[WATCH] Sliema development is out of control | Anthony Chircop

As construction mania reaches fever pitch in long-suffering Sliema, mayor ANTHONY CHIRCOP warns that residents increasingly feel under pressure to move out altogether

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
13 September 2016, 7:54am
Sliema mayor Anthony Chircop
Sliema mayor Anthony Chircop
Sliema mayor warns development in his town is out of control • Video by Chris Mangion
“Sliema has always been a busy place,” the town’s mayor tells me as we walk past a queue of people waiting to be served at the local council offices. “It’s been busy for many, many years… but at the moment it’s… it’s…”

He pauses as if searching for the right word. “It’s mad,” he concludes at length.  “Mad, mad, mad, mad… and the indications for the future don’t look at all good, either.”

It is not the most optimistic note on which to start an interview: nor does it help much that the walls of the Sliema local council are adorned with old photographs showing various parts of the town over the past century. Nearly all the scenes are now distorted beyond recognition. At one point, Anthony Chircop even challenges me to recognise one particular building: a long line of arches supporting what looks like a 19th century warehouse.

“It’s where the Forestals building now is… or was, before it was demolished,” he informs me after I give up. “And just look at the gardens behind it… all gone now, too.”

Sliema has no doubt changed since those photos were taken… and this, in itself, is entirely natural. But the photos also suggest another dimension to the change. By the rest of Malta’s standards, Sliema is something of a newcomer: it can trace its history no further back than the mid-to-late 19th century… with most of it actually built in the early 20th.

Yet in its short history, it has expanded (upwards and outwards) far more quickly than other, much older towns. So on top of the immediate problems faced by residents on account of a seemingly unprecedented construction overdrive… the noise and dust, etc… there is also the question of Sliema’s identity as a community.

For long-time residents like Anthony Chircop, the challenge is as much about preserving the character of Sliema, as about the infrastructural and logistical headaches his council now has to face. 

“I am 67 years old, and I remember the old Forestals building perfectly… in fact, I remember Sliema as it was in most of these photos. The place has changed, unfortunately, in the last 40 years. And it is now changing at a faster rate than ever before…”

Perhaps the most iconic example of this transformation concerns the Tower Road on the seafront – once uniformly lined by elegant old townhouses; now a haphazard, uneven mess of mismatching architectural styles.

But Chircop argues that this is merely the façade. “Don’t ignore what’s happening in inner Sliema. Not all has been lost: there are still a few streets that are still fairly unspoilt... where the buildings are still of more or less the same height and style. But they are now issuing permits to develop additional floors even there. On the surface, it’s not as bad as what happened on the seafront.  The houses themselves are not demolished: aesthetically, there are efforts to preserve the facades of old houses. But they are allowing further development on top of them…”

Despite the efforts to safeguard what remains of the earlier streetscapes, the resulting wave of development is also radically changing the dynamics of daily Sliema life.

“These new apartments have a double effect – or possible even more than double. The original houses are not demolished, so there is no possibility to build extra garages. At the same time, we are increasing the number of residents without increasing the building footprint. This means more residents occupying the same space. And obviously, we are adding more cars on the road... when the number of cars is already a problem as it is.”

At a glance, this seems to violate one of the declared Planning Authority policies: that of ensuring that all new residential units must provide new parking facilities. Has this policy been abandoned?

“Technically no: it’s still there, but it’s easy to circumvent by simply paying a fine. That money goes into a fund, which eventually comes to the council: and it is then up to the council to find alternative parking spaces…”

Needless to add this isn’t easy, in a town where there are hardly any squares or open spaces to even speak of.

“At the moment, for instance, we have a project to construct an underground garage under the playing fields next to the Torri [on the Sliema seafront]. The playing fields will then be rebuilt on top. This will hopefully alleviate a bit of the problem…. But the rate at which these permits are issued at the moment… they’re coming out like… like…”

Like hot-cakes? He nods. “To be honest, this has been the case for some time now. But it is now out of control. And the effects are being felt. I’ve already mentioned that these new apartments increase the parking problem… but on top of that they also increase the amount of waste generated in the same space. In the case of an ordinary townhouse, there will only be one bag to collect every two or three days. But if you’ve got apartments on top of you, your ‘one bag’ becomes five. And the width of the façade doesn’t change: it remains three or four metres. Suddenly, there will be five or six garbage bags to collect in that space… and another five or six next door on either side. Just imagine what the place could possibly look like in a few years’ time…”

Chircop’s example seems to fit in with the general backdrop. In the last few years there have been numerous major changes to Malta’s environment and planning institutions… most of which seem geared to facilitate development. Isn’t the construction wave currently hitting inner Sliema also the result of the recent relaxation of height limits?

“In a way, yes. There was a policy to allow a building to add storeys, if it was in between two taller buildings. To give an example: if there are two buildings that are taller than the others in different parts of the same street, all the ones in between can apply to go up to the same level. So just because those taller buildings had been issued with permits without taking the surroundings into consideration – which is the wrong way to issue permits – all the others get to go up as well...”

Chircop however admits it is not an easy issue to address. “Up to a point, you can’t say it’s completely wrong. After all, if there is a need for more apartments… if there is the possibility of someone making some money out of his property….. you have to take that into account. The problem is that it is being done indiscriminately and without proper planning…”

Speaking of the need for more apartments… is this being felt in Sliema? There seems to be mixed messages on this point. Developers generally argue that the demand is high… while voices within the property sector itself are cautioning against over-development, on the basis that the property bubble might burst…

“I can confirm that it is very difficult to find a property for rent in Sliema right now. The demand is high. There is a lot of interest from people involved in gaming companies who want to live here, and so on. And so far I believe that Sliema still offers a convenient and attractive living environment. You’ve got the beach, all the amenities… and Malta as a whole offers good weather. So far, people are coming to live here. So the people who are renting out these new apartments all seem to be doing well. But I don’t know how long it will last...”

