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Decisions on Sliema’s Townsquare and Mriehel high-rise on Thursday: will PA open floodgates?

The PA is tomorrow set to take two landmark decisions on two high-rise developments. Will the PA open the floodgates of the high-rise revolution or will it bend in the face of local opposition?

james
James Debono
3 August 2016, 1:49pm
The Planning Authority is tomorrow set to take two major decisions on two highly controversial high-rise projects: the 38-storey tower proposed by the Gasan group in Sliema and four cylindrical tower blocks, comprising 14, 16, 17 and 19 storeys, proposed in Mriehel by the Tumas and Gasan groups. 

Controversy about the Mriehel proposal, located in an industrial area, has largely focused on the way this locality was designated as a high-rise zone directly by the government after the closure of public consultation.  

But in the absence of a residential community opposing the idea, the decision on Mriehel is bound to create far less controversy than that on the Sliema Townsquare project which promises four long years of intensive construction activity in a residential area. 

Approval of the project may therefore be more politically toxic. Although the tower will be located in a Nationalist-leaning district, Sliema is also home to hundreds of floating voters whose resentment may increase with approval of the project.  

While it is widely anticipated that the PA will approve the Mriehel project, it may be wary of creating resentment among residents who will have to endure the immediate impacts of the project on the surrounding infrastructure for the next four years.

Both the Mriehel and Sliema Townsquare applications carry the endorsement of the Planning Directorate and the newly set-up Design Advisory Committee, a committee appointed to assess the design of new buildings, but are opposed by environmentalists and in the case of Sliema also by the town’s local council.   

While the Sliema application dates back to 2005, with the height being increased from 23 to 38 storeys in 2015, the Mriehel one was proposed in 2015 after the inclusion of Mriehel as a high-rise zone by the government.

Mriehel was originally not included, in a draft high-rise policy document issued for public consultation, as a location where high-rise development can take place, and was included in the final document in the absence of any consultation. Planning Ombudsman David Pace had criticized the government for including Mriehel at such a late stage.

“The inclusion of Mriehel in the approved zones where the policy is applicable, should have been put to public consultation prior to the final approval by the MEPA board,” the planning ombudsman told MaltaToday in June 2014 a few months before the towers application was presented by the Tumas and Gasan groups. 

While the government has committed itself to not approve any high-rise project in St Julian’s – another area earmarked for a number of skyscrapers – before the approval of a master plan for the area, a decision on the Mriehel project will be taken before the approval of a similar master plan which is being drafted for the area. No such master plan is the pipeline for the Tigne area, where a 40-storey hotel has also been proposed by GAP Holdings.

The role of the Gasan group in the Sliema and Mriehel applications, and the Tumas Group also in the latter, is also politically sensitive, due to their involvement in the Electrogas energy consortium, which will be providing Malta with LNG energy for the next 18 years.  

Ray Fenech, director of the Tumas Group, insisted that the company did not request the inclusion of Mriehel in the zones identified for high-rise development.  

“An opportunity came and we took it,” Ray Fenech told MaltaToday in 2015, while outlining ambitious plans to turn Mriehel into a business hub.

 

159 new units in Townsquare 

The Townsquare tower will comprise 159 residential units, 4,719 square metres of offices, 8,241 sq.m. of commercial space and 748 parking spaces as well as the restoration of Villa Drago. 

The case officer acknowledged that the project will break the Sliema skyline but said the PA’s policy on tall buildings approved in 2014 now identifies the Tigné area as “a cluster of tall buildings.”

The project’s environmental impact assessment said it expected residents in the area to keep windows shut to minimize noise during the excavation, which will take 10 months, and construction, which will take four years.

The Townsquare project, which includes the premises of the former Union Club and the scheduled Villa Drago, a former Libyan cultural centre, which is to be restored, dates back to 2005 when an application was presented to construct a shopping hall, residential units and an underground car park on this site. 

A Project Development Statement presented by the Gasan Group in 2007 proposed a 32-storey tower on the site, apart from a public square, pedestrianised areas and a number of smaller blocks. 

