Bauhaus-era plant to power Jordan Valley eco-tourism

Members of the peace park design group at work. The charrette recommends using the site’s unique architectural heritage as the basis for the new eco-park.It’s well known by now that Tel Aviv’s White City has the world’s largest concentration of …

Members of the peace park design group at work. The charrette recommends using the site’s unique architectural heritage as the basis for the new eco-park.It’s well known by now that Tel Aviv’s White City has the world’s largest concentration of Bauhaus-style buildings. Less well known, however, are the many other projects built throughout the 1920s to 1950s in the International Style. One of the most ambitious of these was the Rotenberg Power Plant, which from 1932 supplied both sides of the Jordan River valley with electricity up until 1948 when it was destroyed. In 1994, the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty turned the area into an international border crossing. Now, an equally ambitious Israeli-Jordanian initiative project, spearheaded by Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), aims to revive the area, and the Rotenberg compound along with it, as a unique eco-tourism site spanning both sides of the border.

The Jordan River Peace Park proposes to combine two adjacent areas; Naharayim/Baqura, where a small island was created at the junction of the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, and the Jeser Al Majama/Gesher site, known as “Three Bridges”, a historical crossing point of the Jordan River valley. Partners in the project include the Municipality of Muaz Bin Jabal (Jordan), the Jordan Valley Regional Council (Israel), and the Beit She’an Valley Regional Council (Israel), together with FoEME.

According to Gidon Bromberg, founder of FoEME and director of the Tel Aviv office, the initiative intends to provide new livelihood opportunities for the residents of the Jordan Valley. “The potential is tremendous,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “Unemployment right now on the Jordanian side is 40 percent, the only source of employment is agriculture and it’s very poorly paid – JD 80-100 per month, which is nothing – so the livelihood opportunities that the Peace Park presents are great.”

The project also proposes to rehabilitate the lower Jordan River by re-flooding the wetlands and rebalancing the ecosystem, a matter that is of primary concern to FoEME.

‘This is 20th century industrial archeology’

In May, a design workshop (also called a charrette) took place with the participation of faculty and students from Yale University and the Bezalel Academy of the Arts together with Jordanian and Palestinian architects. FoEME presented the results of the charrette in Jordan and Jerusalem, along with recommendations from pre-feasibility studies and business plans.

The group recommended utilizing the site’s architectural heritage: a 2,000-year-old bridge built by the Romans to connect the cities of Beit Shean (today in Israel), Pella and Um Quais (today in Jordan); a khan (inn) from the Middle Ages that served travelers passing from east and west; an Ottoman era bridge that connected the railway from Akko (Acre) to Damascus; a Turkish customs house and police station; an additional bridge built under the British Mandate and, of course, the modernist Rotenberg power station.

“The [station] rivals some of the industrial sites in the US from the same period on the same scale, like some of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) projects,” says Prof. Alan Plattas of the Yale University School of Design, at the charrette presentation at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute.

“We’re not going to restore the power station. What we have now are the remains. We’ll convert the existing structures, stabilize the ruins, and reuse other structures. This is 20th century industrial archeology,” says Plattas, who further noted that the site’s old railroad station “is a little gem of modernist Bauhaus building.” The ultimate goal, he said, will be to turn the whole area into a major attraction for the newly burgeoning field of eco-tourism.

“Tourism, over time, will supplement and overtake agriculture as the economic base in the region, especially on the Jordanian side. Former workers housing will be converted to eco-lodges, the power station will be reconstructed as a visitor center, and the surveillance apparatuses will be converted to birdwatcher shelters,” he says.

Bird-watchers, it turns out, are a target market for a region that is one of the world’s major way stations for migratory bird, and re-flooding the present day dry lakebed would create a bird sanctuary.

Baqura is already among the best preserved multi-ecosystem habitats in Jordan and FoEME estimates that the lake would serve to attract the more than 500 million migratory birds that cross the Jordan River Valley twice annually, as well as a good number of the world’s 60 million birdwatchers, along with assorted hikers, bikers and other various and sundry nature lovers.

