Tigné threatens Valletta’s World Heritage status

MEPA’s tall buildings’ policy was approved despite concerns by a government body about the impact of higher construction on Valletta’s World Heritage status

Tigné as seen from Valletta. Photo: Ray Attard
Tigné as seen from Valletta. Photo: Ray Attard

The policy regulating the development of tall buildings will allow higher construction on the Tigné peninsula, despite the concern expressed by the Rehabilitation Projects Office (RPO), the government office responsible for protecting Valletta’s UNESCO World Heritage status, that this could endanger its unique status.

The policy on the application and use of the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) – a policy to curtail land spread in favour of higher construction – was approved on 24 May, three months after the RPO’s submission warning that Valletta’s World Heritage status may be endangered by more tall buildings in Tigné.

The RPO questioned the inclusion of Tigné as one of five locations suitable for over 11-storey buildings.

“Tigné is within the buffer zone and immediate context of Valletta and a significant change in its character will severely affect that of Valletta itself – highly threatening its World Heritage status,” a report presented to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority by architects Mirielle Fsadni and Wendy Jo Attard warned.

The report calls on MEPA to conduct a scientific visual assessment in collaboration with UNESCO before individual projects are proposed, with the aim of delineating a buffer zone around Valletta aimed at protecting views towards and from the capital.

MEPA replied to the RPO’s submission by pointing out that high buildings already exist in Tigné, which has been designated as a commercial hub.

According to MEPA these two factors weigh in favour of locating more tall buildings in the area. “The designation of Tigné as an appropriate location for tall buildings could be an opportunity to consider it holistically with the aim of improving the views from Valletta.”

For MEPA the issue at stake is whether “more tall buildings will result in more harm to the quality of views from and towards Valletta” or contribute to a  “more sensitive and holistic approach” to the visual impact on Valletta.

MEPA also shot down the idea of a comprehensive study to assess the impact of more tall buildings at Tigné.

“The drawing up of boundaries around sensitive historic environments is a very detailed and site specific exercise which goes beyond the scope of the policy.”

But according to the RPO it is imperative to recognise that Tigné is within the immediate setting of Valletta, because developing higher buildings in Tigné contradicts another clause of the same floor area ratio policy which stresses that tall buildings should be located “away” from the “setting of urban landmarks of local, national and international importance”.

In its report, the RPO notes that Valletta is not only an Urban Conservation Area but also the first UNESCO World Heritage city in the world.

The report warns that the World Heritage status is not an “automatic right” but can be revoked, as was about to happen to Cologne’s Cathedral following the proposal of a high-rise building in its vicinity.

The designs of the building were later changed to accommodate UNESCO’s concerns. Moreover, the Dresden Elbe Valley’s World Heritage status was revoked after a bridge was built over it.

According to the RPO, the new policy seems to indicate “that the development of tall buildings in Tigné is ‘inevitable and indisputable’ simply because the area has already been committed to high-rise development in the 1992 Fort Manoel and Tigné Development Brief and the Fort Cambridge Development Brief”.

The FAR policy will make visual and landscape assessments mandatory for any development.

But the RPO says “scientific methods” should be in place to assess the validity of development applications, since methods used in the past were “little more than artists’ impressions which can be manipulated at will”.

The RPO is in fact recommending that visual impact assessments be carried out by MEPA, in collaboration with the World Heritage Site Management team.

This concern was partially addressed in the approved policy, which includes guidelines on how developers must conduct visual impact assessments.