Three years later the height of the tower was slashed to 23 storeys, but a new tower rising to 15 storeys was also proposed along with the central tower. The studies commissioned by the developers in 2010 – after the height of the main tower was slashed to 23 storeys – concluded that the project would have a “minor impact” with regard to the shadowing on the neighbourhood. 

But the same study acknowledges that the project will increase the shadowing on the public open spaces along the Qui-Si-Sana seafront. 

“The scheme will extend this impact further over the sea. It will also impact additional areas of the rocky foreshore at noon insofar as there will no longer be patches of sunshine.”  It was only in 2015, after the approval of the new policy on high-rise buildings, that a solitary 38-storey tower was proposed. 

 

3,500 more cars in Sliema

Environment Impact Studies commissioned by the developers of the Townsquare project in Tigné, Sliema, estimate that the project will increase daily traffic peak flows in the Qui-Si-Sana area from the present 24,444 to 27,947.

Interviewed by MaltaToday, developer Michael Soler, a director of the Gasan Group, insisted that the creation of more car park spaces means that cars will not have to move around Sliema until they find where to park. That means eliminating the creation of on street congestion, he argued. “The car park will ensure a better traffic flow.” 

But studies also show a shortfall of 234 parking spaces. This is because the project would only include 778 parking spaces of which 355 will be reserved for the residents of the tower while the project will create a demand for 982 parking spaces. The case officer report concludes that the shortfall would impact on visitors to the commercial establishments included in the project and not the residents of the tower. Still the case officer also refers to studies showing that when the parking needs of different users are also taken into account the project would have an “adequate parking provision.”

Michael Soler insists that according to the local plan the developers can develop the 12,000 square metres of land in the area into 26 blocks with an average height of seven to eight storeys, which would have the same impact on parking.  

The Sliema Townsquare project, rendered on a view from the Sliema seafront
The Sliema Townsquare project, rendered on a view from the Sliema seafront
“The only difference is that by using the floor area ratio we will keep half of the site as an open public space.”

 

Visual and geological impact of Townsquare

The Environment and Resources Authority expressed concern on the visual impact of the project. While the EIA consultants commissioned by the Gasan Group warned that the project would have a major impact when seen from Tower Road and from the Preluna Hotel, the ERA contends that the project would also have a major impact when seen from Manoel Island and the Valletta ferry landing.

The Environment Resources Authority had expressed concern on the results of a scanline geological survey included in the EIA, which warned of the “potential collapse of excavation”. This impact is described as “uncertain” in the EPS.

Geologist Peter Gatt has warned that a geological study submitted as part of the Townsquare high-rise project did not flag a layer of “very weak rock” that could pose problems in supporting tall buildings.

 

A financial hub in Mriehel

The Mriehel development will in total include four tower blocks of 15, 17, 19, and 14 storeys, organised around a central piazza, and sitting on top of five basement levels. Elevated walkways and bridges will connect the four towers.  

The project is to include a 975 sq.m supermarket, an 840 sq.m gym, a 700 sq.m showroom, 1,155 square metres of retail facilities, 930 square metres for conference facilities and an additional 1,000 square metres for retail.

The Tumas and Gasan groups want to target companies operating primarily within the financial services sector that want to have their offices in the four towers, apart from providing a massive supermarket, a childcare centre and retail shops.  

Plans earmark a floor space of 33,000 square metres for office space. 

One of the advantages of the Mriehel location is that the towers are in very close proximity to the Malta Financial Services Authority, as well as the headquarters of the main banks (Bank of Valletta and HSBC) and audit firms Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

A mock-up of proposed towers in Mriehel by the Gasan and Tumas groups
A mock-up of proposed towers in Mriehel by the Gasan and Tumas groups
The environmental impact statement (EIS) claims that the financial services sector is generating a number of new employment opportunities due to the development of Malta as a reputable financial jurisdiction, and that there is a demand for appropriate, quality accommodation to facilitate expansion of the sector: “The scheme is proposed in direct response to the demand for new commercial office space.” According to the developers the project will result in the creation of up to approximately 2,635 jobs.

