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A focused ‘skyline policy’

The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal annulled the planning permit for the 38-storey Townsquare tower proposed to be built right in the heart of what was once the start of the most elegant stretch of seaside residences in Malta. The project, approved by the Planning Authority in September 2016, had given rise to a spate of appeals against the decision by the Environment and Resources Authority, the local council and several NGOs. Their appeals have now been upheld on grounds of the inadequacy of the studies carried out by the developers to justify the project.

The developers – the powerful Gasan Group – will now have to resubmit their studies, which will be reassessed in the light of the high-rise policy and ahead of a new decision-making process by the Planning Authority. Despite the tribunal fully upholding the shortcomings of the developer’s case, the Planning Authority – in an act of arrogance underlining its reputation as the most reviled public authority in Malta – is seeking to appeal the decision with a view to reinstating the permit instead of taking this opportunity to rectify the prevailing deficiencies in the high-rise planning process.

Doing things right means there must be a proper re-examination of the so-called ‘floor area ratio policy’ for the construction of high-rise buildings. The current case-by-case consideration of applications is leading to a back-door high-rise applications frenzy by rapacious developers.

What is urgently needed is a focused ‘skyline policy’ that prevents high-rise buildings from intruding anywhere on Malta’s remaining historic architectural landscapes. At its root, the policy must not merely pay lip service to the aesthetic, social and environmental impacts these massive buildings have on the quality of life of people already living in the area. It must also be a policy that answers the questions about how the building of the 38-storey Townsquare (with its 159 residential units, parking spaces for 750 cars, various retail outlets and leisure facilities) can be justified alongside the 40-storey Fort Cambridge Tower and the nearby 23-storey Fortina Tower?

All these projects lie within a radius of about 1,000 metres of each other in a part of Sliema that is already densely populated, whose infrastructure is under huge pressure and where traffic congestion is at intolerable levels. Is it any wonder the leading architects engaged by the Gasan Group have been unable to justify the case for a planning permit for Townsquare and had to withhold certain information to cover for their lack of proper supporting evidence to justify the project’s adverse social, environmental, infrastructural and traffic impacts?

The reaction of residents in St Julian’s, Swieqi, Paceville and Pembroke affected by the planned “monster” development in St George’s Bay, only four kilometres away, is indicative of a bubbling public backlash and ground swell of anger from residents living in these areas.

Such projects represent in the starkest manner all that is wrong with our built environment and the blight that is actively being inflicted on this island. The members of the PA board should seriously and in all conscience reconsider the impact of any decisions they might make on people living in these areas if they are even to contemplate allowing these glaring examples of architecture that destroys their surroundings and quality of life, instead of enhancing them.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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