Light at the end of the Tigné Point tunnel
The Midi Consortium has requested a formal handover of the completed Tigné Point tunnel to the government, which CEO Ben Muscat hopes will close the chapter on what has turned out to be one of the most controversial parts of the €450 million Manoel Island and Tigné Point development.
The tunnel, he tells The Sunday Times in an interview, has a long history dating to 1992 when it was part of the strategic plan for the local road network to relieve traffic from Sliema's core.
Originally intended as a surface road, it was pushed underground and by 1999, plans for it were crystallised. When Parliament gave the outline development the green light, the tunnel was part of it, but the Qui-Si-Sana plans - which included the infamous car park (nothing to do with Midi) with its restaurants and ancillary facilities - were diluted to make way for better management of the traffic generated by the three major projects (Tigné Point, Fort Cambridge, and Town Square) earmarked for the area. Midi too had to update its traffic management scheme.
"The tunnel's size has only changed to take into account the preservation of the Garden Battery above it, but it was always going to be two-way and is in fact no narrower than it was always planned to be," Mr Muscat explains.
"The tunnel was increased in length to wind around the battery, which was not originally scheduled for conservation. This change of plan destroyed our masterplan for Tigné North and we have had to make up for the lost residential volume in other parts of the project.
"Sliema residents have complained that the tunnel seems unfinished at one end. The north side of the tunnel lies on public land, so the onus concerning that end is on the government, as it also involves the rationalisation of the traffic scheme for Qui-Si-Sana."
The Tigné Point project has been mired in controversy since conception, raising residents' ire as they objected to aspects of the plan. The bitterness even showed in the Sliema vote at the general election. Does Midi feel responsible for swaying political sentiment in that part of the world?
"No," Mr Muscat replies firmly. "There is this notion that we have manipulated the authorities. It is a fantasy. The facts are what they are. With hindsight, maybe we should have opened lines of dialogue with the residents to explain our obligations according to our development permit. We have tried very hard to contain the inconvenience and noise as much as possible. The development on the Fortina side is practically complete, but the inconvenience on the north foreshore will unfortunately persist for some time because it provides the only access to the rest of the site. It will take about four years for this section of the project to be completed."
Mr Muscat says the project's planners are surprised at the local business community's reluctance to see Sliema's 'high street' Bisazza Street pedestrianised.
"These are schemes that any other business community would have welcomed," Mr Muscat points out. "It is a proven fact that pedestrianisation creates urban activity. Eliminating traffic here would also improve the environment. Contrary to popular belief, there was no grand scheme to push traffic towards Tigné Point by pedestrianising Bisazza Street.
"On the contrary, if you think about it, we would have lobbied for the status quo to be retained because it would suit us better. Retailers need to do their bit to see that their business location is upgraded and a central agency should take on a scheme to improve the area."
Accusations that the consortium is to close off vast areas of land to the public have also been levelled at Midi, which Mr Muscat refutes outright. He explains that most of Tigné Point's footprint will be open to the public: The Point Retail Mall, Pjazza Tigné, Sliema Wanderers' football club, all the foreshore (vastly inaccessible until quite recently), and all of Tigné Fort's leisure, heritage and dining facilities.
In fact, most of the area at Tigné Point will be fully accessible to the public and Manoel Island plans include a low density, low rise development taking up less than 30 per cent of the island's area. All the old buildings are to be retained and the 'green lung' around the fort is to be preserved and open to the public.
The most ambitious project Malta has ever seen comes with risks to match, especially in the current economic climate. Mr Muscat, who was appointed CEO in 2000, says the shareholders are confident because the project is unique and Tigné Point and Manoel Island have the potential to become "tremendous destinations".
"Ultimately, there is a great element of pride in the heritage works that Midi is undertaking. The restoration of the historical features, like Fort Manoel and Fort Tigné, which is practically complete, and the Garden Battery, for example, is an expression of our pride in our heritage. The public will soon see what we have been doing behind closed doors. We are half-way now. Most of Tigné Point is complete and the 'worst' is nearly over. We are now waiting for the green light so we can get moving on Manoel Island. The second half of the project will move faster. We have eight years of accrued experience and we know what works and what doesn't."
So far, 196 of the envisaged 900 residences at Tigné Point and Manoel Island have been sold, with some 40 per cent of sales involving foreign nationals. Almost half of the steel structure of The Point retail mall has been completed to roof level. UK franchise Debenhams is the first big name to be linked with the complex that will offer 17,000 square metres of floor space for rent (another 2,000 to 3,000 square metres will be available for retail purposes on the piazza).
Mr Muscat is confident that the 16,000 square metres of high specification office space at the twin-block Tigné Point Office Block, with its 500 dedicated car parking spaces, will be well received, although he admits Midi is disappointed to have lost potential clients who came to Malta looking for the office space Tigné Point will be able to offer in a few years' time.
"However, we are confident that demand will not have peaked by the time the Office Block is complete in 2010. Open plan offices measuring between 1,000 and 1,800 square metres will be offered for long lease; the block, which will potentially house 800 employees, will be autonomous in terms of power which is crucial for businesses which demand that data be secure. We have also entered into a joint venture with Siemens to create an IT 'backbone' to meet the demands of the most discerning businesses and residents. The Office Block is an integral part of the fundamental concept behind the project which is to create a thriving community. The area will be continually active, even at the weekends, given its proximity to Sliema's core."
There are still several aspects of the project that are waiting for planning permission. The construction of the Office Block has been pending approval since 2005, two residential blocks on the north side of Tigné Point since 2006, the revised master plan for Manoel Island and Lazaretto for over a year, the breakwater at Manoel Island since 2003. A recent application for the construction of T15 and T16, a low rise commercial offer and an open air north piazza catering facility in Tigné Point, was filed recently.
Realistically, Tigné Point is now expected to be completed in 2012 and Manoel Island in 2014, instead of 2010 and 2012 as per the original forecasts.
In 1998, the environment impact assessment into Tigné Point and Manoel Island stated that the project could generate 4,200 jobs. Mr Muscat says on completion, the project could create even more employment than that. His biggest regret at this point in time is the tempo of progress. "Had permits been issued faster, we could have done a lot more by now," he says.