A scaled-back private university at Żonqor Point, Marsascala, will be complemented by another campus at Cospicua’s Dock No. 1, according to fresh government plans.

The planned American University of Malta will now be split into two campuses in the south after agreement with the Sadeen Group, the Jordanian investors behind the university.

The government’s capitulation over the use of 90,000 square metres of land that was in an outside development zone at Żonqor Point followed months of heavy opposition from various civil society elements and the Opposition. “This is a just and fair compromise,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said yesterday during a press conference at Auberge de Castille that included a presentation of the site selection exercise.

Admitting that the government could have avoided public frustration and political embarrassment by holding a public consultation at the start, Dr Muscat said the project would stimulate new economic opportunities in the south for families and businesses.

“It will reduce the quality-of-life disparity with the north.” The new plan will see three colleges and student accommodation built at Żonqor Point and a further two colleges in Cospicua.

The Żonqor campus will occupy some 18,000 square metres of ODZ land – 80 per cent less than the original proposal – and rise to a maximum height of five storeys, half of what is permissible under the floor-to-area-ratio policy.

A further 13,000 square metres of developed land, currently occupied by the old national pool and a car park, will also form part of the development.

Dr Muscat said the ODZ area was made up of abandoned agricultural land which had previously been identified for the possible development of a tuna hatchery.

He said the studies conducted in 2011 for the hatchery had confirmed the area had no ecological significance.

He added that, while it would have been possible to avoid ODZ land altogether, this would have necessitated the development of the ecologically sensitive foreshore. The foreshore will remain untouched and accessible to the public.

To compensate for the loss of the national pool, the government would be investing in a seaside swimming pool at the Marsascala water polo club.

In a statement the Nationalist Party said it was a “pity” that the only solution was to resort to a smaller footprint of ODZ land, which remained a matter of “serious concern”.

The PN said Dr Muscat had compromised his position by isolating himself and had no option but to go back to the drawing board.

The Cospicua campus at Dock No. 1 will occupy the historic Knights’ warehouses and the adjacent British-built buildings, all of which will be restored by the developers.

A car park and vacant lot will also form part of the project, and could be developed.

The waterside promenade, which was the subject of an €11 million regeneration project last year, will remain accessible to the public.

“This will be an important kick-start for Cottonera,” Dr Muscat said. “It is an aspirational project which will give enormous impetus to the people of Cottonera.”

The alternative site selection follows a public consultation process, during which the government received 626 submissions, yielding 169 possible sites, from which a shortlist of 12 was drawn up.

Reasons given for the elimination of potential sites from consideration included size, existing plans for alternativee uses, and the length of time it would take to rehabilitate the sites – as with the Opposition’s proposal of the former Petroleum Division in Birżebbuġa.

The 12 shortlisted sites included several forts and historical buildings in the Delimara area and on the stretch of land between Kalkara and Xgħajra, including Fort Ricasoli and Fort Rinella.

The planning authority’s assessment of these sites recommended against their use due to the damage that would be done to their historical and environmental heritage.

In several cases, Dr Muscat added, the infrastructural adaptations such as access roads that would have to be made to accommodate the university would have resulted in vast areas of ODZ land being developed.

The new Żonqor and Cospicua proposals are now subject to environmental and traffic impact assessments, as well as to all other development processes.

The first intake of students remains planned for September 2016, with the American University occupying space at Smart City until the campuses are completed. The university, which is not a branch of any existing institution, is seeking accreditation and the process is ongoing.

A planned nature park will still be developed at Żonqor, and its footprint will be enlarged to the size planned in the 2006 local plan.

Questioned on the rationale behind retaining Żonqor Point as part of the development despite widespread opposition, Dr Muscat said the site remained the best choice of all those considered.

“The residents of Marsascala could not be abandoned. As much as there was public anger about the project, there was anger from residents when they thought their locality was going to lose the investment.”

Original proposal

• One campus: Marsascala
• Five colleges plus dormitory
• 90,000 square metres of ODZ development

New proposal

• Two campuses: Marsascala and Cospicua
• Five colleges
• 31,000 square metres (18,000 square metres ODZ) in Marsascala
• 10,800 square metres in Cospicua
• Regeneration of historical buildings at Dock No. 1

Marlene Farrugia ‘satisified’

Labour MP Marlene Farrugia, who was among the most vocal opponents of the project, said she was “satisfied” with the new proposal.

Present at the press conference, she told the Times of Malta the government had listened to those who had spoken up and that the work of civil society had borne fruit.

“The ideal would be for no ODZ land to be developed, but it appears that the amount used will be minimal. Moreover, the foreshore, which has huge ecological value, will be preserved,” she said.

However, Dr Farrugia said this did not mean that the fight against construction in ODZ areas was done.

“We will continue to insist that ODZ should be considered only as a last resort,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Front Ħarsien ODZ, born as a result of the university’s initial controversial plans, said in a statement the new plans represented an improvement but the ODZ development at Żonqor was still unacceptable.

Reiterating its call on the government to publish the agreement with developers Sadeen Group, the group questioned why ODZ land could not be spared.

“We ask the government to publish its agreement with Sadeen and to inform us on the status of the planning authority’s study on alternative sites, which is due to be presented in the upcoming parliamentary environment committee.”

The front said the timing of the government’s statement, when Parliament was in recess, was not very comforting.

The front noted that its demonstration in June had had a “huge impact” on the government’s position but it would insist on having the whole project on developed land.

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