Saving Alhambra

The plight of Alhambra in Rudolph Street, Sliema has once again been raised in the media and the property is for sale. As the last co-owner to have sold my share of the house and garden and the last person born and brought up in Alhambra, I have a special interest in this property and in the call for a new and innovative buyer or buyers to come forward to preserve both house and garden and the enchanting Calì murals.

Readers might be interested to know some recent history. Alhambra was co-owned by numerous Galizia heirs and one half of the family sold their half share to the Tumas Group. The remaining share was later sold by my sister and I in two separate stages after we had ensured that both house and garden were eligible for Grade One listing from the then Planning Authority. The house went on to be sold to the Polidano Group, and following further warnings about the urgent need for restoration the Planning Authority placed a Preservation Order on the property (the first, to my knowledge, ever placed on a private house). This required the owner to restore both house and garden within two years. I had previously received a number of offers to sell the stone benches in the garden but refused them in order to ensure that none of Galizia's original design was destroyed.

Alhambra then passed to its present owner. Sadly the property has again been almost abandoned for some years. Mepa's attention has been drawn repeatedly to its neglected state and to the fact that in some places it was open to the elements. The stairs leading to the garden were in fact stone steps with wooden balustrades which formed part of the wooden surround of the verandah. It is alarming to read that this has now been allowed to collapse. Two mature hibiscus trees in the front of the house were destroyed for unknown reasons. There were many citrus and other trees in the garden at the back but these were carefully nurtured right until the time when the Tumas group came into ownership and the old well was also completely restored before the sale. What would happen to a similar property in another part of Europe? It is unlikely that such a situation would be allowed to happen. Anyone who has travelled in France or Italy for example will have seen numerous examples of important historical buildings which have been converted to different use - as small hotels, restaurants, chambres d'hote, small museums, libraries, shops, or community day centres. The crucial element is that owners have been obliged to make such conversions. In fact Section 46 of the Development Planning Act allows Mepa to intervene in such cases but this particular department of Mepa is, I understand, severely under-resourced. Will the reforms currently going through take this into account? Furthermore, as far back as 1990 the establishment of the Land Tribunal and Trust was set up to provide for financial assistance to help owners of old houses to carry out maintenance work - but it has never been activated.

Alhambra is not, of course, the only house in need of restoration as Mepa well knows. There are difficulties in bringing about the restoration of houses which are lived in by owners or tenants even when they are scheduled. However, doing nothing rather than exploring possible solutions is irresponsible and results in scheduled houses reaching a state of dereliction.

What is needed is for the government and Mepa (same thing) to make a quantum leap of the imagination - to work with enlightened and imaginative citizens towards the wisdom of restoring properties rather than building on our already over-crowded islands. Restoration would provide as much employment opportunity as new building and restored old buildings can be an excellent investment.

For too long speculation by both Maltese and foreign companies and individuals has been actively encouraged so that we now find even Valletta's noble status as a World Heritage site under examination.

Alhambra now stands where a huge block of apartments might have been built because it has been saved. The next stage in its history will be determined by the action of one individual or perhaps, a consortium of buyers.

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