Times of Malta, 6th June 2008, by Fiona Galea Debono

The outline development application for the redevelopment of Mistra Village was yesterday approved by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority board, giving rise to 868 residential units perched on the ridge in Xemxija.

The units would be standing at a height of eight or 11 floors, depending on the road level.

The project has been toned down, doing away with a 19-storey tower and reducing the units by 100. But the increased footprint was described as “massive” by environmental NGOs, who objected to the permit saying the visual impact was of major concern on a national level.

The approval would lead to a “dangerous” precedent for tall buildings on ridges throughout Malta and Gozo, the NGOs said.

An Environmental Impact Assessment, however, found minimal impact in several cases; and where it was major, it was changed to insignificant through mitigation measures, which would have to be overseen by a monitor. The dust impact on residents was considered to be minor by the EIA due to envisaged mitigation measures, while the noise disturbance caused by excavation (168,000 cubic metres) was downplayed to “temporary”.

Environmental impacts would be major on the landscape, the area being of “very high landscape sensitivity”, the EIS showed.

The directorate recommended application approval, saying the NW Local Plan, approved in 2006, had a specific policy for the redevelopment of the Mistra Village site.

But the Traffic Impact Statement (TIS) found the impact on traffic to be “major”, particularly at the roundabout of Xemxija Hill, the main access to the site, affecting the link between the north and south of the island and the traffic flow even from Gozo.

The TIS found that traffic problems already existed and the roundabout would be “saturated” once the project was in operation.

Miriam Cremona from Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar, said a vicious circle would be created due to the “enormity” of the development, with new roads having to be sought and cutting into the countryside, causing their own negative impact.

Environmental NGO Din l-Art Ħelwa (DLĦ) maintained that the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) should not be applied to ridges, and specifically the Mistra Village site, according to Mepa’s own policy document, which the authority “seriously compromised” by approving the application.

DLĦ insisted on the need to have photo montages of the latest amendments, saying the Mepa board had taken a decision without being aware of the true visual impact of the development.

The application for the Mistra Village redevelopment was first submitted in 2004. It has evolved into a “boomerang” concept, whereby the blocks are in the shape of boomerangs.

In January, the application was deferred, pending the assessment of the updated EIA, which was completed in March.

In a statement pre-empting the approval of the application, the developers, Gemxija Crown Ltd, a joint venture company between JPM Brothers Ltd and Al Masalleh Real Estate Ltd of Kuwait, said Mistra Heights would boost the regeneration of Xemxija.

The project, which also includes commercial areas, is expected to be completed by 2012.

They said they took on board the remarks of the residents, NGOs and other interested parties during the public consultation process, and resubmitted the revised plans which, they claimed, addressed the initial concerns.

The company bought the former Mistra Village holiday complex in 2005 and the planned development costs now stand close to €250 million, half of which is direct foreign investment. It would be investing some €470,000 to protect and embellish the underground flour mill on the site.

A number of public facilities will be created, including recreational and convenience amenities such as a health and fitness centre and landscaped gardens over more than 40 per cent of the developable area, the company said.