The environment in 2016 | Is the government getting cold feet on high-rise?

2016 saw the Planning Authority approving two high-rise developments in Tigné and Mriehel and proposing a policy for Paceville for 20 more towers. But has the resulting controversy made high-rise politically toxic as evidenced by deputy PM Louis Grech’s suggestion that the Paceville masterplan should go back to the drawing board?

james
James Debono
28 December 2016, 10:13am
A masterplan, for whom? Paceville angers all and sundry as top-down gentrification and planning gets the better of Malta’s planning authority
A masterplan, for whom? Paceville angers all and sundry as top-down gentrification and planning gets the better of Malta’s planning authority
High-rise development is often seen as a panacea for Malta’s small size, where the only way forward for the construction industry is to go up instead of sprawling over virgin land. There is some logic in this thinking. For the Floor Area Ratio mechanism is based on the concept of creating new public plazas around the new towers, which provide a new opportunity for urban regeneration.

Yet as clearly seen in the negative reaction to both the approved Sliema tower and to the proposed Paceville masterplan, this may border on a top down approach to planning which ignores the social fabric on which the new towers are imposed.  Moreover demand for high rise depends on Malta’s fortunes in gaming and the financial industry sector to the extent that Chris Grech, director of Dhalia has warned in an interview with MaltaToday, that in the absence of a strong push to attract rich foreigners, the high rise revolution risks crushing the property market.

Moreover with construction in full swing in several towns like Sliema, where it has been facilitated by new design guidelines which permit extra storeys and a more liberal so-called contextual approach to urban conservation areas, it is difficult to see high-rise development as an alternative to medium rise development. Moreover with traffic congestion reaching an all time crush, residents are wary of massive developments which attract even more cars.  

Moreover neither is high-rise development seen as an alternative to rural development. For Malta still suffers the legacy left by the 2006 rationalization while new opportunities have been created by the 2015 rural policy which even permits the rebuilding of long demolished old buildings sometimes dating back to more than 30 years ago.

The high-rise is already here

Malta already has eight tall buildings of 10 storeys or higher in place, with six more approved but yet to be built, and seven more awaiting the PA’s green light.  

Malta’s tallest building is the Portomaso tower, approved in the mid-90s, pipping the 14-storey Preluna Hotel in Sliema for the accolade of highest building. Even before approving the masterplan for Paceville the PA has approved an 11-storey tower just next to it, without compensating it with any new open space.

Seven other high-rise were approved and built without any policy regulating tall buildings: Fort Cambridge, the A3 Towers in Paola, two towers at Tigné Point, the Fortina hotel in Tigné and the Intercontinental Hotel in St Julian’s and Pender Gardens.

Also approved but yet to be constructed are the 33-storey Metropolis tower in Gzira, the controversial 12-storey Mistra Heights and a 16 storey tower in Gzira, which was the first to be approved under the new policy and over which the developers now want an additional eight storeys. Added to these were the 38-storey tower near Villa Drago in Sliema and the 4-tower cluster in Mriehel. Both developments are now facing an appeal by NGOs and in the case of the Sliema tower also by the Environment and Resources Authority, and the local council.  

In 2015 the Planning Authority designated Tigné, Qawra, Marsa, Gzira and Mriehel as localities where over-10 storey developments can take place. Marsaskala and St Paul’s Bay were also identified for medium rise development where 6 to 8 storey developments can take place.

The PA’s midsummer decisions

Townsquare director John Soler. When asked whether he would offer residents compensation, Soler replied: “I never received compensation when people were building all around my property.”
Townsquare director John Soler. When asked whether he would offer residents compensation, Soler replied: “I never received compensation when people were building all around my property.”
During a marathon session marked by the absence of ERA chairman Victor Axiak who was recovering from surgery, the Planning Authority controversially approved both the 38 storey tower in Sliema by seven votes against six and the Mriehel towers by 11 votes against two. Since PA chairman Vince Cassar, who holds the casting vote in case of a draw, was against the Sliema project, Axiak’s presence would have effectively killed the Sliema application. This is because Axiak had declared himself against both projects in a memo sent to fellow board member Timmy Gambin who chose only to read the part dealing with the Mriehel tower.

Controversy on the four cylindrical tower blocks, comprising 14, 16, 17 and 19 storeys, proposed in Mriehel by the Tumas and Gasan groups largely focused on the way this locality was designated as a high-rise zone directly by the government after the closure of the public consultation. The project was also approved before the approval of a masterplan for the Mriehel area. Further controversy was generated by the fact that the project was approved despite evidence that the visuals contained in the EIA consisted of photos taken by a wide angle, which failed to show the full impact of the project on long distance views like those from Valletta towards Mdina.   

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

Approval of the Sliema project was 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. 

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 developers’ reaction to these concerns has been anything but emphatic. When asked whether he would offer residents compensation, Townsquare director John Soler replied: “I never received compensation when people were building all around my property.”

When reminded that for some of these elderly people these may well be the last 10 months of their life… he simply replied, “there are other construction sites near which people could be living the last 10 months of their life.”

Being located in an industrial zone the Mriehel development has generated far less controversy. In fact it may well spearhead a renewal of the area. It is set around four tower blocks, 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 Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

Both applications are now under appeal.  But while the ERA has only appealed against the one in Sliema, NGOs have appealed against both. This may suggest that the government may well have a way out from the political cost of a high-rise in the middle of Sliema.

The future of high-rise

Taking matters in their own hands: Kamp Emergenza Ambjent challenged MIDI plc by forcibly gaining access to the Gzira foreshore that was blocked by the development at Fort Manoel
Taking matters in their own hands: Kamp Emergenza Ambjent challenged MIDI plc by forcibly gaining access to the Gzira foreshore that was blocked by the development at Fort Manoel
Controversy on Townsquare does not bode well for the 40-storey high-rise hotel on top of the historical Fort Cambridge officers’ mess – proposed a short distance away in Tigné. An EIA on this project has already been submitted confirming “the scale of the proposed development would undermine the value of the landscape… with no scope for mitigation”.

The Paceville masterplan, which envisions 20 new towers, was presented as a bold attempt to set parameters for development to avoid haphazard development like that in Tigné. But while the document pays lip service to urban planning, transport needs and the need to create public spaces, it was also overshadowed by the development needs of private projects in nine private sites at Paceville, changing the goalposts for some of the developers by shifting a public plaza from Mercury House (earmarked for a 35 storey tower) to St George’s Park, envisioning a 15 storey development on reclaimed land at Portomaso and three towers on the Cresta Quay foreshore in blatant disregard of the newly approved public domain act.

Ultimately by envisioning a threefold increase in population from the current 3,000, whose needs and aspirations were overlooked in the masterplan, to 9,000 and a dramatic increase in developable floor space, the masterplan, if ever implemented could render Malta even more dependent on attracting rich foreigners and companies who set office here because of its favorable tax regime; possibly a boom or bust scenario for the property sector and the rest of the economy. To add insult to injury it also emerged that Mott Macdonald had acted as a consultant to the Mercury House project.

Interviewed on TVM’s Xtra, Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech hinted that the government itself may be having cold feet, admitting that “practically everyone” had opposed the masterplan and that he too was personally against it and that it should be redesigned from scratch.

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