Malta’s giddy high-rise future

The island’s landscape will be irremediably changed by high-rise developments queuing for approval. Is the economic gain worth the environmental and social cost? asks JAMES DEBONO

The cafeteria that is set to be the site of a new nine-storey tower beneath the Portomaso tower
The cafeteria that is set to be the site of a new nine-storey tower beneath the Portomaso tower

Malta already has eight tall buildings of 10 storeys or higher in place, with three more approved but yet to built and seven more awaiting MEPA’s green light. 

Malta’s tallest building is the Portomaso tower, approved in the mid-90s, pipping the 14-storey Preluna Hotel in Sliema for the accolade of highest building.

Seven other towers were approved without any policy regulating tall buildings: the A3 Towers in Paola, two towers at Tigné Point, the Fortina hotel in Tigné and the Intercontinental Hotel in St Julian’s.

Also approved but yet to be constructed are the 33-storey Metropolis tower in Gzira, the controversial 12-storey Mistra Heights, and the 22-storey Pendergardens tower.

Since Labour’s election in 2013 and the approval of a new high-rise policy, a total of six completely new developments have been proposed, while Siema’s Townsquare project was increased from 23 to 38 storeys.

The problem with tall buildings 

Tall buildings pose a number of problems.

The overshadowing of surrounding neighbourhoods can be seen from the environmental impact assessment for the Sliema Townsquare project, currently limited at 23 floors, which reveals that the project will increase the shadowing on the public open spaces along the Qui-Si-Sana seafront. “The scheme will extend this impact further over the sea. It will also impact additional areas of the rocky foreshore at noon insofar as there will no longer be patches of sunshine.”

Tall buildings can alter the climate around them, not just by casting a shadow that rob neighbourhoods of light, but also by increasing the force of wind on pedestrians. When the wind hits a tall building it can be pushed down towards the sidewalk where it swirls around and creates wind tunnels. It’s called the Venturi Effect or Downwash. Chairs and glasses can be literally blown off tables due to the changes in wind conditions.

Wind studies are obligatory in EIAs for high-rise buildings and architectural features like glass canopies can act as windbreakers. But planners in cities like Toronto have observed that despite studies the impact on pedestrians remains substantial.

Landscape impact

The Prime Minister has expressed himself in favour of high-rise development as an alternative to more vertical development: the higher you get, the less one expands sideways. It was this argument employed by the Nationalist administration when an extra two storeys were allowed in most village cores just before development zones were extended. 

High-rise buildings may be architectural statements in their own right. But Malta is a small country with its own characteristic landscape: its sense of identity is rooted in history. While high-rise development may make sense in a big metropolis such as Paris or London, or in artificial urban cityscapes such as Dubai, the Maltese landscape has grown organically over decades.

It makes more sense to compare Malta to Venice or Dubrovnik, than to Dubai or Singapore. Even if limited only to particular designated areas, it is impossible to shield the impact of high-rise development on long-distance views. A skyscraper in Sliema would dwarf and possibly even humiliate the fortifications of Valletta, impacting the island’s sense of identity. 

Take the Gasan-Tumas plans for high-rise in Mriehel: one major hurdle is its impact on the line of vision between Valletta and Mdina.

Tigné is within the buffer zone and immediate context of Valletta and a significant change in its character would severely affect that of Valletta itself – “highly threatening its World Heritage status”, warned a report presented to MEPA by the Rehabilitation Projects Office (RPO), the government office responsible for protecting Valletta’s UNESCO World Heritage status.

Economic benefits

From the outset, one must acknowledge that there are certain economic arguments in favour of high-rise. Malta is currently marketing itself as a financial centre that also attracts a large number of gaming companies. High-rise developments tend to provide clusters of services for those who live and work in them: including childcare centres, food stalls, gyms, malls and open-air plazas.

The waiting list itself is believed to be a long one for office space: developer Ray Fenech from the Tumas Group had said that demand was so big that Portomaso had an enormous waiting list and that no office space is empty.

Referring to the gaming industry, whose hunger for office space in Malta is insatiable, Fenech said: “For every office we lease, we have 10 others on the waiting list.”

But it is equally debatable whether high-rise is a ‘must’. The viability of such developments remains questionable when these compete with already established projects. MEPA is currently assessing a proposal to build four commercial towers at Mriehel when projects catering for the same office space include the Paola A3 Towers, Skyparks in Luqa, the new bio park in San Gwann, Smart City, Pendergardens Towers, and Siema’s Townsquare.

So is it realistic to expect that all these projects will be occupied to 100% capacity? Or will we waste more precious land on projects destined to remain semi-vacant, like many of the showrooms built in the past?

Evolution of the high-rise

While Malta largely escaped the high-rise building boom for both social housing and office space in the 1950s and 1960s that occurred in the UK and other European cities, the Town Planning Schemes of the sixties laid down a two-floor maximum height for specific blocks. This contributed to the predominantly low-lying, compact urban form.

The late 1980s saw the rapid redevelopment of the Sliema promenade into eight-, nine- and even ten-storey residential blocks.

But Malta’s first high-rise development was the slender 23-storey Portomaso tower constructed as part of the new Hilton hotel and marina.

Since then, nine other development were approved without any policy. A draft policy in 2006 was never approved, until Labour approved the new policy – but only granting the controversial Mistra Heights the green light from MEPA.

Mistra was issued a preliminary permit in 2008, and then approved in 2013 just before the approval of the high-rise policy that limits developments of over 10 storeys to just six localities… which do not include Mistra. The areas are the Tigné peninsula, Qawra, Gzira, Mriehel, Marsa and Paceville.

Applying the floor area ratio (FAR), developers can build twice the maximum set by local plans, if they create more open spaces. That means medium-rise development of between six to nine storeys, can take place across any 4,000 square metres in all Malta and Gozo.

No minimum site area is required for such development in Sliema, St Julian’s, Msida, Gzira, Pietà, St Paul’s Bay, Marsaskala and Marsa, which could see buildings rising up to 10 storeys. The only limit on high rise development in areas officially designated for medium or high rise buildings is the requirement that such development has to be surrounded by four planned or existing streets.