“Adjacent kibbutzim have already developed tourism industries,” says Plattas, who envisions a car-free compound surrounded by “reservoirs of parking, where people would leave their cars behind and convert to other modes of transport available at the park.”

A history interrupted

The park will be developed in stages, with Phase 1 on the Jordanian side of what is a truly unique border. At Peace Island the charrette witnessed first-hand Israelis and Jordanians entering the site, without the need for visas and passports – due to terms of the 1994 treaty that took into account “the special circumstances of the Naharayim/Baqura area, which is under Jordanian sovereignty, with Israeli private ownership rights.”

The owners, in this case, include concessionaires Israel Electric Corporation, formerly the Palestine Electric Corporation, whose visionary founder, Pinchas Rotenberg, was awarded use of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers to supply hydroelectric power to Mandatory Palestine, by the British authorities. Rotenberg successfully negotiated with Jordan’s Emir Abdallah to use 1,500 acres of land that was under Transjordanian control. The station operated from 1933 until it was destroyed by the Arab Legion in 1948 and became part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

“The power station has a history of shared international cooperation that has been interrupted,” says Plattas. Travel itself has its own rhythms and the ongoing tension between Israel and its neighbors has blocked traditional traffic flow, says environmental consultant Aviad Sar Shalom. “Tourism in the area today is mainly on the Israeli side from north to south. This project will restore the natural tourism circulation of east to west.”

Picking up the threads of the past, in 2007, the King Abdullah II Fund for Development endorsed the King Abdullah I/Rotenberg Peace Park. This month, results of the pre-feasibility study and charrette will be presented to the Jordanian Prime Minister who will in turn present it to the King. On the Israeli side, the project was given the green light in principle by the Ministry of Tourism and the Water Authority, and will be presented by the Israeli mayors to President Shimon Peres.

Peace powered potential

Bromberg says the next step will be for the Jordanian side to be declared a national park, and to link the Israeli sites of Naharayim and Gesher, “and then we’ll continue undertaking concrete investment in the infrastructure in a parallel fashion, preparing everything for the linkage into one cross-border Peace Park. If all goes well, we’ll have enough in place to be able to open in two and a half years time.”

FoEME’s feasibility studies, says Bromberg, “predict that within five years of opening, we can expect 250,000 local visitors (Jordanian and Israeli) and 200,000 foreign visitors within 10 years. That will create many different types of employment as rangers, managers, service providers and small business opportunities such as concessions on bike and electric cart rentals, souvenirs, food service, guides, etc.”

Because bird-watching takes place in the early morning or at dusk, the project forecasts an expansion in accommodation and transport providers on either side. “On the Israeli side there are already many establishments that will directly benefit such as B&Bs and kibbutz guest houses but we predict that demand will increase and facilities will upgrade. Presently, on the Jordanian side, there are limited facilities – the Pella guest house has only 10 rooms – so we intend to work with aid agencies to develop a training program that can help the rural communities to create a B&B infrastructure in the town of North Shuna and the village of Baqura.”

It’s not just wishful thinking, Bromberg points out. “Certain aspects of the project already exist. The Israeli side [Gesher/Naharayim] is already open. And the Jordanians have already started to bring groups to the site; local students and teachers, entrepreneurs and potential investors. Northern Jordan is an area that is very poorly visited at the moment and with high unemployment. That’s why the authorities have shown such interest.”

About Rachel Neiman

A veteran media professional who has lived in Israel since 1984, Rachel has been part of the ISRAEL21c organization since 2008. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Globes Online, the English-language edition of Israel’s leading business daily, and before that, at The Jerusalem Post, as a business reporter, feature writer, and consumer columnist. Rachel began writing about Israeli technology companies at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine and is a professional Hebrew to English translator. In her spare time, she is an active member of the Havurat Tel Aviv congregation, and the Holyland Hash House Harriers, part of an international running and drinking disorganization.