From ‘sinful place’ to mindfulness: how Slimiżi envisage Chalet’s future

Should Sliema’s Chalet be rebuilt back as its heyday dancehall, or a landmark showcasing modern architecture? Or should it remain just part of the coast, a place for people to swim and even practice yoga? Four prominent Slimiżi have their say over a call for bids to turn the site into a catering and entertainment establishment

For over 40 years, the derelict ‘Chalet’ structure stood as a reminder of its past glory, a popular dancehall and venue for jazz bands, which was now attracting daredevils jumping into the sea from its platform held up by sea-corroded pillars.

But in 2006, public opposition to a ‘ship’-shaped restaurant jutting from Għar id-Dud, a project tied to an underground car park that would have endangered the sea caves beneath, forced a backtracking by the Nationalist government. Instead the administration proceeded to clear the structures, opening the lower platform to bathers and yoga practitioners who often congregate there in the early morning hours.

Now, 16 years down the line, it is the Labour government which has issued a second call for bidders to redevelop the site into a “superior quality” catering and entertainment establishment, relying on development brief issued following a public consultation in 1999.

In the absence of a public consultation, MaltaToday caught up with four prominent Slimiżi asking them what should be done at the Chalet.

And unsurprisingly, opinions are split between nostalgia for a magical place whose memory remained intact among the elderly, and a reticence over more development in Malta’s densest locality.

83-year-old Gloria Mizzi, a pioneer of Maltese broadcasting who served on the Sliema local council in the 1990s and early noughties, is still enthralled by memories of the Chalet before it closed down in the 1963. “There was excitement, fun and music... all you needed was a good band and the place came to life,” Mizzi recalls. Often dubbed a ‘place of sin’ by the more prudish of elders in those days Mizzi says the Chalet offered “pleasant and clean fun... the elderly always say such things when they are close to heaven.”

Mizzi has no doubts when asked what should be done with the Chalet even if she acknowledges the difficulty in keeping the place open in winter and autumn when the Għar id-Dud promenade is overwhelmed by the spectacular north-easternly Gregale winds. “It should be rebuilt exactly as it once was, with the same name as a place of dance and music... it would be a great asset for Sliema,” she says, hoping the authorities do not repeat the “mistake” of not rebuilding the Valletta opera house as it was. And no kiosk, either – the promenade has enough of those. “I think that’s what investors would also think. I’d welcome any effort to give Sliema back this asset.”

Even Frank O’Neil, a retired Stella Maris College teacher and popular entertainer, is all for resurrecting the Chalet, but makes an allowance for the use of modern architecture. “I would respect the structure there was but introduce a modern, sleek, neo-Art Deco style. Perhaps part of the lower level can actually be underwater, just like the National Aquarium.”

Not everyone wants to see the site redeveloped, keeping in mind how Sliema has changed since 1963, with over-development being a fact of life, and its pavements overtaken by commercial establishments and al freso tables.

Although he does not remember the old Chalet, Michael Briguglio, a popular, former Sliema councilor and sociologist, understands the nostalgia evoked by this place, in which his late grandfather Joseph Lucia once played as a drummer in a bluegrass band. As it happens Briguglio himself is an established rock drummer. But he himself had led the campaign against the commercialisation of Għar id-Dud at the time of the first tender, recalling the important role played by the late Nationalist MP Robert Arrigo – a former Sliema mayor – in the government’s decision to backtrack on the project and for the structures to be demolished in 2006.

While making an allowance for “making the place more accessible,” Briguglio is happy with leaving the place as it is now. “It is not true that this place now serves no purpose. Since the old structure has been demolished, the place has taken a life of its own, being frequented not just by bathers but people who get some mindfulness and relaxation, even congregating there to practice yoga.”

And he shoots down the “mentality that we have to develop everything”. “There is great value in having a place where people can simply relax. This place now has a social and psychological value which would be eroded if the place is commercialised.”

Briguglio notes that Sliema has changed a lot since the closure of the Chalet in 1963, and even from 1999 when the last public consultation on the area’s redevelopment took place. “The census shows Sliema now has a population density of 15,000 people per square kilometre, the largest in Malta. This makes retaining existing open spaces imperative.”

