ERA will not appeal Townsquare and Mriehel high-rise projects

Environment and Resources Authority excludes appealing controversial high-rise projects despite its concerns on visual impact of towers 

A mock-up of the approved Townsquare tower as seen from the Sliema front
A mock-up of the approved Townsquare tower as seen from the Sliema front

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) will not be appealing against the Planning Authority’s decision to approve a controversial 38-storey tower in Sliema and four smaller towers in Mriehel despite previously expressing doubts on the visual impact of the mega projects.

In reply to MaltaToday’s questions, the ERA said that since mitigation measures are included as conditions in the permits, it would not be appealing.

On Thursday, the Planning Authority (PA) board approved the 38-storey tower in Qui Si Sana, Sliema, and a four-tower block that rises to 20 storeys in Mriehel. The former project is owned by the Gasan Group, while the latter is the brainchild of the Gasan and Tumas groups.

ERA chairman Victor Axiak – who did not attend Thursday’s meeting because he was indisposed – submitted comments in writing in which he expressed his concerns on the visual impact of the Mriehel project.

Moreover, although Axiak sent no comments on the Townsquare project, in May the ERA had signalled that it was not satisfied with the Townsquare project on various issues.

“Keeping windows shut” during the construction of the Townsquare tower to shut out the noise is “unreasonable”, the ERA had said in reaction to an environmental planning statement (EPS) submitted in 2012 by consultants of the project.

The ERA noted that the impact, played down somewhat in the EPS as ‘short term’, would be indeed significant because excavation will take 10 months and construction four years, in an already densely populated area that surrounds the proposed tower.

This concern echoed similar doubts expressed by the Environment Protection Directorate back in 2012.

The ERA had also expressed concern on the visual impact of the building of the 38-storey tower which will have a dramatic impact on views enjoyed from the Sliema promenade, apart from breaking the skyline from as far as Rinella Bay in Kalkara.  

While the EPS consultants, who were commissioned by the Gasan Group, warned that the project would have a major impact when seen from Tower Road and from the Preluna Hotel, the ERA also contended that the project would also have a major impact when seen from Manoel Island and the Valletta ferry landing.  

It also expressed concern on the results of a scan line geological survey, which warned of the “potential collapse of excavation”. This impact was described as “uncertain” in the EPS.

But the ERA has now said that a number of measures will mitigate these concerns.

“The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) findings on both proposals had predicted potential impacts associated with these developments. However, a number of measures were also identified through the EIA process to mitigate these impacts. These mitigation measures were proposed to be included as conditions in the PA permit,” an ERA spokesperson told MaltaToday.

“In light of the above, the Environment and Resources Authority does not envisage that it shall be appealing the PA decisions on the Mriehel and Sliema high-rise.”

The ERA has the power to appeal to the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal against decisions taken by the PA but since the ERA’s inception in April, no appeal has been lodged.

Sliema councillor Michael Briguglio has however said that he will be proposing an appeal against the Townsquare development by the local council. 

“On Monday I will ask my fellow Sliema local councillors to formally appeal the PA Townsquare decision,” the Green party councillor tweeted yesterday.

Environmental NGOs – who have called for the approval of a national master plan for high-rise buildings before any high-rise applications are processed – can also lodge an appeal as the new law grants them an automatic right to appeal against the approval of major projects.

The Townsquare project, comprising 159 residential units, 4,719 square metres of offices, 8,241 square metres of commercial space and 748 parking spaces, is set to become Malta’s tallest building.

Chairman cannot be substituted

The PA board narrowly approved by seven votes to six the development of the Townsquare tower which is set to increase traffic in Sliema by 3,500 cars a day, with the authority’s chairman, Vince Cassar, and his deputy, Elisabeth Ellul, voting against, as did the Nationalist Party’s representative Ryan Callus.

Had Axiak been present and voted against, the vote would have been tied and the chairman would have been required to use a casting vote.

While confirming that Axiak was indisposed for medical reasons and could not attend Thursday’s public consultation meeting, the ERA spokesperson said that “the way in which the ERA Board members featured in the Government Gazette, did not allow for an ERA representative to substitute in such instances.”

Additional reporting Raphael Vassallo