PA declares intention to approve Ta’ Xbiex 15-storey tower

Case officer recommended refusal due to basement garage heights being lower than established at law

The Planning Authority has declared its intention to approve a 15-storey tower, proposed by developer Michael Stivala – also the secretary-general of the Malta Developers Associatio – in Ta’ Xbiex along Testaferrata and Enrico Mizzi Street.

PA chairman Vince Cassar justified his vote by saying that the tower is lower than the Metropolis development and fits in with the new skyline of the area, but lamented the lack of masterplans to assess the impact of high-rises on the skyline.

All board members, except NGO representative Annick Bonello, expressed their intention to vote in favour of the project, thus over turning the recommendation of the case officer.

The development was recommended for refusal because the height of four basement garages will be 0.4 metres less than that required by law.

Apart from 15-storey offices, the tower will have a five-level underground car park.  

A final decision will be taken in another sitting as happens whenever a majority of the board declares its intention to overturn the recommendation of the case officer, who says it does not comply with sanitary regulations despite adhering to other planning policies. 

But the PA executive chairman Martin Saliba specified that the law foresaw the possibility of exemptions to the law, even if the law does not mention basement garages among the cases where an exemption can be granted. Saliba also said that reducing the height of basement storeys helps in reducing construction waste.

In this case the height of four of the basement garages are set at 2.1m, less than the 2.4 m stipulated by law, while the top basement level will be 3.1m. Architect Joseph Bondin pointed out that going deeper underground would create structural problems due to the fact that the excavations will already go 6m below sea level.

Board member Annick Bonello referred to possible problems related to the geology of the area due to excavations being proposed under sea level and its proximity to the flood relief tunnel, asking whether this was considered in geological studies. 

Despite voting for the project, most board members expressed reservations on it.

PA chairman Vince Cassar and board member Dr Chris Cilia expressed concern that photomontages shown to the board also depicted the 33-storey Metropolis project, of which so far only a hole in the ground exists, despite being approved 10 years ago. They insisted that the board should have been shown both images of the new tower as a standalone and another showing both towers.

Board member Martin Camilleri, who also voted for the project, acknowledged that the law specifying a 2.4m height for basements was not done capriciously but for important health and safety considerations.  After praising the design of the tower, Camilleri questioned the landscaping design of the open space describing it as a front garden. “I would not like to see another open space serving only for the purpose of putting tables and chairs.”

But Architect Bondin committed the developers by saying that no tables and chairs will be put in this area.

Chairman Vince Cassar also lamented the absence of the EIA consultants during the public hearing. Board member Gilmour Camilleri raised questions on the impact of the development on people living in the immediate vicinity who will be “buried” by the tower. Bondin replied that the impact would have been worse had the area been developed according to conventional model as no open space would be created. He also claimed that the shadow of the tower will fall on the open space of the yet to be completed Metropolis development. Camilleri withdrew his reservations after the Ta’ Xbiex council expressed support for the project.

The total public open space proposed at ground level amounts to 477sq.m of the 839sq.m site.

Although works on the 33-storey Metropolis approved 10 years ago are yet to start, the visual impact of the new development is deemed to complement that of its larger neighbour.

ERA chairman Victor Axiak expressed concern on the lack of a skyline policy for each locality. The case officer recognises that the new project will act as “the starting push for the upgrading of the area” given that the Metropolis project lies dormant, as well as complement the 22-storey 14 East Tower.

A social impact assessment among Gzira residents on a 15-storey high-rise has revealed great construction fatigue inside the harbour town and neighbouring villages.

Nearly two-thirds of residents in Gzira, Msida and Ta’ Xbiex disagreed with the proposed tower on Testaferrata Street, which would stand beside the Metropolis development, and reported a “degree of mistrust, bordering on resentment, towards the construction and building industry.”

The study was conducted by sociologists Marvin Formosa and Maria Brown, and includes a survey carried out in August 2019 among 301 residents from Msida, Gzira and Ta’ Xbiex. 

Despite the massive opposition of residents expressed in the survey, the executive secretary of the Labour led Ta’ Xbiex council Jasmine Tonna  claimed that residents living the immediate vicinity of the project were enthusiastic for the project as this would appreciate the value of their property.  Nobody in the meeting referred to the results of the survey.