DB's City Centre high-rise | All you need to know about Thursday's Planning Authority vote

Are we in for a surprise?

An artistic rendition of the proposed DB towers in Pembroke
An artistic rendition of the proposed DB towers in Pembroke

The Planning Authority’s board tomorrow decides on a highly symbolic project that pits a Labour-led council against the DB group, which was granted a leased on the former ITS college land by the Muscat administration.

The PA’s planning directorate has recommended its approval, making this outcome likelier but not inevitable. Just two years ago, the 38-storey Townsquare development in Sliema was also recommended for approval by the case officer, but it was approved by one single vote and later revoked by the appeals tribunal for being “too excessive”.

And conflicting interpretations of policies are likely to split board members again.

'Don't bury us alive' - Pembroke is up in arms
'Don't bury us alive' - Pembroke is up in arms

Which are the policies justifying approval?

1. The development is located in an area identified in the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) for urban and commercial regeneration, and follows the strategy of locating jobs and homes within the urban area.

2. The local plan designates the site as an entertainment priority area and ideal for hotel development.

3. St Julian’s is identified as one of the localities where high-rise development can be located.

4. The tall building proposed complies with the policy regulating high buildings (FAR – floor-area ratio) and the one regulating hotel heights, both approved in 2014.

Which are the policies justifying refusal?

1. The visual impact is excessive and runs counter to accepted planning policies. The policy on high-rise development requires new tall buildings to make a positive contribution to the urban form and skyline.

2. The local plan required a development brief before any development is approved on the site.

3. The FAR policy is only being applied on part of the site and this part is not surrounded by real roads on all sides as stated in the policy.

4. The FAR policy states that tall buildings should be designed in a way, which avoids overshadowing. The development is expected to overshadow hundreds of residences immediately to the north and northwest of the site especially in the winter months.

5. The FAR policy requires that tall buildings should be located “away from residential priority areas”. The development is located in the vicinity of a housing estate in Pembroke.

6. The tunnel proposed to make up for the increase of traffic created by the project still has to be approved.

Pembroke mayor Dean Hili (left)
Pembroke mayor Dean Hili (left)

How will board members vote?

Certainly against: Dean Hili (Pembroke mayor), Annick Bonello (NGO representative) Marthese Portelli (PN MP, Opposition representative)

Vote uncertain but in the past against similar projects: Vince Cassar (PA Chairman – had voted against Mercury House and Townsquare projects but in favour of Mriehel towers), Victor Axiak (ERA Chairman – had objected to Townsquare and Mriehel project but voted in favour of Mercury house high-rise), Elisabeth Ellul (deputy PA chairman – had voted against Townsquare development), Timmy Gambin (Independent member appointed by government – had voted against nearby Villa Rosa development), Simone Mousu (Public officer in Ministry for Justice – had voted against Townsquare Project)

Vote uncertain but more likely to vote in favour: Clayton Bartolo (Labour MP, Government representative), Desiree Cassar (Independent member appointed by government), Matthew Pace (Independent member appointed by government), Jacqueline Gili (Department of Contracts), Ivan Tabone (Transport Malta), Joseph Brincat (Independent member appointed by government)

How excessive is the project?

At 141 metres, if approved, the DB group’s tower will be slightly higher than the Vatican which rises to 138 metres from the floor of the basilica to the top of the cross on the dome. It will be over 40 metres higher than Portomaso.

A major argument in Thursday’s board meeting will be whether the development proposed is “excessive” or not. It was the same argument invoked by PA chairman Vince Cassar when he voted against the Townsquare development in Sliema two years ago.

That project was only approved thanks to the absence of ERA Chairman Victor Axiak who was recovering from surgery, and the favourable vote of the vast majority of government appointees sitting on the board.

The DB project has already been described as being “out of scale” by the PA’s own design panel: the Design Advisory Committee.

On their part the developers’ consultants have not shied away from defending the project as “a strong (visual) statement signifying the commercialisation of the Maltese way of life.”

The PA’s planning directorate – the case officer – recognised the negative visual impact of the project but concluded that high rises are by “default and design unequivocally conspicuous.”

Following the DAC’s objections the developers subsequently made some changes by removing the crown structure on the hotel and reducing the tower’s height by eight metres.

But as noted by planning expert John Ebejer “these changes are minor and have little or no effect on reducing the excessive scale of the building”.

The case officer indicates that the DAC was satisfied by the changes but only after noting the “restrictions resulting from the protected underground geological features”, which constrained the design of the project.

