The Malta Independent on Sunday, 8th June 2008, by Noel Grima –
On one and the same day, the soon-to-go Mepa board postponed the approval of a 341-apartment development at Tigne and approved one for 868 apartments at Xemxija.
This was not the only difference between the applications. Earlier, the board had gone ahead with an outline approval of the Fort Cambridge development on the site of the former Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza at Tigne without an environmental impact assessment but had then asked for one following EU pressure. Nevertheless, as pointed out during the meeting, no Social Impact Assessment had been carried out.
Yet, both an EIA and an SIA were carried out on the Mistra Village redevelopment application.
Concerned Sliema representatives, from the council secretary to councillors Mike Briguglio and Martin Debono, argued that as the Sliema traffic plan has not yet been finalized how could one accept the traffic impact assessment of the project.
As regards Mistra, the Traffic Impact Statement found that the project’s impact on traffic, particularly at the Xemxija Hill roundabout, will be so massive as to force the government to go ahead with its plans for a bypass, which in turn will lead to the destruction of more agricultural land and pristine areas.
Both applications raised concerns about height. The Tigne one, with 23-storey blocks, would turn Tigne into a mini version of Manhattan. Even a specially-mounted photomontage, which showed that the tips would be visible from Kalkara and Rinella but not from the inner reaches of Vittoriosa, still showed the vastness of the construction when seen from the sea.
The developers argued that the Fortina tower and the yet to be built Midi tower were on the same scale but the collective immensity of the proposal outweighed all other considerations.
At one point during the discussion, Mepa officials argued that they had forced the developer, GAP Holdings, to build the towers higher because of opposition from some residents. The Sliema representatives argued in rebuttal that this was only one resident who did not wish the development so near his front door and that there was no real need to build so high.
It was the government representative on the board, Joe Farrugia, who argued that the proposed height of 23 storeys was unacceptable and who led the board to postpone its approval until such a time when the application was again reduced to 16 storeys, as in the development brief.
Height too was central to the Mistra Village application discussion. Myriam Cremona for Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar argued that Mepa was breaching its own rules, which denied the option of constructing high-rise buildings on top of ridges.
This application had already been scaled down: a 19-storey tower is no longer there and the height of blocks would be limited to eight or 11 storeys.
During the afternoon hearing, the directorate put forward an interesting, if highly controversial, argument in favour of big, planned development as against piecemeal development. A development such as that at Mistra Village, could have been turned into 200 plots. More excavation would be needed, no open spaces would be left, and there would be a multitude of different designs and a longer time frame for completion. Think Bugibba for an example. In a planned holistic development, there would be one time frame, a holistic design even if it included a visual impact.
A photomontage was also used here, but Joanna Spiteri Staines from Din l-Art Helwa complained that it was at a wide-angle and asked for a proper one instead.
In its defence, Mepa said that it took a responsible decision in approving a comprehensive plan to redevelop the former Mistra Village Complex. A specific policy in the approved Local Plan had established the development parameters for this site. Mepa pointed out that this application had taken four years to complete. Therefore, accusations that this application was rushed through are totally unfounded.
This policy states that the site has to be comprehensively planned with a maximum 75 per cent developable site area, while also establishing a maximum floor area of 145,000 sq.m. It also allowed the use of the floor area ratio policy. This permits flexibility in height in order to achieve a high quality comprehensive development with the provision of public open spaces for the enjoyment and comfort of the community. The use of the FAR policy restricted the maximum height to eight floors plus penthouse while allowing for slight departures, Mepa added.
The site, occupying an area of circa 42 tumoli, is within the development zone and can be conventionally developed up to a height of four floors, semi-basement and penthouse. The comprehensive development approach approved in principle is much less dense, producing 860 units. A conventional development of the site subdivided into circa 200 plots had the potential to produce 1,300 units.
Further to the above, the planning and environmental advantages of the comprehensive development, which was approved in principle, include:
• Holistic aesthetical design
• The undertaking of an EIA and TIS
• The implementation of management plans
• High quality development
• Controlled environmental monitoring
• Guaranteed provision of public open space
• Planned construction timeframes
• Provision of community facilities – day care centre and local shops
• Managed landscaped areas
A conventional piecemeal approach, while producing a lower visual impact, would not have catered for any of the above. This approach would also have burdened the neighbourhood with never-ending construction operations especially in view of the extent of the area to be developed. This surely is in line with sustainable development principles.
