January 22, 2019

Scraping the sky in upscale Tel Aviv

As Yigal Zemah, CEO of Berggruen Residential, stands on the seventh floor of the new Meier-on-Rothschild skyscraper set in the epicenter of Tel Aviv at 36 Rothschild Blvd., a wide smile crosses his face. The luxurious new building slated for completion in 2014 will be the tallest residential tower in the city and, Zemah says with pride, of the absolute highest building and luxury standards currently available inside and out. Although the project represents the tallest residential building in Tel Aviv, Zemah says the original guidelines in the business plan were simple: to build only the best.

“We wanted to do something different and in order to do that we wanted to build something of the highest quality possible with the most sought-after architects in the best location and with the nicest interiors,” he explains. As soon as internationally acclaimed architect Richard Meier agreed to design the building, potential buyers began to call.

As of late summer, 60 percent of the building has already been sold with a ratio of about half foreign and half Israeli buyers. Among the high-profile first investors are financier Nathaniel Rothschild; Eyal Waldman, co-founder and CEO of Mellanox; Lior Reitblatt, CEO of Super-Pharm; and advertising agency executives and partners Mickey Bar and Shoni Reuveni. Although foreign investors are attracted to the project for its unique design and luxurious living standards (a rarity in Tel Aviv until recent years), for many of the ultra-wealthy Israelis who will make this their primary residence, it will be seen in popular culture as the ultimate status symbol.

The grass-roots social justice movement within Israel that is currently fighting against this kind of development sees this luxury tower as one more foot in the grave for Tel Aviv’s middle class. Despite some speculation that the real-estate bubble will eventually burst here just as it has elsewhere in the world, so far it has grown only larger. Towers near the beach such as the Opera and Basel are selling for approximately $550 per square foot. New apartments with a view of the sea are going for as much as $1,455 per square foot and many speculators expect the prices to just keep rising. According to professor Elinoar Barzacchi, the former head of the school of architecture at Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv is rapidly becoming a place for the very rich and the very poor. Luxury towers exacerbate this problem because rather than providing more affordable housing to a market desperately in need, a smaller number of units is sold for top dollar. 

Zemah shrugs when asked about the Meier-on-Rothschild tower in relation to the current social controversy. 

“This isn’t happening just in Tel Aviv,” he explains. “This is a worldwide phenomena that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We are just another small drop in the bucket.”

There is no doubt that this new residential tower will attract only the wealthiest buyers who can afford not only the steep purchase prices — the penthouse of the building on floors 38 and 39 is, at $45 million, the most expensive apartment ever on the Tel Aviv market — but also the exorbitant maintenance costs for the pool, spa, Jacuzzi, sauna, a 24-hour concierge, gardens, cleaning services and habitual repairs. 

According to Zemah, the building was designed with the most environmentally friendly technology available today in order to lower these monthly maintenance fees. Features include Israeli water-saving technology; pneumatic waste collection to maximize recycling; blinds and shading designed for the local climate to reduce air-conditioning use; windows and glazing to optimize light within the building; and locally sourced building materials to reduce the impact of transportation.  

Upon completion, the sleek-looking, white Modernist tower will stand 590 feet tall. In a nod to his architectural predecessors best known for the functionality and minimalism inherent in their Bauhaus signatures, Meier’s goal was to use the natural light and create a seamless integration with the surroundings. Although one could hardly say that this chic, white tower will even remotely resemble the block buildings at its feet, it will certainly be an impressive icon in the city’s skyline — one that symbolizes the future and celebrates how far this municipality has come since its turbulent beginnings.

Although this is Meier’s first project in Israel, he notes that he has been fascinated by Israel since his first visit to the country 50 years ago. 

“At this point in my life, to be able to give something to this extraordinary city, Tel Aviv, this unique building and wonderful place to live, is the fulfillment of a lifetime dream,” he says. 

Perhaps its most attractive feature, however, is the stunning perspective it will provide to residents. At the edge of a model terrace replete with wooden floors and glass walls to enhance visibility, Zemah notes that even from the seventh floor, the building has spectacular views. 

In the distance, the Mediterranean forms a subtle, azure line between the city’s relatively low skyline and the clear, blue air. Less than 10 minutes away by foot lies the charming neighborhood of Neve Tzedek, the Habima national theater and opera house, Charles Clore Park and a slew of art galleries, open-terraced cafes, restaurants offices, banks, stores and shops. From this height, one can also clearly see the city’s first skyscraper, Shalom Tower, as well as the handful of other towers that rise along the horizon. 

“If you compare it to New York, it’s like being on 59th and Fifth streets,” Zemah says with satisfaction. 

For those who see this tower as another eyesore against the city’s largely low buildings, it is far too late to stop construction now. And for those who can afford it — and the trend shows that many Israelis who can are rapidly making central Tel Aviv their home — these apartments will doubtlessly be akin to living in a museum.