Bureaucracy and Stivalaland

Month in month out we are inundated with the latest statistics on property contracts or “promise of sale” agreements. Recently we have had some blips with statistics indicating that property sales were possibly diminishing. Out comes the Malta Developers Association (MDA) supremo thundering that bureaucracy is holding back property deals.

The development permitting process is, generally, greed oriented. It has resulted in so-called flexibility policies which seek to facilitate going around development policy restrictions intended to protect the urban fabric and the quality of life of the residential community. For example, an area earmarked for a public staircase in the Gżira local plan was transformed into a hotel. This is taking place in a residential area where only residences ought to have been permitted. The beneficiary of such land use planning extreme flexibility is the Stivala Group of Companies. I am referring to upper Moroni Street in Gżira, which area has nowadays been labelled as Stivalaland by Gżira residents. Yet the MDA supremo has the cheek to complain.

Developers in Mellieħa were less lucky with flexibility bureaucracy as a hotel permitted in similar circumstances has seen its development permit being recently revoked by the Court of Appeal. The Stivalaland hotel permit in Gżira may possibly meet the same fate in the not-too-distant future as although it has been approved by the Planning Commission some 5 months ago (PA5962/21) the development permit has not been issued yet. Consequently, the time frame for objectors to commence the appeal process has not yet commenced.

Occasionally public opinion manages to pull a fast one. The recent scheduling of the Palazzino Vincenti landmark at St Julians is another area of conflict between the Stivala brand and planning bureaucracy. It is still too early to consider this as a closed case. One awaits with trepidation the next steps notwithstanding the scheduling of the Vincenti masterpiece.

The Stivala brand had planned to pull down Palazzino Vincenti and to develop yet another hotel in St Julians. On 12 December 2022 Palazzino Vincenti was temporarily protected at Grade 1 level through an Emergency Conservation Order. This temporary protection has now been lifted and downgraded to a Grade 2 protection on a long-term basis as decided by the Planning Authority last month. This is extremely bad news as it signifies that most probably only the elevation of this landmark will be preserved: its interior will be gutted. Those who rejoiced at this level of protection were ill-advised. I think that it will be the developer and his advisors who will eventually have the last laugh as they will not be too far from their original objectives!

In this specific case planning bureaucracy will, once more, not be preventing the Stivala brand from making mincemeat of our national heritage, with the Planning Authority’s blessing. And yet the MDA supremo complains.

The planning bureaucracy which the MDA supremo complains about was nowhere to be seen when the Stivala brand sought to stretch development as close as possible to the shoreline. Do you remember? Four years ago, in these very columns, in an article entitled: Protecting Our Coast: No political will in sight (TMIS: 14 April 2019) I had written about the development permit relative to the building block of which the restaurant Piccolo Padre along the St Julian’s coastline forms part. I had then emphasised as follows: “The development in question has been permitted on a footprint starting along the coastline itself. In addition, ………………… planning permission issued by the Planning Authority includes part of the approved structure protruding over the sea. Not even a whimper has been heard from the Lands Authority on the matter.”

Contrary to what the MDA supremo says land use planning bureaucracy, and its cousins, continuously make way for unbridled development.

That is the extent of how effective the bureaucracy is, practically always on the side of greed.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 28 May 2023

Saving the little that we have

Almost two years ago, Architect Edward Said submitted a request to the Planning Authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage in order that they take steps to protect a Villa along the St Julian’s promenade. The Villa known as Palazzina Vincenti was designed and constructed for his own use by Architect Gustavo Romeo Vincenti. Architect Vincenti died in 1974.

As far as is known, neither the Planning Authority nor the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage have acted upon the submissions received requesting the protection of Palazzina Vincenti. At the time of writing the Superintendence has passed the buck to the Planning Authority! In the meantime, a development application has been submitted for the demolition of Palazzina Vincenti and its substitution with a 17-storey 136 room hotel, including three levels below street level providing garage space for 58 cars.

In a report drawn up by Architect Edward Said, Palazzina Vincenti is described as “a masterpiece of architecture defined by pure geometric volumes”.  It is considered as one of the earliest examples of the use of reinforced concrete in domestic architecture in Malta.  Quoting from a 2018 Masters of Architecture dissertation by David Ellul, Architect Said emphasises that by taking full advantage of the potential of reinforced concrete, Vincenti’s artistic expression was freed from the limitations of traditional materials. The result is this masterpiece which can be lost quite soon!

Even though to the untrained eye Palazzina Vincenti may seem to be an ugly building specimen, ill-fitting in its present-day concrete jungle surroundings, it is still a masterpiece worth preserving for posterity.

I fail to understand why two years after a request for protection has been submitted no action has yet been taken. As a result of such inaction, the message conveyed by the authorities is a very clear one: that the site occupied by Palazzina Vincenti is ripe for development. This is an inevitable conclusion conveyed by those in charge as a result of their failure to act.

At this point in time, as a minimum, it is expected that an emergency conservation order protecting Palazzina Vincenti is issued urgently. This would be a clear sign to those currently benefitting from a prolonged phase of “development greed” that a red line has been drawn around our heritage, thereby protecting it. It would also provide some breathing space which would be of considerable help in order that the Planning Authority may bring its house in order.

Some have the mistaken idea that all our heritage is necessarily old, very old, going back centuries. This is certainly not the case as this specific architectural masterpiece is less than 75 years old. Unfortunately, there have been other worthy examples of our architectural heritage which have been lost through carelessness, insensitivity and institutional ignorance.

I could remind readers of another outstanding example of modern architecture which has gone to the dogs, this time in Gozo, some 15 years ago. Parts of the Qala Primary School in Gozo were demolished to make way for an Institute of Tourism Studies campus in Gozo. The said school was designed and constructed under the supervision of Architect Joseph Huntingford who as the government architect in charge of schools was responsible for most new schools constructed in Gozo between 1950 and 1961.

Way back in 2006 the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers had described the Qala Primary School as one of the finest examples of modern architecture on the island. Even then the Planning Authority was advised to handle our heritage with care. But it was of no use. The advice was ignored as parts of the school were demolished to make way for the ITS campus.

There is still time to save Palazzina Vincenti from being sacrificed on the altar of “development greed”. We need to be more appreciative of our heritage. We have so little of it. I am not however so sure as to whether the Planning Authority is capable of taking decisive action. It has been desensitised for far too long.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 12 December 2021