Haifa's port and surrounding neighborhood. Haifa's port and surrounding neighborhood. Haifa's port and surrounding neighborhood. (Photo: David Lisbona/Flickr)

Rebuilding urban waterfronts

A healthy waterfront can be the gateway to a healthy city.

Rebuilding a city's waterfront can be the gateway to an urban transformation, turning a backwater town into a world-class metropolis.

In Barcelona, a plan put in motion in the 1990s to revitalize the impoverished neighborhoods hugging the sea elevated the city to world class status. Businesses moved in and the area became synonymous with leisure, a popular destination for both locals and tourists. Likewise in Philadelphia, efforts to revive the City of Brotherly Love's derelict waterfront have attracted businesses to what was formerly a drab strip of land. Today the city is being touted as a top tourist destination, in no small part because of this change. 

In Haifa, Israel's northernmost port on the Mediterranean, the same effort is being made into a success. While the rest of the coastal Israeli city is beautiful (including the Bahai Gardens, one of the wonders of the world), Haifa's port has long been overlooked, considered nothing but an appendage to the nearby boatyards. But with its Ottoman architecture, there's always been a sense that it was only a matter of time before people moved into the neighborhood to revitalize it. 

In recent years that potential has begun, with the city making the area more accessible, widening the boulevard to allow for better transit, and refurbishing the facades of buildings as well public spaces to make it more attractive.

Shahar Sivan, a 40-year-old artist who was born and raised in Haifa, is one of the people who has been drawn to the area in recent years. He left the city at the age of 18 for New York, and when he returned to Haifa five years ago became active in the artist community, much of which is located by the port area. Spending more and more time there, he felt the need for a proper nightlife establishment -- there was nothing to keep people in the neighborhood after dark.

The bar at Venya BistroThe bar at Venya Bistro (Photo: Gil Eilam/Flickr)

With no formal training in the culinary arts, Sivan started working at a restaurant in the city, where he picked up all the secrets he would require for his own place. With some help from friends and family, he opened Venya Bistro last year, and this hang out, steeped in atmosphere, clever dishes and a style of service you would expect in a trendy American neighborhood such as Williamsburg in Brookyln, New York, has taken off. In fact, the Williamsburg feel makes sense because that's where Sivan found his inspiration.

“I was influenced by bistros in Williamsburg – I wanted to create something fun and understated but not compromise on the quality of ingredients and materials,” Sivan told From The Grapevine.

Sivan said he never thought of the project as daunting. “Like in Kevin Costner’s monologue in Field of Dreams I always believed ‘that if you build it, they will come’.” And come they did. Venya has fast become a destination for locals and visitors looking for tasty eats such as the croque burger, with ham, curry aioli and cheese, and the pasta with artichoke and parmesan.

Shahar Sivan hard at work in Venya Bistro's kitchenShahar Sivan hard at work in Venya Bistro's kitchen (Photo: Gil Eilam/Flickr) 

Yossi Sionov is a real estate developer in Haifa. Arriving in the city almost by accident several years ago he was immediately taken by its possibilities.

"I got out of my car and was struck by a sense of awesomeness by everything around me. Everything was run down, there were no people on the streets but I could see a fantastic potential," he said.

Palmer Street is experiencing a cultural renaissance. Palmer Street is experiencing a cultural renaissance. (Photo: Felix Tchvertkin/Flickr)Today he is building large scale residential projects as well as mixed residential and commercial projects in the downtown area.

This development is what gives places like Venya Bistro the confidence to move in in the first place. In fact, recent openings in the area include Café Palmer, where design students with laptops can be spotted mingling with middle-aged accountants and lawyers while Lou Reed or Air play through the speakers, and Palmer 3, a beautiful art space and collective. Soon, it seems, Haifa's own waterfront renaissance will be complete.

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