The right to build | Sliema Townsquare director John Soler, interviewed

Townsquare director John Soler defends Sliema’s 38-storey tower, arguing that the alternatives are 24 separate apartment blocks. But what does he have to say to residents who will have to withstand five years of excavation and construction?

John Soler, 36, is one of the directors of Townsquare Ltd, a company which brings together members of the Ganado, Gasan, and Trapani Galea Feroil families, to develop a 38-storey high-rise buidling in the space that formerly occupied the Union Club
John Soler, 36, is one of the directors of Townsquare Ltd, a company which brings together members of the Ganado, Gasan, and Trapani Galea Feroil families, to develop a 38-storey high-rise buidling in the space that formerly occupied the Union Club

In an interview with MaltaToday, one of Townsquare Sliema’s directors, John Soler, defends the 38-storey tower that the group, which includes leading entrepreneur Joe Gasan, intends building in the grounds of the former Union Club.

According to the environmental impact assessment for the controversial project, residents in Tigné will have to “keep their windows shut” during 10 months of excavations and four years of construction.

What do you tell people in Sliema who will have to keep their windows shut during excavations to keep noise levels down, as suggested in the Environment Impact Assessment?

“I lived 95% of my life in Sliema and we constantly listen to the concerns of residents. But there is a great difference between developing this site as 26 separate eight-storey blocks, as we can do by right, and developing it as one single project. The permit we have is for one single major project. It is true that there will be an inconvenience of 10 months of excavations… But building it as a main project means that we have to abide with stricter regulations.

“Developing it as one major project entails abiding by the strict mitigation measures imposed by the Planning Authority… Moreover had we developed 26 separate blocks, excavation would have been done in phases and would have taken longer than 10 months. As for shutting windows the EIA simply stated that noise levels would be less if one closes the windows. It did not propose this as a solution and did not say that everything would be fine if you close your windows”

The excavation noise levels will be very considerable (between 85-95db) a level that will be sustained for months…

“Excavation is excavation… Unfortunately we have hard rock in Sliema and when someone excavates there will be noise.”

Will you be compensating residents who will withstand this high level of noise for months?

“I never received compensation when people were building all around my property.”

For some of these elderly people these may well be the last 10 months of their life…

“There are other construction sites near which people could be living the last 10 months of their life.”

You seem to assume you have some divine right to develop 26 separate blocks instead, had you not opted for a high-rise tower…

“I have to stop you there… this is definitely not a question of divine right… It is the policy regulating development in the area which allows us to develop 8 or 9 floors across the whole site. There is not a question of divine right or of any pre-electoral pledge.”

But how would you assume the PA would automatically approve 26 blocks on this site had you not opted for a 38 storey tower?

“We do not assume. One applies according to the policy regulating development on a particular site. And the policy on that site is that it can be built either as a high-rise or in a traditional way. The only difference is that by going high-rise we are creating more open space, 7,300 square metres of space to be exact. I assure you that we did not get one square metre more or one square metre less than what is approved in the policy.” 

There have been cases in the past where the Planning Authority did still not grant permits, which respected earlier commitments. One example was the proposed 164 residential units at the site of the former 7-Up Factory in Santa Venera.   The site was covered by an outline development permit which was issued in 2007 but was still refused five years later due to it impact on the residential area.

“That was a change in policy which took place between outline and actual permit of a development which envisaged a change from a factory in to residential complex, which was considered to be an internal development.”

On average the project will create 3,500 additional car trips. How is it possible that 748 parking spaces are enough to cater for this massive increase in traffic?

“The car trips are an estimate of how many times people leave and come back to their parking space. So if you live on the site and leave the site three times a day you would make six car trips… therefore parking is not relative to the number of car trips. We are talking about an increase of three car trips per minute… When you break it down to three per minute the impact it is not so significant. The exit and entrance are on the Qui-Si-Sana sea front, which can handle this increase in traffic. We are putting up a junction in front of Townsquare seafront as well as traffic lights to improve traffic management in the area…”

Of the 748 parking spaces 355 will be reserved for residents, leaving 393 for other users. Using the conventional method of calculating parking needs, the case officer concludes that 982 parking spaces are needed, thus resulting in a shortfall of 234 parking spaces. But then using a so-called dynamic method the 748 car spaces are deemed adequate… do you blame people for being confused?

