Hamrun’s glazed floor townhouse angers watchdog as PA policies flouted

Hands tied by PA’s ‘outline permit’ issued against the advice of heritage authorities, which means extra glass floor on gutted 19th century townhouses next to San Gejtanu church will jar with streetscape

The Planning Authority’s planning commission has approved the addition of a contemporary glazed floor to a row of late 19th-century townhouses near the San Gejtanu parish church in Hamrun.

The approval was granted despite strong objections from the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage (SCH).

The PA had originally also overruled the heritage watchdog by issuing an outline permit in 2018 to establish the development parameters for the corner site just 15m off the church.

In 2020, the PA’s appeals tribunal (EPRT) revoked the full development permit issued by the PA, requesting new plans to eliminate any extensive excavation. The latest plans eliminated the underground floors and preserved a reservoir linked to the historic Wignacourt aqueduct.

But the planning commission chaired by Martin Camilleri has once again overruled the SCH, by granting final approval for the internal demolition of the townhouses and the erection of a new glazed floor.

Paul Borg’s application is for ground-floor retail shops and a three-story office building the two-storey townhouse facade will be approved, under SCH approval for a restoration method statement.

But the SCH said the proposed glazed floor above was “unacceptable” noting that it involves “the total gutting of the houses, sparing only the entrance hall and facades.” This, according to the SCH, will result in the demolition of historical fabric and the destruction of architectural spaces within properties that hold architectural and historical value within the UCA (urban conservation area).

The Superintendence expressed “grave concern” that the proposed heights and volumes will compromise the streetscape and have a “negative and irreversible impact on views and vistas of the Hamrun Parish Church” especially when viewed along the major thoroughfare, the St Joseph High Street.

The SCH said the proposed increase in height and volumes was incompatible with the spirit of the church’s Grade 1 status and the PA’s circular of 2020 aimed at protecting the context of scheduled buildings.

The Superintendence had previously demanded photomontages to assess its impact on views of the church, but instead of presenting a visual assessment based on real photomontages, the developer simply presented a line drawing. The SCH insisted that the rendered images cannot be considered as photomontages, since they do not depict the proposal in its context, adding that useful photomontages should be based on viewpoints within the adjacent streets.

The Superintendence also noted that although the dominant height along the St Joseph High Street are two-storey houses, the application still proposes a substantial increase in heights and volumes in the UCA. “This height increase will exceed the height of the adjacent building along Triq il-Kbira San Guzepp and will exceed the dominant height within the block.”

It argued that the proposed contemporary design was incompatible with existing historical properties and the UCA, and that this contradicted planning policies aimed at creating harmony between new and existing buildings.

Hands tied by outline permit

The case raises questions about the outline permitting system, which often sees the PA approving the massing and height of projects before conducting a more detailed assessment.

The system had been scrapped in the planning reform of 2012 but was reintroduced by the Labour administration in 2015. In its objection, the Superintendence also expressed its “surprise and grave concern that this Outline Permit was approved, despite the very strong objection expressed by the Superintendence.”

The development will result in a shortfall of 20 parking spaces, which will be compensated by a contribution of €155,000 to the PA’s parking fund. Originally, the project also involved extensive excavation but revealed an underlying cistern associated with the Wignacourt Aqueduct.