When asked by MaltaToday whether there is enough demand for offices considering the various concurrent projects ranging from SmartCity, the Metropolis in Gzira and Sky Parks, Ray Fenech replied that demand is so big that at Portomaso they have an enormous waiting list and no office space is empty. He referred to sectors like the gaming industry whose hunger for office space in Malta is insatiable. 

“For every office we lease, we have 10 others in the waiting list,” Fenech said.

 

A parking shortfall in Mriehel

The erection of four high-rise towers at Mriehel is expected to result in a daily increase of 1,362 cars a day passing from Triq l-Imdina, according to the Environment Impact Statement on the impact of the proposed towers by Tumas and Gasan Groups. 

The study shows that in the absence of the project, a daily average of 12,995 cars would pass daily along the eastern part of Mdina Road in 2019. This would increase to a daily 14,357 if the project is approved, an increase of 10%.  

Traffic is set to increase by 4% on the west part of Mdina Road (an extra 694 cars) and by a staggering 20% along Triq il-Merghat (an extra 668 cars). In total this would result in an extra daily 2,724 cars along the three roads. 

Despite the considerable increase in cars brought about by the project, studies concluded that there would be a “negligible” increase in fine dust particles and in nitrogen dioxide.

The policy on tall buildings approved by the government in 2014 states clearly that high-rise developments must provide all car-parking requirements on site. Whenever this is not technically possible these should provide parking facilities not more than 250 metres away from the site of the development. 

The case officer report is recommending the approval of the four high-rise towers in Mriehel belonging to the Gasan and Tumas groups, despite studies showing that the project would result in a parking shortfall of 498 parking spaces, which would be in breach of policy. 

The Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA) justifies this under-provision of parking spaces by the commitment taken by the developer to encourage alternative models of transport as part of the requirements for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. 

As part of this commitment the development includes the provision of 105 bicycle racks and 54 preferential parking spaces will be allocated for car sharing initiatives.   

However the TIA notes, “these measures alone are unlikely to result in a significant modal shift.” Therefore an improvement in public transport services is deemed to be essential. The developer is being expected to take a commitment to organise collective transport for employees for a period of five years.

 

Views from and towards Mdina

Photomontages presented in the EIS indicate that the project will have little impact on views from Mdina. This was a major concern because Mriehel stands in the line of vision between Mdina and Valletta. Seen from il-Pjazza tas-Sur bastions in Mdina, the project results in a “barely noticeable change” and does “not break the skyline”, the study concludes.  

But the study fails to assess the impact of the project of views towards Mdina from other localities, which are in the same line of vision.  

Moreover the impact on landscape character is considered to be of “major significance” in relation to the character of the urban conurbation of central Malta, which includes densely populated towns like Birkirkara and Qormi: 

“The scheme will introduce a new feature to this landscape, which will contribute to the dense effect that the existing urban conurbation already exhibits.” On the other hand the project is visible from Valletta. 

Environmentalists contend that the project will have a significant impact on views towards Mdina from areas like Fleur de Lys, which were not assessed in the EIA.

 

166,900 cubic metres of waste

The project will create a massive 166,900 cubic metres of construction waste, which will be excavated. 

Due to its clay content, there is limited potential for the excavated rock to be reused as building stone, either on or off-site. But the EIS suggests that the material be used as fill, in the restoration of exhausted quarries, and for the restoration of the quarries for agricultural use, since the material retains humidity.  

The EIS warns that that ‘any water coming into the site will make excavation conditions somewhat awkward and possibly difficult’. But a geotechnical report has ascertained that the ground water level is much lower than the proposed excavation level. “However, if water percolates into the site, the contractor will have the responsibility of pumping it out, by means of bowser,” the study states. 

A Project Development Statement presented by the developers’ consultants’ estimates that the proposal at full operation will be consuming 7,000,000 kWh in terms of electricity and 109,600 litres in terms of water.

The Water Services Corporation has asked for a €770,000 bank guarantee from the Tumas and Gasan groups, aimed at safeguarding the structural stability of the sewer gallery which lies beneath the land where a four-tower project has been proposed. The WSC has also asked for the submission of a “contingency plan” for the deviation of sewage in case the gallery collapses during the works and has to be reconstructed. 

The WSC is insisting that if this happens the developer would have to pay for the reconstruction.

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...
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