And what irks Briguglio most is the lack of public consultation. “At the very least the government should have first asked the people of Sliema on what should be done with such a prominent location.”

Still, the opportunity to re-engineer the place and restore a historical landmark has an allure to the local architectural community. Sensitively redesigning the Chalet and giving it use which is “amenable to all” without turning it into “just another gated pricey catering establishment” could still be an opportunity, according to leading architect and heritage campaigner Edward Said.

Said describes the “revitalisation prospect” for the Chalet site as welcome news, having once been such a popular destination with so many Maltese. He looks forward to see how designers and architects “will marry contemporary aesthetics with the robust structural engineering necessary to deal with the challenges of Ghar id-Dud Bay notoriously treacherous grigalati. Sliema’s answer to Brighton’s landmark piers may finally return!”

The Chalet story

Opened in 1926 the Chalet dancehall was characterised by its Art Deco entrance at Għar id-Dud and became a popular rendezvous and venue for bands playing at the lower floor.

At street level it had windows right along its perimeter that were shut when the dancing was on, to prevent kids from watching adults dancing .

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, it was run by Ganni Fiteni and Karmenu Borg Bonaci, whose family still runs a confectionery in that town. Dancing season used to commence on Ascension Day with business carrying on right up to late autumn if the weather held.

But the place did not open at all in 1959 and 1960, and finally closed its doors for good in 1963 with the concrete pillars and overlying platform becoming an attraction for young people attracted by the thrill of jumping from the heights in to the sea.

In 2002, following a public consultation in 1999, a development brief was issued for the site’s commercialisation, with the height of the new building set to 3.3 metres from the promenade and to 30% the footprint of the existing footprint at promenade level.

The brief, which remains in force, is very generic when it comes to the nature of facilities allowed on the site, but specifies that they should be “primarily entertainment and recreational in character”, such as  cafés, restaurant, bar, a dance-floor area, a health and fitness centre, a sauna/health club and other “water related uses”.

Existing views of the sea from along the promenade must not be interrupted, and redevelopment must be a “distinctive building demonstrating excellence in architectural design” which serves “as a main landmark along the Sliema promenade.”

The brief also states that the redevelopment of the site “should not ideally extend beyond the existing footprint of the Chalet structure” but makes an allowance for a 150sq.m extension if a “sound justification” is provided.

A tender for a 65-year concession to redevelop the Chalet site and construct an underground car park under the promenade was awarded to Frank Schembri’s C&F Building Contractors in 2001, at a price tage of Lm152,000 (€365,000) per annum.

But in the tender document the government reserved the right to withdraw the letter of acceptance if a full development permit was “not obtained within nine months”.

A planning application in 2002 for the demolition of the Chalet, the excavation of the promenade and the construction of a car park and commercial outlets with wave protection measures, was never approved by the PA.

Widespread opposition to the project was motivated by concern that excavation works for the car park posed a threat to the fragile cave system which extends for 33 metres below the promenade and Tower Road. PA studies suggested that the iconic and protected Għar il-Lembi and Għar id-Dud caves are already in danger of collapse.

The Planning Directorate had recommended a refusal of the application. Yet no final decision was ever taken by the planning board on the proposed project.

Subsequently the Lands Department withdrew the letter of acceptance and in 2006 the government proceeded to demolish the rusty pillars of the old structure clearing the site for bathers who frequent the area.

Plans to commercialise the site were resurrected in 2017 by Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, who vaguely hinted that revenues would be used to finance a new, free, public beach for Sliema.

It was only a few weeks ago that the government issued a request for proposals was issued by Malta Strategic Partnership Projects Ltd, a government entity, seeking bidders to redevelop the concrete platform into a “superior quality catering and entertainment establishment.”

The site will be offered on a 65-year concession to the private sector for a minimum initial investment of €3.2 million and subsequent partial investments of €1.4 million every seven years during the concession term.

According to the government’s privatisation unit, proposals have to fall within the parameters of the Chalet Development Brief approved under a PN administration, 20 years ago, which offers a wide range of uses for development in the area.