Masterplan moves goalposts for 2005 Mercury House brief

The guidelines under which Mercury House owners had to develop a public plaza and 15-storey office block in 2005 are not worth the paper they were signed on thanks to the PA’s controversial masterplan

Original plans: constrained by the 2005 development brief, pride of place had to be given to Mercury House and a public piazza
Original plans: constrained by the 2005 development brief, pride of place had to be given to Mercury House and a public piazza

The Paceville masterplan is changing the goalposts for the new owners of Mercury House, who were bound by a development brief when they purchased what was the GO telephone exchange from its former owners Penderville Ltd for €25 million.

The sale of Mercury House was made on condition that a public square be developed, but the new owners will benefit from changed planning policies without any of their previous obligations.

The 2005 development brief, a legally binding document, excluded any sort of development that is now being proposed for Mercury House in the government-commissioned masterplan for Paceville.

Note to readers: the masterplan was drafted by Mott MacDonald, a consultancy firm that the new Mercury House owner, Joseph Portelli, actually engaged for his own project months before the start of the masterplan.

When in 2005 a call for offers was issued for the acquisition of the government land at Pender Place and Mercury House, it was clearly stated that development would have to conform with a brief that precluded high-rise buildings and which had to come with a public square.

But the Paceville masterplan effectively changes the goalposts: Mercury House is now set to host the highest skyscraper, of around 35 floors, seeing its total floor space area increase from just 11,081 square metres to 87,000.  

Out goes the public plaza, which was now shifted to private land opposite the St George’s Park Hotel in the new masterplan.

Development limited by 2005 brief

The 2005 development brief obliged the developer to create a major public piazza around Mercury House, restore the Grade 2 scheduled telephone exchange building, remove any extensions to the rear of Mercury House, and prohibited any hotels being approved on either the Mercury or Pender sites.

Most importantly, the brief made it clear that the Mercury site could not benefit from the floor area ratio policy, which allows taller buildings when more open space is created. The highest building on the site was set at 15 floors.

And the design of the whole area had to highlight Mercury House as the focal point, and “ensure good views of its attractive front elevation”.

In contrast, the Paceville masterplan for Paceville wants to create a long view to the listed Spinola Entrenchment Archway at the entrance of the Dragonara peninsula, which would “provide an impressive backdrop to the plaza with the sea visible beyond the historic gate”. No similar treatment has been granted to the listed Mercury House, which will be cluttered by the new high-rise developments.   

The developers were also to ensure an underground car park for 1,500 cars and a bus terminus at the Pender site. But all car parking for Mercury House has to be provided at Pender Place.

The impressive Zaha Hadid creations for Joseph Portelli, rendered possible by Labour’s high-rise policy and Paceville masterplan
The impressive Zaha Hadid creations for Joseph Portelli, rendered possible by Labour’s high-rise policy and Paceville masterplan

Masterplan overrules brief

Despite the 2005 development brief being still legally binding, the new planning laws introduced in 2015 give precedence to other types of plans over development briefs that originally served to provide specific guidelines for sites such as Fort Cambridge in Tigné and Mercury House.

In the new hierarchy, the spatial strategy is at the top of the pyramid. Then comes the subject plan, the local plan, the action plan or management plan, and finally the development brief: the latter relegated to the bottom rung.

Tender awarded to Pender Ville 

Pender Ville Limited had won the 2005 concession for the Pender and Mercury sites for Lm10.6 million (€24 million), seeing off the owners of the St George’s Park site as their main rivals for the concession.

In 2007, an application for the “development at Pender Place and Mercury House sites according to the development brief issued by Government Investment Limited” was approved, although this came with a number of deviations from the brief.

Curiously, the contract signed with the government itself did not even refer to the development brief but to the conditions presented in the call for offers.

In 2009, part of the Mercury House site (950 square metres) was sold to trade finance bank FIMBank plc for their global headquarters.

Pender Ville, now Pendergardens Development, then sold 8,500 square metres of the Merucry House site to Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli, whose business interests have included the former Forum Hotel site in Ibragg, now an upmarket residential development, and the Hal Saghtrija developent in Zebbug, Gozo.

The Mott MacDonald consultancy

Portelli selected Mott MacDonald to advise him with regard to the proposed high-rise project at Mercury House and inform and advise Zaha Hadid Architects in “the development of feasibility options for the Mercury Tower project.” 

On its part, the Planning Authority signed its own consultancy agreement with Mott MacDonald on 11 May 2016, which agreement contains articles regulating the “ethical conduct of the parties.”

None of these articles precluded Mott MacDonald from offering its consultancy services to any of the developers impacted by the masterplan.

A €307,810 direct order was awarded to Mott MacDonald for the masterplan.

The Planning Authority initially contacted nine foreign companies for the procurement of this service. Only two expressed interest, one of which was Mott MacDonald. While originally Mott MacDonald was asked to prepare a transport strategy, its remit was later extended to include urban planning. Mott MacDonald outsourced this task to Broadway Malyan.

Prior to being awarded the contract, Mott MacDonald had flagged its potential conflict of interest to the PA as they had been giving consultancy in relation to the Mercury House tower. Nevertheless, PA chief Johann Buttigieg had given his go-ahead for the signing of the agreement, a Mott MacDonald official told MPs earlier this month during a parliamentary committee hearing.

The government has now ordered a review of the plan to ensure that there was no conflict of interest.