Excelsior extension set to ‘pronounce hotel’ against fortifications

Superintendence for Cultural Heritage gives blessing to hotel extension after plans for new wing were downscaled to avoid covering the bastions, but development will still have a marked impact on harbour views

The view of the hotel with the proposed new wing
The view of the hotel with the proposed new wing

Plans for a new five- to six-storey wing addition to the Excelsior Hotel have been downscaled, but the project will still have a major impact on harbour views as seen from Msida and Ta’ Xbiex, a visual impact study confirms.

If approved, the hotel’s new wing – which will add 77 new guest rooms – will practically cover the existing retaining wall along Great Siege Road but, unlike original plans presented in 2019, will not rise above it in a way which obscures the overlying bastions.

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has given its blessing to the hotel extension making its approval more likely.

The heritage watchdog welcomed the fact that the redesigned wing will not extend above the level of Great Siege Road, nor will it visually encroach on the lower part of the scheduled fortifications and obscure them describing this as “a very considerable improvement on the earlier proposal”.

A visual impact study based on photomontages of the proposed development, considers the lateral extension of the main hotel building along the eastern boundary of the site where it borders Great Siege Road, as the “most critical element” of the proposed development in terms of changes to the townscape.

This new accommodation wing will rise 18.4 m from ground level but will still be lower than the adjoining eight storey existing hotel.

The study concludes that the new hotel wing will change views of the harbour fortifications, which are designated as an Area of High Landscape Value (AHLV) from four points across Marsamxett Harbour.

The most noticeable change will be in the views from the west, from Msida and Ta’ Xbiex, where the new accommodation wing would be more exposed than when viewed from the east.

The new wing will screen much of the retaining wall along Great Siege Road.

“As viewed from Msida and Ta’ Xbiex, the new accommodation wing will screen much of the retaining wall along Triq L-Assedju Il-Kbir and will serve to pronounce the hotel against the backdrop of the Valletta Fortifications,” the study by ADI Consultants concludes.

The north-facing façade of the new accommodation wing will also be noticeable from Manoel Island and Tigné, although it will part-screen the existing hotel and will serve to somewhat break up the mass and linearity of the existing northwest wing of the hotel, which is a prominent feature in the views from the east.

According to the study the hotel extension has already been redesigned three times to further reduce the height of the new west wing.

In 2020 the Superintendence for Cultural heritage had shot down plans for six to eight storey extension to accommodate for 99 new guest rooms.

In these plans the two upper two storeys extended above the Triq l-Assedju l-Kbir, visually encroaching on the lower part of the scheduled fortifications and obscuring them.  Subsequently the development was downscaled by removing the two topmost storeys rising above the road.

In February 2022, additional changes were made in order to satisfy concerns raised by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage and the Planning Authority. The changes included recessing the two uppermost storeys of the new wing, to reflect the profile of the existing hotel. In addition, a restaurant previously proposed to be located within the Quarantine bastion was omitted. An additional change in the latest plan was the inclusion of planters along the balconies.

The proposed development also foresees the redevelopment of the pool bar area, to provide for a single-storey structure with conical roof rising 7.50m from ground level and the redevelopment and reorganisation of the pool area; and the creation of a water feature.

How Excelsior ruined the harbour view

The development of the Excelsior was one of the first rallying causes for conservationist movement Din l-Art Ħelwa, founded in 1965 under the leadership of Judge Maurice Caruana Curran. Din l-Art Ħelwa vehemently opposed the building of the Excelsior, which tore a hole in Valletta’s fortifications.

The original hotel was proposed by the Malta and Europe Hotels Ltd, a company formed in 1964 by Italians Antonio and Nada Ghidoli.

When the Excelsior hotel was completed, Cecil Pace, a main creditor to the Ghidolis, proceeded to convert this debt into shares.

The Excelsior became embroiled in the BICAL bank scandal which saw the government taking control of Pace’s bank. Yet the hotel survived, only to close its doors in March 1990 after dismissing its 145 employees.

The hotel was then sold to Hopewell Holdings, which planned to demolish it and build a new one.

The original hotel was demolished in 1992 and initial work began to develop a 420-room hotel and a marina with berths for 20 yachts.

By 1999, however, work on the site slowed down and came to a halt.

In 2003 the hotel was bought by its current owner, Hong Kong-based Stewart Elliott, and reopened in 2007. Back then Eliott did not hesitate to point out “eyesore developments across the harbour, which marred the landscape”.