Tasteful restoration and the battle for green spaces

Developers struggle to shed environmental bogeyman image during a lively debate on the ‘future of the South’, TEODOR RELJIC discovers

MDA president Sandro Chetcuti: Developers are not bogeymen. Environment Minister Leo Brincat (left) attended the forum
MDA president Sandro Chetcuti: Developers are not bogeymen. Environment Minister Leo Brincat (left) attended the forum

Offering little tangible examples of how the South of Malta should be developed, but delivering his talk with plenty of optimistic bonhomie on the future of the region, Malta Developers Association (MDA) president Sandro Chetcuti called on the public to stop treating the developer as an environmental bogeyman. He was addressing a form on ‘The Future of the South’ organised by Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar and Ramblers’ Association at Smart City yesterday.

Eating up a substantial amount of his presentation time with a breathless and impassioned plea explaining the true purpose of the Malta Developers Association, Chetcuti said that the MDA was formed five years ago to in fact curb the excesses of the past and to regulate new development.

“Past developments have ruined the environment and even the harmony of certain village cores. So instead of looking at the developer as somebody who sets out to wreck the environment from the word go, we should seek to work together with them to reach a healthy compromise,” Chetcuti said, adding that he often engages in conversations with FAA on the viability of certain sites.

Chetcuti added that he “loves” the “culture and people” of the South and their “simple” approach to life, and that we should seek workable compromises that respect the area’s natural development but that also “go beyond the status quo”.

Riffing off a previous presentation by architect Edward Said on the potential restoration of certain abandoned forts in the South, Chetcuti recalled how a past client of his wanted to develop the Fort San Salvatore into a boutique hotel, but that this was blocked by the planning authority at the time, Chetcuti asked, “Why should we leave certain places just as they are, when we could potentially have a win-win situation?”

Building to an emotional crescendo, Chetcuti said that his final message was that we start to look at developers as people with whom you can discuss, and who can potentially play a crucial part in bringing your vision into fruition.

“So what do we want for the South? Do we want it to be another Qawra? Another St Julian’s? Should it stay as it is? Let’s discuss this,” Chetcuti said, stressing the importance of discussions among developers and environmentalists at planning stage since, “unless things are made clear at the planning stage, you can hardly blame entrepreneurs who then come in to – legally – build something you may not like.”

Jumping in to comment on a subsequent presentation which brought up the example of Tigne as a typically dismal development, Chetcuti said that Tigne and the like “hurt developers too”. 

“It’s not the developers that are to blame, but the planning authority,” Chetcuti said, fending off protests from the attendees, adding that, “there are developers and developers... Just like there are priests and priests, hunters and hunters...”

Architect Edward Said – who specialises in restoration – identified some historical forts around Malta that he deemed worthy of restoration, while also warning against always taking the “puritan” route when it comes to restoring historical buildings. 

He contended that we should be tolerant towards certain “interventions that might bother certain restoration purists”, as this would be a viable way of reaching a compromise between conservation and development, putting the philosophy of “adaptive re-use” in practice. 

Said singled out Fort San Salvatore and Fort Ricasoli as historical forts that are crying out for regeneration and that could be ‘put to good use’. He noted that Fort San Salvatore boasts a history dating back to the Knights, and also served as the island’s first ever concrete batching plant. Going by his experience of working on Fort Tigne, Midi Towers and Fort Manoel, Said estimated that a full restoration of San Salvatore would amount to around €6 million, while stressing that a too-conservative approach would be inadvisable.

“We should get over the idea that all Maltese forts need to be restored in the same exact way they looked when they were first built, as is the case with Rinella, for example. Not all forts should be used as tourist sites, as ‘tableaux’ of what they used to be.”

Coordinator of Sahhambjent Jason Bonnici – also a general practitioner based in the region of the south – put paid to the belief that the heavy-duty industrialisation of the South has led to pervasive health problems. But he added that any plan to create necessary green areas would also address the region’s socio-economic problems. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of youths from this area tend to be early school leavers, for example,” Bonnici said. “My proposal would be to not only create the necessary green spaces, but to give these youths training and work experience by allowing them to help set them up”.

Claiming that such green spaces would also “offer a tourism alternative distinct from the mass tourism approach that characterises the North of Malta,” Bonnici said that creating aesthetically beautiful green areas would go a long way towards incentivising people to walk and exercise in their locality, reiterating how various studies have proven, time and time again, the direct medical benefits of open and green spaces.

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