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Sunday, August 20, 2017

What do you do with almost 4.5 miles of old, abandoned train tracks left in disrepair?

The Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway was completed in 1892 and operated for over 100 years until 1998. In 2005, Israel Railways opened a new Jerusalem station at the Malcha Station. The unused tracks between Malcha and the old Jerusalem Railway Station became neglected and filled with litter.

The Jerusalem Municipality’s initial plan was to replace the deserted train tracks with a road, along which new residential projects would be developed. Sounds like a perfect solution for a city saddled with strong pent-up demand for new housing units. However, in 2008, residents of the neighborhoods that bordered the abandoned tracks, together with newly elected mayor Nir Barkat, presented a vastly different vision: to create an easily accessible green oasis within the capital’s urban fabric. The residents’ resolve and solidarity helped them emerge victorious, and Park Hamesila—or Train Track Park—was completed in 2013.

The rolling park includes a boardwalk built on the old tracks, a bike path and open spaces with benches and playgrounds. Train-related elements, such as signal towers, were preserved, and plaques with information about the history of the railways were created and installed along the path.

Park Hamesila begins in the German Colony at the historic old railway station near Liberty Bell, which was recently renovated and transformed into a vibrant cultural and entertainment complex. Renamed First Station, the facility hosts many shows, children’s activities, sports programs, cafes and restaurants. Park Hamesila snakes through many neighborhoods and landmarks, and terminates near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.

Park Hamesila has become a wonderful meeting place for runners, bikers, friends and families. For example, my son shared with me that a large group of young, married couples who live in the German Colony, Old Katamon and Baka—some of the neighborhoods bordering the park—meet bi-monthly for a Shabbat picnic lunch at the park.

The whole notion of repurposing the abandoned train track into an urban park, versus the traditional approach of placing parks into valleys—such as Sacher park—was an exhilarating exercise in rethinking urban space usage. This creative, “out of the box” approach has permeated every aspect of the park. For example, instead of merely discarding two obsolete bus stops, the municipality collaborated with students from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design to convert them into free public libraries. These libraries jettisoned traditional library lending rules, and allow people to borrow, swap and donate books at their leisure.

The Jerusalem Municipality’s original plan to replace the abandoned tracks with much-needed housing stock—to draw young families to Jerusalem and to raise funds for the city—was rejected. Ironically, the creation of Park Hamesila has succeeded in achieving both goals: The park’s trails and beautiful grounds have become a tourist attraction, which has been a boon to the city’s economy. In addition, many young families have been drawn by Park Hamesila’s wholesome charm and have moved into neighborhoods adjoining the park.

By Gedaliah Borvick

Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home, a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at [email protected] Please visit his blog at www.myisraelhome.com.