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[WATCH] Government announces reduced university plans for Zonqor

Private university to be sited at Dock 1 in Cospicua while sport facilities and dormitory to be built on reduced Zonqor Point site • Front Harsien ODZ welcomes new plans but insists it is unacceptable to use ODZ land •NCHFE says new revelations have no connection to accreditation processes

20 August 2015, 4:26pm
Last updated on 20 August 2015, 8:20pm
An artistic impression of the development at Zonqor Point
An artistic impression of the development at Zonqor Point
An artistic impression of the development at Zonqor Point
An artistic impression of the development at Zonqor Point
Government announces reduced university plans for Zonqor
The campus of the American University of Malta is to be divided in two, with a reduced site at Zonqor Point in Marsascala and the rest of the university housed at Dock 1 in Cospicua.

The Zonqor site will include three faculties and the dormitories, with the buildings rising to a maximum height of five storeys, half of what is permissible under the floor-to-area ratio policy, while the foreshore will remain untouched.

An artistic impression of how the three faculties at Dock No 1 in Cospicua
An artistic impression of how the three faculties at Dock No 1 in Cospicua
A map outlining the area which will house three faculties, dormitories and sport facilities
A map outlining the area which will house three faculties, dormitories and sport facilities
A new waterpolo pitch will be built by the government along the Marsascala shoreline to replace the former national pool which will be demolished for use by the university.

A further two faculties will be housed in the historic knights' warehouses at Dock 1 in Cospicua and the nearby British-period buildings, all of which will be restored. Public access to the area around the dock will be retained.

In an immediate reaction, Front Harsien ODZ said that government's proposal for the private American University Project was better than the original proposal, but that it was unacceptable to use outside-development-zones land.

Muscat: 'Abandoning project not an option'

Muscat said that the compromise on the university location at Zonqor Point, was “one in favour of common sense”.

An artist impression of the American University of Malta at Zonqor Point.
An artist impression of the American University of Malta at Zonqor Point.
“I don’t expect the Front Harsien ODZ to be in favour. I’m not the ‘front in favour of ODZ’… I don’t expect an applause from the Front. Common sense dictated a compromise and we listened and scaled down the 90,000 square metre project.”

Muscat also told the press that he had “no doubt” that the government should have immediately consulted the public to avoid the outrage that ensued following the announcement of the American University of Malta.

“We only had two options; either go ahead with the project or listen. Not doing anything and abandoning the project was out of the question,” Muscat told the press at Castille.

When asked by MaltaToday whether the government would be ruling out ODZ development, Muscat said that ODZ development would only be considered "as a last resort, as contemplated by the Strategic Plan on Environment and Development."

His first announcement of the AUM in May led to national outrage, with a 3,000-strong protest thronging the streets of Valletta calling for the private university to be relocated elsewhere and not at Zonqor Point, which is designated as a natural park.

Muscat however today said that for the first time ever government held a consultion process on where a project should be held. “No one ever consulted on where Smart City should be built.”

The consultation process was an online solicitation of ideas for a new site in the south, which produced over 600 comments but then whittled down to a handful of suitable sites.

“We need to look forward, education and health are strategic for a future visions, sectors that thanks to a strategic plan will generate economic growth,” Muscat said, explaining that the education sector will become one of the economies pillars alongside more traditional sectors.

He added that the project will stimulate new economic opportunities for businesses in south of the island, which he pointed out “for once is benefitting from foreign direct investment.”

Noting that 12 sites were short listed from a total of 626 submissions for alternative sites, Muscat said “none of the short listed sites on their own were big enough and therefore we needed more than one site.”

The first college - engineering, communications and ICT, and health science - will be located at Zonqor taking 13,000 square metres.

Muscat said 13,000 square metres is within plan while a further 18,000 is ODZ, which is 80% less ODZ site than the original plan.

“We could have used the foreshore which is part of the plan and not touch ODZ. This would however have caused more damage,” he said, adding that the development will take place in a site which is “far away from agricultural land of the area.”

Cabinet members Helena Dalli, Joe Mizzi, Leo Brincat, Evarist Barolo, Owen Bonnici, Michael Falzon, Stefan Buontempo and Chris Agius were present together with MPs Etienne Grech, Silvio Parnis, Godfrey Farrugia and Marlene Farrugia, the latter having been the only government MP to oppose the original plans.

Earlier this month, government commissioned a social impact assessment on the possibility of siting part of the university campus at Cottonera. But, Muscat insisted that part of AUM’s campus will still be constructed at Zonqor, which he claims will be of benefit to the south of the island.

Muscat’s decision comes after a 3,000-strong protest led by the newly-formed Front Harsien ODZ, thronged Valletta’s Republic Street to protest the unilateral decision to hand over the land to a Jordanian construction company, Sadeen, to create the fledgling American University of Malta, which has not yet been licensed by the higher-education regulator.

In May, government surprisingly announced that it had signed a deal with Sadeen to construct a private university over 90,000 square metres on stretch of virgin land at Zonqor Point, Marsaskala,  a piece of land originally forming part of an area designated for a natural park back in 2006.

The government originally instructed both the government property department and MEPA to identity a public parcel of land in the south of the island big enough to take the construction of a 4,000 student campus. The public outrage that followed led Muscat to consider splitting the campus over two sites.

Front Harsien ODZ reacts

In an immediate reaction, Front Harsien ODZ said that government's proposal for the private American University Project is better than the original proposal, but it is unacceptable to use ODZ land.

"An ODZ area of 18,000 square metres will be used instead of 90,000 square metres for the project, and the rest will be hosted at Dock Number 1 area in Bormla. This is an improvement, however we ask why Government couldn't have spared all ODZ land for the purpose, thus making all development on land which is already built-up."

The front once again challenged government to publish its agreement with Sadeen and to inform on the status of MEPA's study of alternative sites, which is due to be presented in the upcoming parliamentary environment committee.

“The timing of Government's statement, when parliament is closed, is not very comforting," the front said.

While resolving that its demonstration in June, the biggest environmental demonstration in Malta, had a huge impact on Government's position, Front Harsien ODZ insisted that it will continue to “keep pressing to ensure that the entire project is located on developed land within development zones and against development in Zonqor.”"

PN leader says Muscat is diverting attention from other scandals

Tweeing shortly before the start of the press conference, opposition leader Simon Busuttil said: "AUM announcement imminent? Looks like Joseph Muscat needs to divert attention from one scandal to another."

In their statement reacting to the press conference, PN said that the conference was the result of the pressure mounted by the PN, the environmental lobby and civil society.
 The party dded that after Muscat had compromised his position by isolating himself, he had no option but to go back to the drawing board.

"It is a pity that his only solution to avoid using ecologically sensitive land was to resort to a smaller footprint of ODZ land," the statment reads adding that the PN felt this was still a matter of concern.

The party criticised the government for constantly putting itself in a situation of having to clean up its own mess.

NCHFE says new revelations have no connection to accreditation processes

The National Commission For Higher Education has reiterated that the choice of venue for the premises of the American University of Malta is independent from the accreditation process it is still carrying out.

“As previously explained, NCFHE is carrying out the accreditation process with due diligence, adopting a professional and objective assessment of the application strictly within the regulations laid down under Maltese law,” a statement reads.

The commission added that the outcome of the accreditation process will be communicated publicly once it is fully concluded.

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