A welcome precedent for development in Malta

Perhaps, after years of criticism for over-developing Tigné, MIDI now feels it is obliged to at least give something back to the community: a step which also enhances its reputation

For better or worse, the 30-year-old Manoel Island saga seems to be drawing to a close.

This week, developers MIDI plc published a revised master plan, through which it emerges that the company has relinquished its own development rights – in this case, considerably reducing the footprint of new buildings from 26% to 10%, and increasing open spaces from 161,000sq.m to 192,000sq.m.

This is certainly not the first time that developers have sought to appease the public, by juggling aspects of a particular project’s design; but on this occasion, the concessions made by MIDI plc go considerably beyond the usual cosmetic alterations we have grown accustomed to.

Perhaps, after years of criticism for over-developing Tigné, MIDI now feels it is obliged to at least give something back to the community: a step which also enhances its reputation.

Whatever the reason, however: as things stand now, the number of apartments has been reduced from 610, as foreseen in a 2019 permit, to less than 300. Land reclamation facing the promenade has been excised from the project, and public spaces have been increased and enhanced.   

In a significant break with tradition, MIDI has not opted for higher buildings to compensate for the loss of floor space. Where an 8,000sq.m reduction in the project footprint, proposed in 2019, had been ‘compensated’ by a controversial swap, permitting MIDI to further over-develop Tigné; this time round, the reduction of 37,000sq.m from the 1999 deed comes with no strings attached.

The developers have simply relinquished their development rights; rights that had, after all, been, acquired in a different political context, where environmental awareness was lower.

Significantly, these changes will also be cast in stone, as MIDI will retain ownership of the airspace, thus ensuring that when properties are redeemed, the new owners will not be able to apply to increase building heights.

This was confirmed by MIDI during a meeting with MaltaToday. So while MIDI’s past track record in Tigné speaks for itself, and warrants healthy scepticism from the public, it is positive that the company seems to realise that the country’s expectations have changed from 1999.

In itself, however, this is unlikely to placate all opposition to the project. While, ideally, Manoel Island should have been declared a national park – and the government should never have relinquished this enormous space, for commercial usage – in reality, it is difficult to redress this historical error.

The 1999 permit for both Tigné and Manoel Island was, in a sense, also cast in stone: with the permit itself being enshrined into the local plans. But at least, MIDI has accepted to engage with critics; and, unlike other developers – such as DB, whose changes to their Pembroke project left them with practically the same number of apartments to sell (divided in two towers instead of only one) – MIDI has actually scaled down its project substantially.   

On another level, the revised master plan also vindicates environmental NGOs who had not given up on the Manoel Island campaign.  While many argued that it was a lost cause, the perseverance of Flimkien Ghall Ambjent Ahjar and Inhobbu l-Gzira (which collected 9,000 signatures to turn Manoel Island into a national park) has to be recognised, too.

In fact, the project was only sent back to the drawing board thanks to a crowdfunded appeal against the permit issued in 2019. For it was the revocation of the permit by the EPRT appeals tribunal which triggered the changes.

A lot is also owed to the contribution of the Gzira mayor Konrad Borg Manché and environmentalist lawyer Claire Bonello, who have given their input in the guardianship foundation which is responsible for ensuring that MIDI’s commitments are respected. Moreover, it was also thanks to a direct action campaign spearheaded by Moviment Graffitti, and supported by the mayor, that access to the coastline was secured.

Lastly, the master plan also vindicates the role of the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage. MIDI in fact attributes the changes to the monitoring of the SCH, which resulted in the discovery of the remains of a British-era quarantine cemetery: as reported by MaltaToday in June 2019.

The SCH’s contribution as bulwark against insensitive development has to be recognized, through adequate funding and resource allocation.

Sure enough, however, MIDI could still have tried to skirt its obligations, by turning the historical remains into decorative items for their real estate development: as often happens in other projects.

Instead, they decided to introduce a 35,000sq.m public open space in this area. If nothing else, this represents a welcome precedent for development in Malta.

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