Scheduling curveball that could rumble Sliema 40-storey hotel

Planning Authority yet to decide on scheduling of Fort Cambridge’s officers’ mess, which could halt plans for 40-storey hotel

An early 20th century British officers’ mess that once housed the Holiday Inn hotel has not yet been scheduled despite a recent exercise to protect historical Sliema houses by the planning regulator.

The Planning Authority scheduled 47 buildings over the past five months but it is still deciding whether to grant protection to the Fort Cambridge officers’ mess in Tigné, despite repeated requests by the local council to do so.

A spokesperson for the PA confirmed that that “discussions on the proposed scheduling of the Fort Cambridge officer’s mess are still ongoing” and “no decision has yet been taken.”

The scheduling of the barracks would have a bearing on the approval of a 40-storey tower hotel right on top of it – by the same developers of the Fort Cambridge apartments – because the policy allowing unlimited floors on landmark hotels does not apply to scheduled sites.

According to plans submitted by developers Gap Holdings, only parts of the façade of the building will be retained to be included in the fabric of the new high-rise hotel.

MaltaToday is informed that the Sliema council’s request for the building’s protection was considered by the PA’s executive council in January, in a meeting chaired by PA executive chairman Johann Buttigieg.

But no decision was taken. Instead the PA’s planning directorate was requested to provide additional information prior to a final decision. Four months on, no decision has yet been taken.

The Sliema council had written to the PA in December 2015 demanding the inclusion of the officers’ mess, the only remaining part of the Fort Cambridge barracks, in the list of protected historical buildings.

The building was already on the PA’s waiting list for buildings meriting protection before the council made its formal request, as confirmed by a PA spokesperson in 2015.

The new policy on hotel heights does not apply to development on “scheduled sites” like historical buildings, such as the former military barracks – which were part of Fort Cambridge – if the then officers’ mess were to be scheduled
The new policy on hotel heights does not apply to development on “scheduled sites” like historical buildings, such as the former military barracks – which were part of Fort Cambridge – if the then officers’ mess were to be scheduled

Changing goalposts

The officers’ mess is earmarked for a 40-storey hotel. Developers are involving a new policy on hotel heights that allows four- and five-star hotels to add any number of storeys over and above the maximum heights allowed in the Local Plan, as long as the resulting design “constitutes a landmark having unique aesthetic characteristics within the urban context”.

But the new policy on hotel heights does not apply to development on “scheduled sites” like historical buildings, such as the former military barracks – which were part of Fort Cambridge – if the then officers’ mess were to be scheduled.

A PA spokesperson had told MaltaToday in 2015 that the site “has been proposed by MEPA for grade two protection”.

Such a designation would only permit internal alterations and the removal of more recent accretions.

Yet in the past the PA has approved the addition of extra floors on protected buildings like Mercury House in Paceville – allowed using the Floor Area Ratio mechanism which compensates vertical development with the creation of new open spaces. Unlike the policy regulating hotel heights, this policy does not exclude scheduled sites.

The policy regulating the Floor Area Ratio mechanism identifies the Tigné peninsula as an appropriate location for high-rise developments. But this is conditional on creating new open spaces which is not the case with the proposed development.


How valuable is the officers’ mess?

The Fort Cambridge officers’ mess was built between 1903 and 1905. The building was designed according to the standard Officers’ Mess designs that were used during this period. In 1915 the building was used as a military hospital.

The conversion of the barracks into a hotel in the 1980s resulted in the removal of the main porch in the north façade while existing rooms were converted into double bedrooms. “Though various non-historic internal alterations were carried out over the years, it is still believed that much of the fabric is of significant quality, meriting further study and preservation,” a report sent by architect Edward Said on behalf of the Sliema local council concluded.

The local council insists that its architectural, military and social history are clearly evident and worthy of recognition, and wants the PA to designate “a suitable buffer zone around the building so that its context is still legible.”

The PA’s own Fort Cambridge Development Brief approved in January 2006 had describes the barracks as a “landmark building” to be retained due to its historical and architectural importance, and as a buffer between new higher development on the site and the surrounding residential blocks. “No additional floors over the third floor will be allowed over this landmark building,” the brief had warned.

But since the new policy on high-rise buildings approved in 2014, any new development will not be restricted by this brief.

According to Paul Attard, director of Gap Holdings, the effect of the hotel tower on the landscape has to be seen in the context that the Tigné peninsula now being earmarked as a high-rise area in the recently approved policy regulating building heights.

“Therefore, more high-rise buildings are expected to complement one another,” Attard told MaltaToday in 2015.

The hotel’s environment impact assessment report confirms that the Tigné officers’ mess would merit a Grade 1 Level of Protection as was the case with similar buildings in Pembroke. However, due to irreversible changes when the building was transformed into a hotel, the report argues that its character “has definitely been altered”.

But it continues: “Nonetheless, given its importance and given that many of the other barracks in the area have been altered, the building should be given a Grade 2 Level of Protection”.

The study also warns that integration of its facade into the lower floors of a high-rise hotel means its “mere existence as a free-standing structure will be forever lost” and the military heritage of the area “further de-contextualised”.

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