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December 11, 2009

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PAGE 18A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 11, 2009 i Coalition fights real estate development in Budapest'sJewish quarter By Ben Harris BUDAPEST (JTA)--Janos Ladanyi's eyes widened as he stepped through the narrow passage of a bar on Kazinczy Street, in the heart of this city's old Jewish quarter. Formerly a residential building constructed in typical Budapest fashion-- several floors of apartments arranged around a rectan- gular openair courtyard-- Szimpla Kert is among a number of trendy new establishments that have transformed the historic neighborhood into a lively urban enclave. The court- yard is now covered, and the old residences are filled with contemporary art and a young clientele sipping cocktails and puffing on cigarettes. As he nursed a palinka, a traditional Hungarian bran- dy, Ladanyi gazed admir- ingly at the vibrant slice of city life around him, a far cry from the disrepair in which much of the neighborhood lay just a few years before. "I never believed I would see this trend change and I would see young people com- ing back here," Ladanyi, an urban sociologist at Corvi- nus University in Budapest, said later over dinner at Cafe Spinoza, another establish- ment that has breathed new life into the quarter. But on a post-dinner stroll through the neighborhood, as Ladanyi surveyed other changes afoot in the area, he offered a steady stream of expletives. Over the past decade, developers have knocked down scores Of old buildings and built con- temporary mixed-use com- plexes, arousing concern from both historians and preservationists, as well as the leadership of the Jewish community. "Nowhere in the world, except in funny ThirdWorld countries, something like this is allowed," Ladanyi said. Through decades of tyranny, "the neighborhood survived--with terrible losses, but it survived. And now we have this so-called free world, this multicul- tural world, and we are losing it. Isn't that unbelievable?" Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, rehabilitated Jew- ish quarters have become beloved historic districts, visited annually by thou- sands of tourists even as their Jewish populations have dwindled to a fraction of their prewar levels. But in Hungary, which still boasts one of the larg- est Jewish communities in Europe--some 100,000 Jews live in Budapest--the Jewish quarter has fallen prey to developers that sometimes appear more intent on mak- ing a quick buck than on preservingthe area's historic character. In the process, experts say, a vital part of the capital city's Jewish history is disappearing. "This area lost 40 percent of its patrimony," said Alex- andra Kowalski, a lecturer ir the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Budapest's Central Europe- an University and an expert on historical preservation. Around the neighbor- hood, signs of the changes are everywhere. On wes- selenyi Street, the glass- sheathed Price Waterhouse Coopers office towers several floors above neighboring buildings. On Kiraly Street, the neighborhood's main thoroughfare--old photos show an urban cacophony reminiscent of the Lower East Side or Boston's North End--an esplanade has. been constructed and new apartments and upscale bou- tiques now jostle for space with buildings hundreds of years old. And next door to the fanned Dohany Synagogue, Europe's largest, construc- tion netting hangs over the site of Herzl Passage, one of the projects that has en- raged the preservationists. Construction-is said to [e stalled, though the project's Web site says it is scheduled for completion in 2009. Most of the buildings in the quarter, including its street layout, date from the early- to mid-19th cen- tury and include impres- sive architectural features typical of the period. The United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) has declared part, of the area a world heritage site, and several of the build- ings are protected as historic landmarks by the Hungarian Ben Harris Alexandra Kowalski, an expert in historical preser- vation, stands in front of Budapest's Herzl Passage, a project that has enraged preservationists. authorities. But acti,ists say the measures are insuffi- cient, and that development of the neighborhood has continued anyway. "This special protection area was not strong enough to override the previous regulatory plan, which actu- ally allowed in a number of demolitions and new con- structions inside the district concerning the buildings which were not [specifically] protected as monuments," said Tamas Fejerdy, the vice president of National Office of Cultural Heritage as well as the chief of the secretariat of,the Hungarian National Commission for UNESCO. Since 2004, a coalition of artists and intellectuals known as Ovas! (Veto) have been fighting to preservethe area's historic architecture and maintain it as a healthy urban neighborhood. Lead- ers of the group say their concern is not merely for individual buildings, but for the urban fabric of an area that has seen many of its residents relocated else- where in the city. Bythe time Ovas! became active, municipal authorities were saying their ,bility to protect properties was lim- ited because they had already been sold off,. according to ] FIRST WE