Orchids outside building footprint of Xemxija tower, ERA says

Environmental watchdog falls short of objecting to a 13-storey apartment block on garigue but suggests that further environmental studies are necessary

An artist’s impression of how the building will look
An artist’s impression of how the building will look

The Environmental and Resources Authority is not outrightly objecting to plans for a 13- storey high block on a stretch of garigue in Xemxija.

In its first reaction to the plans, ERA noted that protected orchids on the site fall outside the proposed building footprint.

“The main concentration of these orchids which need to be protected, are outside the immediate proposed built footprint,” ERA said.   

The project, which is being opposed by residents and the St Paul’s Bay council, is set to include 282 apartments.

ERA also pointed out that the development is being proposed on a site that “has the possibility of being included within the limits of development subject” to conditions established in a local plan policy. The environmental watchdog specifically referred to Local Plan policy NWSP 21.

The policy states that this area, previously protected as a “white area” is still being safeguarded from development due to its potential as a site of archaeological importance.

But in the eventuality that detailed investigations reveal that the remains are insignificant, the site shall be released for development for four-storey development.

In this case the developers are proposing a tall building according to the Floor Area Ratio policy, by limiting development to 5,000sq.m with the rest of the 14,000sq,m site earmarked for landscaped picnic and play areas.

The tall building is being proposed despite a prohibition in the same policy on high rise buildings being located on ridges.

But ERA has expressed concern on the formalisation of the area being proposed for landscaping.

ERA notes that the site hosts orchids which are of significant ecological value. However, it also noted that interventions and site formalisation are being proposed in the area containing the orchids, which is objectionable from an environmental point of view.

“In this regard, plans are to be revised to ensure that there are no interventions, including any landscaping or any form of formalisation, that may affect these orchids and their immediate habitat.”

But ERA was silent on the loss of garigue in the area earmarked for the new building and the impact of a high-rise development and its shading on the rest of the site.

The watchdog has indicated that since the project has a gross floor area of more than 30,000sq.m, it has asked the developers to present a Project Description Statement, on the basis of which it would decide whether the project requires a full Environment Impact Assessment. The PDS should also include photomontages of the proposed development clearly showing the surrounding site context.

St Paul’s Bay mayor Alfred Grima addressing residents protesting against plans to build a 13-storey apartment block in Xemxija
St Paul’s Bay mayor Alfred Grima addressing residents protesting against plans to build a 13-storey apartment block in Xemxija

The PDS also has to include measures to safeguard the zone containing the main concentration of protected orchids and their habitat during construction and excavation works. The PDS also has to include the expected Annual Average Daily Traffic (AADT) generated by the project.

MaltaToday is informed that studies related to the orchids have been undertaken in relation to a pending nature permit application submitted to ERA in 2018.  MaltaToday has requested these studies but ERA has so far not accepted this request noting that the application is still pending.

Archaeological Society and DLH object to project

In a joint objection Din l-Art Helwa and the Archaeological Society are calling for an extensive archaeological investigation of the whole site to determine the true extent of archaeological remains within the site prior to a decision being taken on the proposed outline permit.

The two NGOs noted that cart-ruts have already been confirmed within the Northern extent of the site in question. The NGOs pointed out that if it is  confirmed that the site is of archaeological significance, in line with the local plan, no development can be permitted.

Moreover, unlike ERA which is only concerned with the formalisation of the area containing the main population of orchids, both NGOs are objecting to the obliteration of garigue on the entire site.

“The destruction of garrigue is unjustified and goes against the requirement to protect such habitats,” the NGOs said.

The NGOs are also objecting to the application of the FAR policy on this site, noting that the area is specifically excluded by the same policy which states that tall buildings must be located away from ridge edges and should not interfere with views of protected areas.

They also pointed out that the FAR policy itself refers to the high-rise development at the neighbouring Mistra village site but states that the site is “not currently deemed suitable for more tall buildings”.

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has also expressed concerns regarding the possible impact the development could have upon the surrounding cultural heritage, as well as the visual impact it would have upon the surrounding cultural landscape. To address these concerns the SCH has demanded the presentation of a visual impact assessment, including photomontages in line with the PA’s Best Practice guidelines for visual simulations.

Moreover, due to the site’s archaeological sensitivity, any works at this location should be subject to “archaeological monitoring.” But the SCH has fallen short of calling for a full archaeological investigation requested by the NGOs.