“In a mixed-use development like this one a dynamic model is applied because the same parking space for the general public can also be used by office workers and retail customers. In this way you do not have to have the minimum requirement for office and retail when the same space can be used by both… What the PA has imposed is that 128 parking spaces cannot be leased out to any individual in a way that these can be used by anyone visiting the site. This means that we cannot lease out all of our parking to offices and people who come to shop would not find where to park. We have also allocated more than two parking spaces for each residential apartment when the average in Sliema is 1.5… these additional spaces can be used by the public.”

The tower will include 159 residential units. Does it make sense to put more apartments on the property market? Is there sufficient demand?

“We have been in real estate for a number of years and we have worked with our consultants who carried out an in depth feasibility study of the project and market conditions and we are confident this project will be a success.”

In a recent interview with MaltaToday, Dhalia’s Chris Grech, who favours high-rise developments, warned that “at present there isn’t enough demand for all these projects coming on the market”… Finance Minister Edward Scicluna himself warned against the “supermarket” mentality in the construction industry, whereby developers tried to compete with large-scale projects irrespective of the demand. Are you concerned?

“Their comments are based on the market conditions overall. Sliema is prime real estate for Malta. So you cannot put one project in the same basket as all projects being proposed in the rest of Malta. Even the price of a property in Sliema is different. We feel that adding 159 units to the market is not a substantial number of units to sell, especially when compared to far larger numbers proposed in other projects, some of which are still on the drawing board.”

There might be demand for your project but do you think Malta can have 10 more projects like yours… is there a demand for all this property?

“That is up to each developer… It is not my place to comment on what owners of other sites should do… Our site is located within a high-rise zone and we have studied all options before submitting our plans for a high-rise.”

Together with the development proposed, four towers at Mriehel and a smaller development in Gzira, Townsquare is the first major project to be approved according to the new high-rise policy. Would it not have made more sense to first make a master plan, which would access what demand exists for high-rise on a national level? Are you not simply being greedy by expecting your project to be approved on a first come first served basis?

“We have been accused of greed and you mention it too… If we have a right, according to policy, to build something, why should we not build it?

“We have been waiting for 12 years to get this permit and surely we are not being served on first come first served basis. We have been tweaking our plans for all this time according to changes in policies. We had to tweak our proposal at least five times according to the final approved policy, which is even more restrictive than the draft policy issued in 2006… This is because this policy not only requires us to keep 50% of the site as open space but also obliges us to keep a 10-metre wide road around the site. In this way only 38% of the site will be built up…”

Your project was approved on the basis of the PA’s 2014 policy on tall buildings, which envisions more high-rise developments in the Tigné peninsula. In his memo the ERA chairperson dismissed the EIA as a “sham” because it did not take the proposed 40-storey development 100 metres away from Townsquare. 

“Professor Axiak was used as a flag bearer of opposition to the project when he himself certified that we did everything by the book. He attacked the policy, not the project… Victor Axiak is saying that EIAs should also take into account future projects in the area. But how can a developer, when conducting an EIA, know what other projects are in the pipeline… It is the next project which should take Townsquare into consideration, and not vice versa…We do not have a crystal ball to anticipate what others may propose... We are developers not policy makers… if Victor Axiak has a problem with policy he should raise these issues with the competent authorities.”

There is a concern that studies on the projects are incomplete. For example the Water Services Corporation did not even submit any feedback on the impact of the project on the drainage infrastructure…

“The policy states that if a public authority does not respond to a request for feedback in 30 days, it is understood that it has no objection… Moreover we are building 38% fewer units than would have been allowed in a traditional way (as 26 separate blocks), which means that the impact on drainage will be significantly lower… Moreover we will be treating and reusing the water drained from sinks… This means that we will be draining 46% less water than if we proposed a traditional development.”