Echoing the proverbial warning on financial institution adverts, Chircop suggests that ‘the past is not a guarantee of the future’.

“If I apply for a development permit today, and it takes a few years for the permit to be issued and the apartments to be built… I don’t know if the situation would be the same. Things could possibly change. The boom might subside.  I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but these are real possibilities. They cannot be ignored. All along, however, I don’t think there is any real consideration whatsoever of questions like: is there a real need for what we are building?”

At this I can’t help but feel a sense of deja-vu. This is territory we’ve all been in before. The redevelopment of the Sliema seafront is once again a classic example: each construction project was considered on its own merits, without any concern for its impact on the immediate surroundings. Forty years later, everyone seems to agree that this was a mistake. Yet it is a mistake we are in the process of repeating. Would Anthony Chircop agree with that assessment?

“Yes. It’s too late to do anything about the seafront now; but what’s worse is that the same trend is extending into inner Sliema as well. We are seeing a number of apartment blocks going up further inland. There are very few streetscapes left in which the buildings are still all the same height. The new buildings, too, are being developed in the same haphazard way as the earlier ones…”

In both cases, redevelopment came at a significant cost to residents.

“If you look at the old buildings on the seafront: some were quite big, but most were of normal size. Nearly all of them had gardens. All those gardens have now disappeared. They used to provide a bit of room for air to circulate. And they provided distance between houses… at least at the back. Today, buildings are clustered so tightly together that even people living in the street behind you are your neighbours…”

It seems strange that Malta would have gone through this experience without apparently taking any of the lessons on board. “Had things been planned better 40 years ago, and had the possibility existed to buy three or four houses and redevelop them into single blocks… we might have had taller buildings longer ago, but with more open space, and more consideration for the surroundings. But the way things happened, each owner of each plot did what best suited his or her needs at the time. And now, the same thing is happening again. And it’s probably going to carry on happening for God knows how long…”

In one respect, however, there is a difference between the two scenarios. The type and scale of some of today’s projects simply didn’t exist as a possibility in the 1980s and 1990s. So far we have spoken only about the redevelopment on single houses into apartments. How is the council gearing up for the infrastructural challenges implicit in the impending mega-projects: including a 38-storey skyscraper that will increase traffic to and from Sliema by an estimated 3,500 cars daily?

“Unfortunately, we have very few powers when it comes to these things. Any development permit application is copied to us, and we put forward our objections. But the decisions are taken elsewhere. With regard to the projects you mention, our objections are all about whether due consideration has been given to infrastructural issues. What is going to happen with the problem of parking, which is already very acute? This will add to the strain. There is also the issue of waste. Over the years, it was a policy that larger developments had to have a space reserved for residents to dispose of their waste. Business was so good, however, that developers decided that space could be easily converted into garages and sold, rather than using it for the original intention. This has been happening for a long time now, and there seems to be no end in sight…”

In a sense, the cycle of development is also self-perpetuating in Sliema. So much money has been made in the past, that property speculators seem to have eyes only for Sliema at the moment.

“This is another thing that bugs me … though I don’t necessarily blame the developers; after all, they’re there to make money. But Sliema has been singled out as an ‘easy investment’ option. Recently I was looking at some property in another area, and was told by an estate agent – who obviously didn’t know who I was – that ‘the only wise place to invest in is Sliema’. What does this mean? Because investment in Sliema worked for some people, it will work for everyone? This practically condemns the town to more development. It means that developers will flock to what they think is easy money…”

It also entails a significant risk: if not at present, at least in the future. “This is why I feel – though I don’t want to say it - that the bubble could burst. Earlier you asked me about demand. There is definitely demand at the moment… in fact, when a new rental opportunity comes onto the market, it is usually taken up that same day. But with so much happening right now… will there be enough demand in future?”

Another question concerns whether any of the presumed buyers or renters would be willing to put up with the effects of living in a permanent building site. This is the fate currently facing Sliema’s actual population…. which NSO statistics indicate is ageing fast, as younger residents tend to move to other parts of Malta, leaving a largely elderly community behind.

This also suggests that the majority of the residents who will have to endure years of construction are also arguably the most vulnerable: the ones likelier to suffer from mobility issues, for instance, and who would be more adversely affected by the closure of a street…

“Yes, undeniably. I wouldn’t say that all Sliema residents are in that category; it’s true that a lot of younger people have moved out, but some also move back in. I am one of them myself: I was born and raised in Sliema, but I spent some time living elsewhere before moving back. And other residents are also choosing to live in Sliema all the time. But in general terms, yes, there is a higher proportion of elderly residents, and these are also the ones who have lived here the longest. They now have to face construction in front of them, on either side of them, behind them… and then, once the projects are completed, they will also have to face the consequences of so many more people living on the same footprint…”

But Chircop seems to suggest that this category will be hardest hit for another reason. “Even the ones who decided to remain, because they don’t want to face traumatic changes to their lifestyle before they depart this world forever… these people now find themselves in a situation where the quicker they move out, the better… because their house can then be developed. All around them, they see people looking at them wondering when they will finally leave – one way or the other – because they’re standing in the way of development. Let’s face it: it’s not the happiest way to spend your final years…”