Are tall buildings permitted in Pembroke?

Pembroke itself was never included in the list of localities where the tall buildings can be permitted.

In the initial stages the project was redesigned to ensure that the high-rise component will take place on the ITS site in St Julian’s and not on the car=park in Pembroke. But the impacts of the project including considerable shading in winter, will be felt by Pembroke residents.

The fact that the project will have its greatest impact on Pembroke is recognized by the PA itself, which accepted the participation of Pembroke mayor Dean Hili in tomorrow’s meeting.

The FAR policy also excludes residential areas from high-rise development. The development will also set a precedent for the Corinthia project.

Where do the political parties stand?

In a context where existing ambiguous policies can be invoked both to approve or reject the DB group’s project, much will depend on how government appointees on the PA board will vote.

The present board includes three public officers representing the government. It also includes five ‘independent members’ appointed by government for their expertise on the “economy, heritage, environment, development or architecture.” With a few exceptions these board members tend to vote in favour of developments recommended for approval by the directorate.

This turns tomorrow’s decision into one which has political consequences.

Also weighing on the board’s decision is the fact that the site was earmarked for residential development thanks to a 99-year emphyteusis deed granted to DB, which is still being investigated by the Auditor General.

While at local level mayors hailing from both parties have opposed the project, party leaders have been lukewarm on taking a clear stance. Muscat had hinted at a possible compromise for undertaking the proposed development “sensibly and in a way which respected the neighbourhood”. But the changes made to the project are minimal and have not changed the views of the Pembroke council.

Silvio Debono is the owner of the DB group
Silvio Debono is the owner of the DB group

Interviewed on Tuesday evening by Kurt Sansone, PN leader Adrian Delia said the PN would vote against the project.

One possibility is that the project will go back to the drawing board with the developers being forced to make more substantial changes as happened in Sliema after the permit was revoked. Yet it might be still be difficult to fit the number of apartments foreseen in the deed in lower towers, especially when one considers the limitations posed by the presence of the underground cave on which mechanical excavation works cannot be allowed.

How is the board likely to vote?

The only certainty so far is that Pembroke mayor Dean Hili and NGO representative Annick Bonello will be voting against.

Although the ERA was not objecting to the project, judging from chairman Victor Axiak’s past votes on similar projects he may also vote against.

Less predictable will be the vote of PA chairman Vince Cassar. Cassar had voted in favour of the Mriehel towers but against the Townsquare project in Sliema because of its excessive scale and against the Mercury House project because this was approved in the absence of a masterplan for the whole area.

Elisabeth Ellul (left) and Vince Cassar (right): deputy chair and chairperson of the PA board
Elisabeth Ellul (left) and Vince Cassar (right): deputy chair and chairperson of the PA board

Marthese Portelli will certainly vote against, having indicated in the past that the project is not in line with policy.

Even if these five board members were to vote against the project, these can still be outnumbered by the remaining nine members sitting on the board. Yet this also depends on which members will be absent in tomorrow’s hearing.

Government MP Clayton Bartolo is expected to vote for the project, which comes as a result of a controversial deed approved by the present government transferring public land to the DB group. But one cannot exclude that Labour has a change of mind on a project which is being opposed by one of the few Labour-led councils in the tenth district.

Putting their money where their mouth is: Graffitti and KEA get stuck in as they unfurl a massive banner right in the middle of the Planning Authority board meeting on yet another relocation of a fuel service station outside development zones
Putting their money where their mouth is: Graffitti and KEA get stuck in as they unfurl a massive banner right in the middle of the Planning Authority board meeting on yet another relocation of a fuel service station outside development zones

Deputy chairman Elisabeth Ellul is considered to be pro-development. But she always grounds her vote on planning policies and considerations. She had also voted against Townsquare development on policy grounds.

Unlike other board members archaeologist Timothy Gambin is also a lively participant in debates. Although he voted for the Townsquare and other high development, he also voted against the neighbouring low-rise Villa Rosa development, citing the potential negative impact on the underlying cave.

More silent and more prone to vote for any major project are government appointees: Desiree Cassar, Matthew Pace, Simone Mousù, Jacqueline Gili, Ivan Tabone and Joseph Brincat. But even these votes cannot be taken for granted. Mousù had also voted against the Townsquare project.

The outcome may also be determined by who is absent in the vote. In the case of a draw, the chairman will hold the casting vote. It is also very possible that the decision will be postponed. For if the board indicates its intention to overrule the case officer any decision on the project will be postponed to another sitting.

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