Planning Authority approves Mriehel Towers despite legal doubts

Veracity of photomontages questioned by ERA chairman and professional photographer Daniel Cilia • Mriehel towers to provide 1,065 parking spaces for 2,635 employees.

The PA board met to deliberate on the Mriehel and Townsquare high-rise projects
The PA board met to deliberate on the Mriehel and Townsquare high-rise projects

A strong legal case presented by lawyer Claire Bonello on behalf of all environmental NGOs questioning the procedure used to include Mriehel as a high rise zone, did not stop a nervous Planning Authority board from approving four high rise towers belonging to the Gasan and Tumas group.

The two leading business groups are also partners in the Electro Gas consortium chosen to construct the new Delimara power station.  

Following a lengthy meeting, only opposition representative Ryan Callus and NGO representative Annick Bonello voted against. The project was approved before the completion of a master plan and changes to the local plan for Mriehel initiated by the government in 2015.

Lawyer Claire Bonello presented a strong case on behalf of NGOs, disputing the inclusion of Mriehel as a high rise zone directly by government after the conclusion of the public consultation period denying the public the opportunity to express its views.

PA chairman Vince Cassar tried to stop Bonello, insisting that the argument should focus on the approval of the four towers and not on the way the policy was approved.

Dr Ian Borg  the authority’s legal representative and Labour MP Joe Sammut also intervened to stop Bonello who remained unfazed. However, the lawyer did not budge from questioning how the project can be approved before the approval of a master plan for Mriehel, which is still being drafted and issued for public consultation.

She called for a deferral of the meeting until the masterplan is approved.

Tara Cassar from eNGO Flimkien ghal-Ambjent Ahjar pressed on the same point, prompting further protests by Vince Cassar.

The visuals presented by developers were questioned in a scientific appraisal presented by expert Daniel Cilia, who claimed that these photos were deceptive as they were taken with a wide angle. This means that the photomonatges show the building as being far smaller than when seen with the naked eye.   

During the meeting Cilia - a photographic expert - also questioned photomontages presented by the developers which were taken by wide angle, showing photos of the same landscapes with existing buildings far closer and visible than depicted in the developers photomontages.

In one photo, presented by the developers in the Environmental Impact Assessment, taken from Hastings Gardens in Valletta the towers are superimposed but Mdina is not even visible and even St Lukes hospital is diminished in size.  

A photomontage by environment NGOs of how the Mriehel towers will look like from Mdina
A photomontage by environment NGOs of how the Mriehel towers will look like from Mdina

Cilia presented photos taken by a 50mm lens, which has the same focal distance as the human eye, exposing the optical illusion.  New Planning Authority guidlelines in fact specify that photos should be taken by a 50mm lens.

Architect Ray Demicoli insisted that the visuals are completely correct while shifting the argument on visuals published by environmental NGOs in the past week.

Environmental Resources Authority chairman Victor Axiak who was absent due to health reasons sent comments questioning the veracity of the montages presented by the developer.

Opposition MP Ryan Callus also explained his negative vote questioning the inclusion of Mriehel by the Government, describing it as a "purely political and illegal decision" taken in absence of any public consultation and proper planning considerations.

He also questioned the cumulative impact of all projects which could take place in Mriehel on sensitive landscapes.

“If other projects take place will Mdina remain visible from Valletta when Mriehel is developed as a high rise zone in its entirety?” he asked.

Former environment protection director Petra Bianchi argued that “if the policy is invalid, any approval of an application based on this policy is invalid.”

Former Planning Authority board member Alex Vella questioned the conflict of interest of Ray Demicoli who is the architect of the project who was part of the committee drafting the policy. This earned Vella the rebuke of board member Timmy Gambin, who accused him of using inside information he was privy to as a board member.

Demicoli who was recently appointed in the PA's  Design Advisory Committee, which assesses the design of projects presented by other architects, insisted that he was "offering a service" and defended his integrity.

Demicoli is a member of the authority's design advisory committee and part of the committee which drafted the policy on high buildings.

The project was approved despite a projected shortfall of 500 parking spaces foreseen by Transport Malta studies. The number of parking spaces was calculated in what is considered as an outdated calculation of 1 parking space per 50 square metre of office space, rather than a parking space for every employee. The project is projected to employ 2,635 workers, providing parking spaces for less than half.

The architect of the project Ray Demicoli described the project as a milestone for the country and part of the vision of Mriehel as a financial district. He insisted that, had developers opted for low-rise development, they would have still had the same impact on parking and traffic.  

He presented visuals of how the project is barely visible from Mdina but no visual of how the project effects views to Mdina except one showing the development visible from Hastings.  

The meeting started with a strong speech the PA lawyer describes a judicial protest by environmental organizations which held board members individually responsible if the project is approved in breach of planning laws as a deplorable pressure on board members.  The lawyer intimated that the judicial protest amounted to pressure on board members.

The Mriehel Towers project consists of four cylindrical tower blocks, comprising 16, 17, 19 and 14 storeys, sitting on top of five basement levels.

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, four catering establishments, 930 square metres for conference facilities. Plans earmark a floor space of 33,000 square metres for office space.  

The application for the mega development was presented in October 2014 by the Tumas and Gasan groups, who are also partners in the ElectroGas power station consortium, on a site adjacent to that of the present Gasan head office on the Mriehel bypass.

Mriehel was not included among the localities that will be considered for high-rise buildings of over 10 storeys, when a policy regulating building heights was first issued for public consultation in November 2013. This meant that the public never had any chance to comment on the choice of this site.

But then Mriehel was added to the list just before the policy was approved in June.  The planning ombudsman had disagreed with the procedure.         

A case officer report is recommending the approval of four high-rise towers in Mriehel belonging to the Gasan and Tumas groups, despite studies showing that the project will result in a parking shortfall of 498 parking spaces, which would be in breach of policy.

The policy on tall buildings approved by the government in 2014 states clearly that high-rise developments must provide all car-parking requirements on site. Whenever this is not technically possible these should provide parking facilities not more than 250 metres away from the site of the development.

In the Mriehel case, the proposed development will provide 1,065 parking spaces, which is 498 short of the 1,563 required on a normal working day.

The Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA) justifies this under-provision of parking spaces by the commitment taken by the developer to encourage alternative models of transport as part of the requirements for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.   An extra basement to accommodate more parking is excluded due to the buildings structural stability.

As part of this commitment the development includes the provision of 105 bicycle racks and 54 preferential parking spaces will be allocated for car sharing initiatives.   

However the TIA notes that “these measures alone are unlikely to result in a significant modal shift.” Therefore an improvement in public transport services is deemed to be essential. The developer is being expected to take a commitment to organise collective transport for employees for a period of five years. No buses currently pass through the industrial estate.

The erection of four high-rise towers at Mriehel is expected to result in a daily increase of 1,362 cars a day passing from Triq l-Imdina, according to the Environment Impact Statement on the impact of the proposed towers by Tumas and Gasan Groups.

To ease traffic pressures a traffic underpass from the northbound Dawret l-Imriehel carriageway with Triq l-Intonjatur is being proposed.       

More in Environment