yerushalayim. The best of two worlds.” It also describes it as “country living in the heart of Yerushalayim.”
In 2011, Montreal billionaire Rabbi Hershey Friedman and a group of Canadian investors bought the heavily-indebted Azorim Investment Development and Construction Co. Azorim recently completed Boutique HaNevi’im on the Street of the Prophets near downtown Jerusalem. The seven-storey project includes 87 luxury apartments and a boutique hotel. The promotional video features Friedman standing on the roof terrace looking out over the golden Dome of the Rock citing, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.” (Psalms 137:5)
Gil Zohar is a journalist based in Jerusalem.