Central Bus Station
A modern day Tower of Babel
Yochai Maital, the cofounder of the Israel Story podcast unveiled the history of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station — A modern day Tower of Babel. YOMYOM asked Yochai to explain how the most hated building in Israel came to be and what will happen to it in the future
City inside a city, labyrinth and the beginning of the biggest bus station in the world
For many years the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station was the largest bus station in the world. On August 17, 1993 the head of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City attended the opening ceremony of the Tel Aviv station and actually said: “You are taking our title”. But the truth is that it didn’t start with the idea to build the biggest station. It all happened gradually.
In late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a general architectural trend of making megastructures. The Central Bus Station architect Ram Karmi, who was only 32 at the time, envisioned his project around this global trend. His idea was to build a city inside the city. He was inspired by the Old City center in Jerusalem, and appropriately called his project “the labyrinth”. In other words, the Central Bus Station is such a disorienting place not because the architect was an idiot, but rather because he actually wanted to build a place where people get lost wandering around - like in an ancient city. The technology euphoria of the time also had a major impact on the project — with new technologies, architects were able to air-condition everything, so Ram Karmi had a dream that in such a hot and sticky place as Tel Aviv, people would be happy in a cool, modern, giant building, which they’d never want to leave.
Until that time every public facility in Israel was financed and run by the government. However, the owner of the land, Aryeh Piltz, was the first who came to the municipality with the idea to privatize the concept of the Central Bus Station. The municipality decided to go for it and Piltz set out to fund the project through commercial spaces. This is the other key piece in the whole story of the Central Bus Station. If you look at the progress of the architect’s sketches, one can see that the earlier sketches are really beautiful. There was an idea that all the buses would be underground and that the above-ground part would be a huge park with some building on it. But that early vision was rejected due to Piltz, who wanted more commercial spaces that he could sell. Therefore it’s no surprise, that the size of the Central Bus Station has something to do with greed, or at least wanting to make the place profitable. But Piltz didn’t succeed in building his station.
The dream stores and the first bankruptcy
Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, after working on it for about 10 years, the project stopped and the company went bankrupt due to the economic crisis and shortages. By that time the giant cement structure of the Central Bus Station was already built and stood empty like a monster skeleton for the next 12 years. Today, when a big mall or office tower is built, the entrepreneurs generally keep the ownership of the building and rent out the spaces. But Piltz’s model was quite different. He sold the stores out like you would sell apartments. He even brought tourist groups from all around the world for tours to Israel, showed them Jerusalem, Masada and other places of interest and in the end he would show the Central Bus Station construction site as a modern miracle and promoted it: “Buy a store and it will change your life”. As a result, many people sold their belongings, and their apartments in Paris and New York and came to Israel for this dream — to buy a store in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. So when Piltz’s company went bankrupt, it negatively affected a lot of people, as by that time the Central Bus Station was owned not by Piltz but rather by the many store owners themselves. And of course, they couldn’t sell their stores, which didn’t even exist!
The court, the floating permit and new stores
After the bankruptcy, the store owners started battling it in the courts. There were several offers to buy the building, but in 1983, thanks to the store owners’ lobby, the Court chose another rich entrepreneur, Yona Mordechai, to buy the property for $5 million. His proposal was not the biggest, but he managed to convince everyone that he was able to finally make this thing work.
As the entire area of the station was already sold for profit, Yona Mordechai had to produce even more spaces to sell. But in order to build those spaces he had to get permission. His lawyers came up with a trick which its literal translation from Hebrew would be “floating permits”. I talked to a real estate lawyer and she explained it to me this way: “Let’s say you have a permit to build a two-story building, but you want to built another two floors and make it a four-story building. So you close the doors of the first two floors and say, OK, they are not relevant anymore. And you build the other two floors above the first two with the same permit”. Using this trick, Yona Mordechai claimed that the already built spaces would not be used, and built more spaces with the same permit. Of course, later on he planned to open those spaces as well. Essentially it was a building permit violation. With the help of this violation, in order to sell more commercial spaces, Yona Mordechai made the already huge Central Bus Station even larger.
The opening ceremony, the white elephant and the second failure
"Twenty-six years after construction first began, the central bus station in Tel Aviv will open at 5 A.M. today. Some 5,000 buses and 150,000 people are expected to pass through the station every day," Revital Bracha reported in Haaretz. "If all the plans materialize, 1,500 shops and 11 movie theaters, along with entertainment halls, restaurants, banks and information services will await passengers."
