Planning Authority green-lights 32-storey Paceville high-rise tower

The developer will give €60,000 to an Arts Council fund but the PA said no to a €250,000 planning gain to counter the impact on the local community

An artist's impression of the Mercury House project that has been proposed in the heart of Paceville
An artist's impression of the Mercury House project that has been proposed in the heart of Paceville

The Planning Authority has approved the 32-storey high-rise tower on the former Mercury House site in Paceville, doubling the height of plans approved six years ago.

The high-rise, proposed by Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli, will include 48 hotel rooms, 275 serviced apartments and around 3,300 square metres of shops.

Approval was by 10 votes in favour and three against. The votes against were by PA chairman Vince Cassar, NGO representative Annick Cassar and St Julian’s mayor Guido Dalli. The representatives of the two political parties, Ryan Callus (PN) and Clayton Bartolo (PL) voted in favour.

Portelli will be made to contribute €60,000 towards the Arts Council’s ‘high-rise’ fund. But Dalli’s proposal for another €250,000 planning gain to address the impact of the development on the locality was rejected by the PA board.

The PA’s planning directorate presented their report, highlighting the high visual effect on the landscape. But the case officer claimed there would be “low traffic generation” since the land use was for hotel and residential purposes.

Swieqi mayor Noel Muscat decried the traffic spillover that would be generated. Lawyer Henri Mizzi, on behalf of an objector, said the PA was ignoring the development brief that originally required the developer to build a piazza and use the project for residential purposes.

Annick Cassar queried how the project could be approved when the Paceville masterplan had not yet been re-drafted or approved for the area, and questioned how the planning gain had been calculated. She insisted on a planning gain that truly reflects the imposition of the tower.

Dalli insisted that the project would bring traffic chaos for the locality.

Prof. Victor Axiak then said the Environment Impact Assessment carried out by the developers was itself as a tool not sufficient to assess cumulative effects.

PA chairman Johann Buttigieg said the PA had drafted a tender to draw up a new masterplan but it was still in the legal pipeline. “This new tender will take new safeguards against any conflict of interest,” he said referring to the previous role of Mott Macdonald.

The site around Mercury House, a Grade 2 scheduled monument, has been earmarked for development since a development brief approved in 2005, which originally limited the building height to 15 storeys.

An application approved by the PA in 2012 extended this to two adjacent office towers of 19 and 18 floors.

In addition to the extra 14 storeys, the new application – which has been recommended for approval ahead of a PA board hearing today – foresees four levels of underground parking and a new central plaza between Triq San Ġorġ and Triq Sant Andrija, St Julian’s.

Mercury House itself, a late-19th-century building that once served as the main hub of Malta’s international cable connections, will be converted into an access point for the residential and hotel lobby areas.

A series of scheduled underground vaults, used to house communications equipment during the Cold War, will be restored and conserved, though their use has yet to be determined.

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