Let’s face it, putting a 38-storey tower right in the middle of Sliema is in itself a gross imposition on the landscape, it will be the dominant building in Sliema… do you feel comfortable with a change which would permanently alter the urban fabric of Sliema? Are you comfortable with this legacy?

“The urban fabric of the locality has been changed over decades… we started with two-storey houses… than there was the Preluna at 13 storeys and now we have Fort Cambridge at 20 storeys… there was an evolution in the urban fabric. I am comfortable because it is within policy. There is also an argument that Sliema needs a break in its skyline because it looks like one whole chunk of buildings. A spike would represent an aesthetic improvement… We will also be the first development in the area that creates a compromise between going higher and creating more space. We will leave 7,300m2 of land (the size of Independence garden) as open spaces maintained by the developers but for the general public. Our project will not be a gated community.”

After the 2013 election, the Townsquare project was changed from a 23-storey development to 38 storeys, was this not an indication that the project already had the go-ahead of the authorities?

“Previously we had proposed two towers, one of 23 storeys and one of 15 storeys. The project was changed only because the new policy came in place in 2014… as it did not allow us to develop two towers at such a short distance from each other.”

Did you have any meetings with PM Joseph Muscat and opposition leader Simon Busuttil or political parties? 

“Definitely not, because first of all this is not how we operate and because the site has always been earmarked for development and the project is according to the law and policies. Do you need to meet political parties when you already know that what you are proposing is within the law and policy?”

Let’s face it, five towers were approved and granted to the same family at the same meeting, four in Imriehel granted to the Gasan and Tumas Groups and one in Sliema… Both groups are involved in the Electrogas project and this fuels a public perception of political leverage…

“This is not a project of the Gasan Group. This is a project proposed by Townsquare Sliema Limited, which is not a subsidiary of the group. I cannot speak on behalf of the Gasan Group, which is involved in the other projects you mention.”

Both Mark Gasan and Joseph Gasan are directors in Townsquare Sliema Limited. JAG Limited, owned by Joseph Gasan, is a major shareholder… 

“JAG Limited is an equal shareholder with four other parties…How can one of several shareholders be singled out as a major one? Unfortunately most of the opposition to the project is based on misinformation and not facts and I want to speak about facts.”

But Joe Gasan himself presented the application himself…

“Someone has to apply in his or her personal name – an application can never be made in a company name but you cannot attack a project with misinformation and the project is not part of Gasan Group… I can have a discussion based on facts but I can’t have a discussion when phrases like greed and sham are used. You had the local councils, NGOs and the media spinning stories”

You single out the council, media and NGOs. But in this case you had the Environment and Resources Authority, which is against and is now presenting an appeal, and even PA Chairman Vince Cassar who voted against

“The ERA chairman in his memo also said very clearly that he was attacking the policy not the project and that Townsquare’s studies were done according to policy and certified by ERA.”

Were you surprised by the vote of Opposition representative Ryan Callus who voted against, unlike Joe Sammut who represented the government?

“Ryan Callus had every right to vote against the project.”

You constantly insist that the project is completely in line with existing policies. But strong doubts have been expressed first by Carmel Cacopardo and then by PA chairman Vince Cassar that the project is not surrounded by streets on four sides as required by policy. 

“This is definitely not the case. Four streets do surround the development.” 

But these do not presently exist and are being created as part of the development…

“These are projected streets. Instead of creating streets, which are open for traffic, we are projecting pedestrianised streets. And to be correct, the PA chairman simply said that he had doubts on whether the project is surrounded by four streets… He did not vote against the project because of this but because he felt that it was a bit too high.”

Do you consider making any changes to the project?

“Why should we at this stage? We have a permit now but we will be waiting for the outcome of the appeal.”

What will you give back to Sliema?

“We are giving 7,300m2, an area as big as Independence Garden, as open space, 24 hours a day in the heart of Sliema… find me another area like this which is accessible to the public 24/7, during which people can walk, shop and have a coffee…”