Heritage watchdog objects to 11-storey hotel abutting Villa Bonici gardens

Superintendence for Cultural Heritage decries unauthorized works carried out in 2019 on a garden behind old farmhouse in Parisio Street

The Villa Bonici site in Sliema
The Villa Bonici site in Sliema

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has expressed “grave concern” at the intensity of development proposed by hotelier Michael Stivala, on a site between Moroni and Parisio streets which abuts the scheduled gardens of Villa Bonici, and in the immediate vicinity of the historic Telephone Exchange, also scheduled at Grade 2.

Stivala wants to demolish a dilapidated vernacular building that separates the lower and higher part of Parisio street, to erect a hotel over 11 floors, which includes a receded top-floor restaurant and pool deck, and three underground floors for a spa and parking area.

But the cultural heritage watchdog warned that the development’s “considerable heights and volumes” will be overbearing on the scheduled gardens of Villa Bonici.

The Superintendence called for the lowering of the overall height of the hotel and adequate terracing away from the scheduled gardens.

This SCH is also concerned by the demolition of the vernacular building, which dates back to the early 20th century and was constructed using traditional materials and techniques. Although it still has to assess the value of the building, ”such demolition would generally not be viewed favourably by the Superintendence.”

The proposed hotel includes a tract of land next to the vernacular building, which has been partly excavated without a permit. Last year, Stivala applied to sanction rock excavation on this site and to use it as a temporary parking facility.

But the Superintendence had already objected to this sanctioning, noting that the unauthorised clearing and excavation had resulted in the destruction of a walled garden behind the vernacular building, between the upper and lower part of Parisio Street. “These works included the demolition and clearing of masonry structures within this garden.  The loss of this garden and structures has severely impacted the legibility and context of this old Sliema house, impacting on its cultural heritage values.”

Moreover, the excavations and rock-cutting were carried out in an unacceptable manner, “flush against the scheduled garden wall, threatening is structural stability and causing visible material damage to its foundations.”

The Superintendence noted “with grave concern” that the hotel application was now being presented on the same site of these unauthorised works.

Since its concerns on the unauthorised works remain unresolved, the SCH said the current application for the hotel development is prejudicial to the previous application to sanction the works.

The Planning Authority received over 50 objections from residents. Some of the residents complained that they have been living “in a perpetual building site for the past 20 years”, with construction activity “increasing drastically since 2013”.

They complained of the “negative psychological effects” resulting from residing “in such a squalid neighbourhood”, characterised by “incessant noise from before sunrise till sunset, dust emanating continuously which manages to pass through sealed windows to cover indoor areas with a fine layer of dust.”

As proposed, the hotel will be built over a 957sq.m area occupied by the old building and field, in the vicinity of the protected Villa Bonici site.

Apart from the Waterfront Hotel, which faces the Strand, the area is mainly residential and inhabited by elderly people who are alarmed by the scale of excavations required by the development.

In 2017, the PA paved the way for the development by approving an application by Stivala himself, to remove a schemed stairway that had been planned to link the upper and lower parts of Parisio Street, and rezone the area as a residential one.

Instead of the public stairway, which was never constructed, Stivala proposed an uncovered 2m-wide passageway with a water culvert. The 50m pedestrian passage will be constructed at Stivala’s expense to serve as a “pedestrian link between Triq Moroni and Triq Parisio”.

The schemed stairway dates back to 1961, and replicated in the Temporary Provision Schemes of 1989 and in the 2006 North Harbour Local Plan. In 2016 the PA rejected a planning control application to do away with the schemed stairway, and include the site as part of the residential area. After winning a court case on the ownership of the land in question, Stivala presented a new zoning application, which was approved.