During the sitting, the Directorates explained, in considerable detail, the evolution of the submissions and how the applicant reached the present stage to ensure a quality design and functionality for the project.
The EIA was based on a “worst case scenario” and through the positive reactions from the developers to address the recommendations made in the EIA and the concerns raised by the public and the NGOs, a better design for the development was effected resulting in:
• Reduction in heights
• Reduction in floor space
• Reduction in the number of residential units
The boomerang blocks step up from sic floors from lower street level to a maximum of eight floors on the upper street levels. The only departure from this maximum height is within the centre of the site were at two specific points a height of 11 floors is being allowed. This is totally in line with the Local Plan policy governing the site.
The TIS report noted that the problem at Xemxija Hill is a regional one. The TIS recommends that an alternative route to Mellieha bypassing Xemxija Hill would have to be implemented within a realistic time frame. This would resolve the existing problem of linking Gozo and the north of Malta with the rest of the island. This solution is actively being considered as part of the Ten-T road network project. Alternative routes for the bypass are currently being studied.
But environmental NGOs, Birdlife Malta, Gaia Foundation, Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, Friends of the Earth Malta, Light Pollution Awareness Group, NatureTrust (Malta) and Ramblers Association of Malta, strongly criticised Mepa’s decision to give the green light to the Mistra mega-project and questioned the reason why this and similar permits are being rushed through when MEPA reform is imminent.
The NGOs are adamant that it is not possible to justify a project to create 868 new apartments in an area that has 9,000 empty properties. Mepa and ADT are well aware that both the Halcrow Report and the Ten-T study clearly state that Xemxija Hill is already overloaded with traffic and cannot support any increase. It is for this reason that neither a tall building nor any project that develops the site more intensively than the previous Mistra Village should be permitted considering the road’s limitations. Alternatives have already been explored and found to be unfeasible; therefore, granting a permit that would increase traffic through Xemxija Hill would be highly irresponsible of the Mepa Board.
The Mistra permit was granted in spite of the fact that the NGOs had pointed out that FAR regulations specify that tall building projects are not to be allowed on ridges due to the great negative impact they would have on the landscape, both from land and sea – once high-rise buildings are permitted on Xemxija ridge, the uniformity and harmony of Maltese ridges will be forever destroyed as this will set a precedent for all other areas. The development will also imperil our heritage, as the EIA stated that the unique Underground Flour Mill would be placed at risk by building work, which will include the road that forms the ceiling of the mill.
The proposed set of tall buildings will block air and sunlight reaching residences even streets away. A Richmond Foundation Conference recently raised the issue that over-urbanisation contributes to mental illness and social isolation; does MEPA refuse to recognise that by approving such projects simply to enrich developers it is inflicting very serious problems on our communities?
Malta’s mega-projects are being approved in spite of the fact that they do not conform to the full energy/water efficiency 2007 regulations; without rigorous assessment using an established international sustainable development rating system (such as LEED), they will not only cause further deterioration to our climate change situation but also expose the taxpayer to major fines for not conforming to EU Energy Directives.
With emissions from particulate matter at some 38 times higher than the highest international recommended levels, Malta’s air pollution problems will also be aggravated.
The environment NGOs call for a moratorium on major projects until MEPA reform is implemented. It is ironic that a project as unsustainable as the Mistra towers was approved on World Environment Day, and at a time when so much emphasis has been laid on Malta’s sustainable development commitments. The environment groups call for an immediate inquiry into how such a permit could have been recommended and approved in violation of not only the Local Plan, FAR and EU regulations but also our Constitution and new sustainability goals.
Finally, Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party said it has been informed by the European Commission DG Environment that it is still studying the case of the Mistra Village massive building project and is in contact with the Maltese government for clarifications regarding it. This after AD had presented a petition last November of over 550 resident signatures to the EU Commission on this case.
Carmel Cacopardo, AD spokesperson on sustainable development, said, “The outline permit given for the ex-Mistra Village Development in Xemxija is tangible proof of the fact that Mepa is causing continuous damage to our country’ s natural and historical heritage.
“Despite the fact that over 53,000 dwellings lie empty in our country, Mepa goes ahead with the permit for such an enormous and massive project as the one on the ex-Mistra Village site, which includes 868 residential units.” Carmel Cacopardo stated that there is absolutely no need for this kind of project, which is meant only to justify the self-existence of the construction industry.
Alternattiva Demokratika maintains that such massive development is creating a very dangerous precedent in Malta. It is time to declare a moratorium on massive residential development.