We’re still in time to save Manoel Island

What’s our excuse today, for denying public access to a cultural heritage jewel for over two decades... only to transform it into a ‘Mediterranean village’?

OK, let me cut right to the chase: just because Eddie Fenech Adami made a mistake back in the 1990s (and Alfred Sant compounded that mistake around 1996), it doesn’t follow that we all have to lump the consequences forever. Mistakes can, and should, be rectified where possible: and in this case, the possibility still exists... if only in part.

It was, in a nutshell, short-sighted and inconsiderate of successive Maltese governments to negotiate a contract (signed in 2000) ceding Manoel Island and Tigné point to speculative developers on a 99-year lease. Not much can be done to reverse the consequences in the case of Tigné... but Manoel Island is another story. Though 18 years have elapsed since the contract was signed, very little has actually been done on site. Fort Manoel has been restored, yes... and in the unlikely event of an expropriation (more about this later) the developers would naturally have to be compensated for the expense... but the rest of the island is still as wild, tumble-down and gloriously dilapidated as I remember
it in my childhood.

Much more beside: it is still GREEN. Remember that mysterious colour that most children now grow up without ever seeing? Well, you can still appreciate it in all its natural splendour while walking along the Gzira seafront. But not for very much longer; so I suggest you make the most of the opportunity while it lasts. In fact, scratch whatever plans you had for the coming week, and bring your kids down to Gzira instead. Let them admire the last patch of natural greenery in the entire Northwest harbour area, before it is permanently blocked out of view by yet another wave of identical, faceless and instantly forgettable buildings.

Meanwhile, to get an idea what those children will soon see while gazing upon the same view: just take a look at the promotional video on the MIDI consortium website. It’s a 3D animation of what is actually planned for Manoel Island over the next 10 or so years (produced by the developers themselves, so one can safely assume it highlights the project’s most visually appealing aspects). At a glance, most of it seems completely indistinguishable from the urban sprawl on the either side of the bridge. For one thing, the bulk of the development itself (of which there is far too much anyway: 600 apartments, when the original draft plans mentioned only 100) is all bunched up on the Gzira-facing side: so even if roughly half the island remains untouched, it will be invisible from the mainland anyway... as our photomontages illustrate.

The most upsetting part, however, is when you get ‘chauffeur-driven’ (by camera) through what will very soon be the island’s ‘Main Street’. Today, the stretch of road in question leads you directly towards Fort Manoel, past patches of trees and greenery on either side. I’ll admit it’s a bit shabby and derelict: but it’s still a beautiful walk. Wild flowers – asphodel, snapdragon, nasturtium and many more – grow by the roadside; lizards and skinks scurry through the rubble as you walk past. And the sea is visible though the trees... as well as the mast-tops of yachts, the skyline of Ta’ Xbiex, etc.

I can assure you will not experience anything comparable in any part of Gzira, Sliema, Ta’ Xbiex or beyond (unless, you break into the remains of the Empire Stadium across the main road, which now resembles a misplaced corner of the Amazon Jungle). Not even Independence Gardens overlooking Balluta Bay, or the Marina Gardens of Ta’ Xbiex (to mention the only two public gardens that actually exist within a radius of five miles): those are pretty, yes... but they’re also sanitised, pruned and ‘domesticated’. More than ‘parks’, they’re really just glorified flowerbeds... with a couple of benches and maybe a kiosk or two for good measure.

Manoel Island, on the other hand, is different. Dirty and neglected though the place may still be, it still feels timeless and untouched. Above all, it still retains that rare aura of openness, of the kind that all surrounding towns and villages lost decades ago... and with it, their cultural memory of what their own landscape once looked like.

Sorry to get all mushy on you, but that quality (which I concede is difficult to actually describe) is the one thing that has become sorely missing in Malta. We need it, like a honey bee needs nectar, or a newborn baby needs its mother’s milk. And we’re not getting it. Small wonder people in this country (myself included) have evolved into short-tempered, irritable brutes with no patience at all. We’re condemned to living our entire lives walled in by construction from every angle: like prisoners denied even the right to stretch their limbs in fresh air.

But back to the video. Let’s face it; what is the difference between the ‘Main Street’ planned for Manoel Island... and any other street, in any town or village, anywhere in Malta? Even if we bow our heads to the general idea – and I don’t think we should – that ‘Manoel Island should be developed’: I mean, honestly: is that the best our architects and urban planners could do?