LISTEN... THEN WE DELIVER! LET MY 41 YEARS OF INSURANCE EXPERIENCE REVIEW YOUR COVERAGES AND DESIGN A PACKAGE THAT PROTECTS YOUR BUSINESS BY MEETING YOUR SPECIAL NEEDS! All Forms of Insurance Products for Business Retailers, Manufacturers, Contractors, Service Industries, Restaurants, Child Care, Physicians, Attorneys Call Today To Schedule An Appointment At Your Convenience Marshall L. Helbraun Representing The Sihle Insurance Group, Inc. An Independant Insurance Agency Phone: 1-800-4:32-6652 (407) 761,3521 (cell phone) Anna Perczel, the group's current chair and one of its founders. "The situation is quite bad," said Perczel, an ar- chitect and the author of "Unprotected Heritage," a 2007 book about vulnerable but historic properties in the quarter. Though their primary tar- gets are government agen- cies they claim have failed to protect the district, Ovas! reserves no small amount of scorn for the developers, many of whom happen to be Israeli. Israeli companies are said to be responsible for 60- 70 percent of new real estate development in Budapest. "I do appreciate the past and I think that there are monuments that should be preserved," said Eliav Maimon, the CEO of Autoker, one of the largest Israeli- owned development firms active in the district. "But I don't think the preserva- tion should be fanatic. In many places in this city, the new developments are also creating life, not just destroying it." Autoker, formerly the Communist government's automobile maintenance company, was privatized after the fall of the regime and was acquired by Israeli businessmen, who turned it into a real estate company: During the boom of the early 2000s it was consid- ered the largest developer in Budapest, responsible for a number of large-scale proj- ects that brought luxurious new residential complexes to the city. Maimon compared his company's products to American-syle "gated com- munities." Transformation of the quarter began after the fall of communism, when Budapest's cash-starved district municipalities sud- denly found themselves in possession of countless valuable properties. Sales to developers began in earnest, often at rock-bottom prices. Perczel says the demolitions began in 2006. A'utoker owns several properties in the Jewish quarter, where it is planning new projects. Some of the plots already are owned by the company, which is bid- ing its time until economic conditions improve. Maimon said Autoker's strategy is to hold different projects in various stages of the devel- opment process in order to be prepared for any market eventuality. By the time of Ovas! founding, Gyorgy Hunvald, the mayor of District 7, which includes the Jewish quarter, was deeply involved in selling off historic prop- erties and allegedly making buckets of cash in the pro- cess. Hunvald was arrested in February and is now in jail facing charges of bribery and abuse of office. Perczel sketched out a mind-bogglingly complex story of how investors, de- velopers and the authorities in District 7 colluded to sell off properties, move people out of their homes, and tear down historic buildings Ben Harris Anna Perczei, standing in Budapest's Jewish quarter, is one of the founders of Ovasl and the author of a 2007 book about vulnerable properties in the quarter. for redevelopment. Some aspects of the corruption she describes border on the Comical, as when a docu- ment that the district was obliged to take into account in formulating its develop- developers broke a cardinal rule of urban planning: "Don't be brutal." Maimon, however, says the property is vastlY better than it was before--a pile of junk, in his description, the Ben Harris New developments jostle with buildings hundreds of years old along Kiraly Street in Budapest's Jewish Quarter. ment plan was declared se- domainofjunkiesandhome- cret and sealed for 15 years, less people. The vacancies One ofthe properties that are solely the result of the roused Ladanyi's ire on a economic downturn, hesaid. recent tour through the Fejerdy is optimistic that area was Autoker's Gozsdu a new law Hungary is "in Courtyard project. In her the process of producing" book, Perczel says the prop- may pave the way for a new erty, which encompasses reguIatory plan, though he seven older buildings and asserts it must be supple- six courtyardsconnectedby mented by tax incentives a long passageway running and other inducements for the full length of the block, developers to undertake was "the pride of the Jewish projects that would balance quarter before the war." economic interests wit Autoker preserved the preservation. building's appearance, as Perczel says she is opti- well as some interior lea- mistic aswell. tures, accordingt0Maimon, But Ladanyi, his eyes and the property now boasts weary from years of battle luxurious new apartments, and several glasses of wine, a swimmingpool, concierge sees the situation as more and ground-floor retail, dire. Mostoftheshopsarevacant. "There is a point you "It's a ghost town," said are not able to turn back," Gyorgy Vince, 28, whose Ladanyi said. "And I think family owns a Jewish-themed this is a neighborhood where bookstore in the quarter. "I we are very close, if not be- am happy they are develop- hind, that point." ing it, but I'm not happy it's To keep up with Ben Har- empty." ris" travels, visit blogs.jta. In Ladanyi's view, the org/wanderingjew.