Times of Malta, 26th March 2010, by Matthew Xuereb –

The 47th attempt to regenerate the opera house ruins in Valletta was given planning permission yesterday, paving the way for construction to start soon on Renzo Piano’s highly-controversial City Gate project.

The project by the world-renowned architect, which in-cludes the contentious roofless theatre, was approved by nine of the 10 Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s board members, with Labour representative Roderick Galdes casting the only dissenting vote.

The five-hour public hearing yesterday morning was attended by a handful of people objecting to the proposed project. In fact, only three people actually voiced their objections.

The board heard the planning directorate recommend approval, subject to a long list of conditions mainly related to traffic and construction management as well as a €500,000 bank guarantee.

The directorate imposed the extension of the Park and Ride area at Blata l-Bajda to make up for the 474 parking spaces that will be lost from Freedom Square and in the ditch, better known as the Yellow Garage.

In his presentation to the board, case officer Joseph Borg explained that the 16th century bridge leading into Valletta would be exposed and the present 22-metre-wide bridge, which was extended several times over the years, would be reduced to just over eight metres in width.

The ditch, originally dug out as a defensive measure, will be converted into a paved garden, having one catering establishment, limited seating and non-advertorial umbrellas for shade.

The original gate, Mr Borg said, was designed by Laparelli, changed in 1632, replaced again in 1853 and the present one constructed in 1964.

Bernard Plattner, an architect on Mr Piano’s team, told the hearing Valletta was being given the importance it deserved and that the plans mixed dreams and inventions with the reality of the site.

Responding to criticism on the open-air theatre, Mr Plattner said the space on the site previously occupied by an opera house was never meant to be called a theatre in the first place but was simply an open-air public place for outdoor performances.

“One has to be out of one’s mind to even consider the possibility to build a competitive opera house on a footprint of 600 to 800 square metres,” he said.

He said a textile canopy was needed in order to reflect the sound and to protect lighting and sound equipment from the elements.

Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar’s Miriam Cremona stressed her organisation’s objection to the proposed plans saying the removal of a city gate would leave a gaping hole in the historic site.

She also complained that there had been no consultation on the project and that a traffic impact assessment and an environmental impact assessment had not been carried out.

Another objector was the president of the National Musicians’ Union, Val Valente, who said the opera house site would remain an eyesore and that the government’s plans were rubbing salt in people’s wounds.

He added that 85 per cent of the population wanted a roofed national theatre.

Representatives of other organisations expressed approval for the project. These included Valletta Alive Foundation secretary, John Ebejer, who said the project would regenerate the capital city. Din L-Art Ħelwa president Petra Bianchi and Claude Borg, on behalf of the Valletta Rehabilitation Project, also spoke fav-ourably.

Towards the end of the hearing, Manwel Delia, head of secretariat in the Infrastructure Ministry, said this was the 47th attempt to restore the opera house site since it was brought down by enemy bombs.

He said that some NGOs went on record as saying they were in favour of the project but cries of objection rang out when he showed a 10-second clip of FAA coordinator Astrid Vella during an interview. The clip was barely audible as Mr Galdes and others yelled out in protest, demanding that it be stopped.

Mr Galdes accused Mr Delia of “hijacking” the Mepa computer, which was being used to screen a presentation on the proposed project. He also asked for an official explanation as to how the ministry took possession of a Mepa computer to play the clip.

It was explained to him that the projector’s cable had merely been unplugged from one computer and plugged into a ministry laptop.

The presentation was halted and Mepa chairman Austin Walker ruled that the clip could not be played since it was out of context.

Mepa environment directorate head Martin Seychell explained that an environmental impact assessment was not required because the project did not cover an area of 10 hectares or more. However, he said that, due to the sensitivity of the site, the directorate had undertaken a screening process, which showed that the project had no significant impact on the environment.

Mr Galdes moved a motion for the Mepa decision to be postponed until the government went back to Mr Piano and asked him to change the plans according to the will of the people. However, he found no other board member to second the proposal and it was not even put to the vote.

The Mepa approval of the project was lauded by the Nationalist Party in a statement and the Labour Party described the plans as “an ego-trip” rather than a national project.