You turn a corner into a square that could easily be a carbon copy of the centrepiece of Tigne Point: i.e., expertly designed to block out the view in all directions... thus restricting a panorama that was once enjoyed by everybody, to the lucky few who can afford to buy or rent the new sea-front apartments

It’s hideous: far uglier than the typical urban streetscape, in that there is no breathing space at all, of any kind, between the individual blocks. Not even so much as a garden or a hedge to break the urban monotony. Nor even a side street to open up the unbroken lines of adjacent townhouses. Just buildings, buildings and more buildings. And what’s more, they all seem designed according to the most utilitarian aesthetic principle known to man. What does an apartment need, anyway? Four walls, a roof, and – at most – a balcony. Et voila: rows upon rows of limestone-clad shoeboxes, just like any other housing estate...

And that’s just Main Street. After a while, you turn a corner into a square that could easily be a carbon copy of the centrepiece of Tigne Point: i.e., expertly designed to block out the view in all directions... thus restricting a panorama that was once enjoyed by everybody, to the lucky few who can afford to buy or rent the new sea-front apartments.

Which takes us back to the image I tried (probably unsuccessfully) to convey with my earlier description. How on earth did we all consent to exchange what we have today on Manoel Island, for... THAT? Did we even consent to this at all?

I’m unaware that we ever did. As I said in the beginning, this was the result of negotiations begun by a Nationalist government in the mid-1990s; continued by a Labour government between 1996 and 1998, before the deal was eventually concluded in 2000. Meanwhile an entire generation, that wasn’t even born at the time, has now reached voting age. They’re being deprived of something they even knew they had: how can that possibly be fair?

But then again, Malta was a different country back when this whole thing started. We were not exactly rolling in money in the 1990s: governments found it hard to say ‘no’ to investment projects worth millions (especially given how political parties were funded at the time – and up to a point still are).

And there wasn’t the same level of environmental awareness that exists today, either. Eddie Fenech Adami was himself the product of pre-war Malta: his early adulthood unfolded against the backdrop of the post-war construction boom. He would have looked at Manoel Island and seen nothing but a giant patch of wasteland crying out for development. And if he’s reading this article right now, he’ll probably be shaking his head and muttering something like: ‘lizards and skinks... hekk jonqos ukoll...’

So all things considered, I don’t hold his short-sightedness against him. Today’s authorities, however, are a little less easy to let off the hook. What’s our excuse today, for denying public access to a cultural heritage jewel for over two decades... only to transform it into a ‘Mediterranean village’? (Because, of course, the one thing that the Sliema/Gzira area was crying out for was another ‘Mediterranean village’, to add to all the rest...)

It cannot be ‘the economy’... not when government is busy trumpeting its great financial successes – surplus, credit agency upgrades, etc. – at every opportunity. It could, however, be the existence of a contract which binds all successive governments for 99 years... of which only 18 have actually elapsed.

This, I shall have to admit, makes a powerful argument: unwise though the decision appears today, the contract in itself is valid, and legally in force. Whatever is done (and I’m not exactly hopeful that anything will be) shall have to respect the legality of that agreement.

This allows for two possibilities that I can see. The first is that legal ways are sought to overturn the contract – with all due compensation paid – and return Manoel Island to the people who had been barred out from it for so long (before partial access was recently – and somewhat grudgingly – allowed). Somehow, governments do occasionally find ways out of their legal obligations when it suits them – we saw this in the case of Cafe Premier, for instance – so it would not be a ‘first’. It would, however, involve a lot of acrimonious court wrangling, with no guarantee of success.

Far simpler – and, therefore, far less likely – is that the contracting parties themselves either relinquish their rights over Manoel Island (once more against compensation, etc.); or downscale the project considerably, so as to retain that all-important view of greenery for the benefit of the construction-choked population across the water... and so that traversing that bridge still feels, as it does today, that you are leaving the urban sprawl behind you, and entering a much-needed oasis of green and calm.

Come on, all you big developers... and all your architects and urban planners, horses and men. You know you can do it... and still make the whole thing a worthwhile investment for yourselves. And if you can’t... well, then perhaps it’s time to consider the possibility that you may be in the wrong line of business. After all, it takes a pretty lousy developer/urban planner, to ruin a place with so very much potential... and which needs so very little for that potential to be actuated.

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