After Yona Mordechai took over the bus station there was a lot of optimism. People were excited. In 1993, a huge opening ceremony was held with people from all over the world in attendance. The owners even showed good humor by having a giant white elephant balloon which they floated into the air during the ceremony. White elephants are albino elephants which actually exist in nature, but they are very rare. In Thailand they were considered very precious and holy animals which only a king could afford. From this comes the expression “white elephant”, which means a gift which is theoretically very precious but so expensive and difficult to maintain that it can easily run you into the ground. After the ceremony the Central Bus Station never actually took off. I think the biggest reason was that the estimates of how many people would use the station every day were exaggerated.
The other problem was that in the beginning the station was actually designed in a way that the municipal city busses would all leave from the first underground level and the Israeli regional buses would leave from the top floor. This concept was supposed to create a flow of people through all the shops. But this idea broke down as there were all kinds of health and safety issues with the smoke of the buses, as making the station underground for so many busses was considered unsafe. In the end, they had to move all the buses to levels 6 and 7. After the move, there was no reason for anybody to move down to the other levels so they became abandoned, ghost floors. People started shutting down their shops because not a single person would even walk by it.
A man with a hook, a bat colony and the Central Bus Station today
There is an amazing maintenance guy who showed me the station. He looks like a character from a film. He has one arm and hook for the other arm. He has three huge cabinets literally full of keys — thousands upon thousands of keys. More than half of the space of the Central Bus Station is now inaccessible. The maintenance of such a gigantic building is surreal. The 1st and the 2nd floors at a certain point became neglected spaces mostly used by homeless people and prostitutes. Consequently, they were shut down and made inaccessible to visitors.
There are all kind of strange places in the Central Bus Station now. There are Filipino and Eritrean churches and also several synagogues. One of the synagogues was there even before the Central Bus Station was built. Piltz didn’t succeed to buy its land so they agreed in court that he would give the synagogue a space in the station, and it started operating right when the cement structure was done years before the station even opened. There is also a huge bat community in the station; the bats were one of the first inhabitants of the station and are now protected by the conservation law of Tel Aviv. Experts even come to make sure that the bats are doing well. There is the biggest, private Yiddish library in Israel on the 5th floor called “Yung Yiddish”, several experimental theaters and perhaps the most famous nightclub in Tel Aviv, called The Block. There is also a whole artists’ section on the 5th floor with several art studios. On the 7th floor there is a graffiti exhibition. There is a post office, as well as supermarkets, tattoo salons, Filipino home food markets, Africa clothes and food. In short, you can live a whole life in the Central Bus Station!
The court case of the shop owners represented by a big law firm is still playing out. The lawyer that is dealing with it now is the son of the lawyer who first took the case. Most of the stores owners who bought the spaces are either very old or dead and most of them gave up fighting. I talked to some of them and it's heartbreaking. One of the store owners told me: “I bought this store in my late 30’s, I’m way past 80 now and I’m too tired”.
At the opening ceremony, attended by 7,000 people, some 300 neighborhood residents held a demonstration. The other people that really suffered because of the station were the residents. Piltz built the Central Bus Station inside a residential neighborhood. The station brings thousands of buses a day streaming through the streets of a residential neighborhood. Imagine you are a lower or middle class worker who put all his savings to buy a family apartment in Tel Aviv and suddenly your balcony instead of looking on an empty field is now four meters from a road ramp with thousands of buses streaming right in front of your porch everyday! I wanted to speak to the people who live in the apartments right near the Central Bus Station today. I went there and just started knocking on people’s doors. The inhabitants are almost exclusively refugees, illegal emigrants and foreign workers. I found almost no Israelis there.
A cement cloud over Tel Aviv, a park and the end of the Central Bus Station
There are several ideas of what to do with the Central Bus Station, ranging from destroying it completely and turning the space into a park. There is also an idea of chopping it into several smaller buildings. Lastly, there is a project that seems crazy but actually makes some sense. The idea envisions making the station even bigger by building two big residential towers on the top of it. This would create cheap apartments for students who could maybe breathe some life into the commercial parts of the station.
Destroying the building is almost impossible, as it would create a cement cloud of dust all over Tel Aviv for a couple years. Nobody knows what will happen to this building but according to the latest municipality plans the station is going to stop operating. They are going to have several smaller stations around the city. So the legendary station will eventually stop being the Central Bus Station!
Text Asya ChachkoPhoto of the Station Sasha ZacksPhoto of Yochai Alexey YurenevThanks to the CTLV Urban Tours of Tel Aviv Yafo
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