Making hay …….. in St George’s Bay

The 23-storey Pender Gardens high-rise is nearly completed, after nearly 10 years of continuous construction activity. The application for the 31-storey Mercury House was approved last month and next Thursday, the Planning Authority Board will consider planning application PA2478/16 submitted by Garnet Investments Limited in respect of a substantial stretch of land along St George’s Bay on the outskirts of Paceville St Julian’s.

The applicant has requested the following: “Demolition of all existing buildings forming part of St. George’s Bay Hotel and ancillary facilities, Dolphin House, Moynihan House and Cresta Quay. Construction of Parking facilities, Hotels and ancillary facilities, Commercial Area, Multi Ownership holiday accommodation, Bungalows, Language school with accommodation. Restoration of the Villa Rosa and upgrading of the facilities including parking facility, kitchen and toilets all below existing site levels within the Villa Rosa Area to address catering facilities/wedding hall.”

The project includes mixed-uses covering a total site area of 48,723 square metres, a building footprint of 18,345 square metres and a total gross floor area of 82,917 square meters.

It is a small part of the area that was tentatively tackled by a draft Masterplan for Paceville which, after being rejected by public opinion was sent back to the drawing board. I consider it highly unethical for the Planning Authority to proceed with considering this application after the clear and resounding verdict of public opinion. As a minimum, the consideration of this application should have been postponed until a new, reasonable and acceptable Masterplan has received the go-ahead. A minimum effort at achieving consensus as to what development is acceptable is essential.

The Planning Authority is unfortunately insensitive to public opinion. It is amply clear that it, and those who appoint most of its Board members, are on the same wavelength as the development lobby, which is hell-bent on making hay while the sun shines. At this point in time, it is the turn of the St George’s Bay area.

The project is obviously recommended for approval in the 43-page report from the Planning Directorate.

The basic point of contention with such large-scale projects is that they are considered in isolation. Most of them would never get off the drawing board (real or virtual) if the consolidated impact of all neighbouring projects (existing or in the pipeline) are taken into account. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to address similar concerns to the EIA public consultation on the db Group ITS site project.

Five large-scale projects are earmarked for St George’s Bay. Each will generate considerable havoc from excavation throughout construction and right through operation in the whole St George’s Bay area. Cumulatively it will be hell. Who cares?

Way back in 2006, when the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive of the EU was about to be implemented in Malta, the Lawrence Gonzi – George Pullicino tandem rushed through the approval of the Local Plans in such a manner as to ensure that the accumulated environmental impact resulting from their implementation was not scrutinised and acted upon. The present state of affairs is the direct result of that irresponsible Gonzi-Pullicino action 12 years ago.

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) occasionally tries to patch things up. For example, within the framework of the ITS EIA exercise ERA suggested that the traffic assessment of the ITS and the Villa Rosa projects be consolidated. This has, however, been avoided: a case of too little, too late.

So where do we go from here?

The development lobby is maximising its efforts to make hay while the sun shines. In reality, a consolidated mess is taking shape with massively built-up areas in a relatively restricted space punctured by high rises mimicking phallic symbols of all shapes and sizes spread all over the place. Pender Place has 23 floors. Mercury House will have 31. The ITS phallus will have a 37-floor residential tower. The Villa Rosa/Cresta Quay project will have more modest heights.

Next Thursday, the Planning Authority has the opportunity to scrutinise the proposal for this Villa Rosa-Cresta Quay project. We will see once more the extent to which the concrete lobby still holds the Authority by its balls – obviously where this is applicable.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 18 February 2018

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Paceville: protecting the underdogs

paceville-mp-land-use

As the short time allotted for public consultation on the proposed first draft of the Paceville Masterplan approaches its conclusion, it is time for some commonsense to prevail at the Planning Authority.

On TV, last Thursday, we heard the Authority’s Executive Chairman Johann Buttigieg plotting the first steps of a U-turn on a number of contentious issues contained in the draft. This U-turn is welcome, as it is clearly being planned on the basis of the reactions of the public and the environmental NGOs to the proposed Paceville Masterplan.

The most serious point at issue is the extent to which the nine projects around which the Masterplan is woven will engulf properties belonging to residents and small scale business people. It will hopefully now be clear, once and for all, that no one will be coerced through threats of compulsory purchase (veiled or otherwise) to make way for any one of the nine projects.

Mr Buttigieg declared that “no-one would be forced to sell”. While this declaration is welcome, it is certainly not sufficient. Everyone is aware that there are many ways through which pressure may be brought to bear on residents and business people. It is certainly time for all stakeholders to be vigilant and present a common front.  Being constantly on the look-out may help  identify those triggering incidents such as that of the car which was recently set ablaze in St George’s Park at Paceville at the same time as residents were meeting elsewhere to discuss their reactions to the proposed Paceville Masterplan.

The Planning Authority should be proactive. It should be at the forefront when it comes to taking initiatives that make sense. A case in point is the need to implement the public domain legislation recently enacted by Parliament  in order to better protect both the coastline and the foreshore to a minimum distance of fifteen metres from the shoreline.

It is well known that there is just one stretch of coastline within the draft Paceville Masterplan boundaries that is not intensively developed: the Cresta Quay site, also referred to as the Villa Rosa site 3. This site is crying out for protection and it can be protected, yet the draft masterplan – ignoring public domain legislation  – earmarks this site for a number of high rise blocks.

This proposal, in addition to reducing the recently approved public domain legislation to hot air, runs counter to the draft masterplan philosophy of siting high-rise developments away from the coast. It seems that someone may have been pressured into having second thoughts when the Masterplan was being drafted. There is no other reasonable explanation for this contradiction.

The public consultation has revealed that the drafting of the Paceville Masterplan was flawed, as it ignored issues of fundamental importance.  However, there is till time for the Planning Authority to align the Masterplan to the expectations of stakeholders. The belated declaration by Johann Buttigieg that (after all) he too has reservations on some aspects of the Masterplan is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, this will be reflected in an overhaul of the draft and in the production of a new one which respects the stakeholders who have invested in Paceville over the years.

The investors promoting the nine projects which the Planning Authority identified may contribute to the regeneration of Paceville only if they tread carefully in full respect of residents and small-scale business people who have shaped the present-day Paceville, warts and all.

So far, this has not happened, as some of the developers think that they have some God-given right to ride roughshod over one and all. Unfortunately, the Planning Authority has generally obliged, as it has rarely been on the side of the those bearing the brunt of the bulldozer culture that has to date reigned supreme in land-use planning issues.

We await the second draft of the Paceville Masterplan, in the hope that the Planning Authority will turn a new page and assume its rightful place in protecting the underdogs.     

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 20 November 2016