Updated 8pm with AX Group reaction

A large metal structure for tables and chairs has landed in Merchants Street, sparking anger among people who described it as the “unabashed commercialisation” of Valletta.

Taking up a chunk of the road and positioned in front of the luxury Rosselli Hotel, the approved application by its owners AX Holdings Ltd was for chairs, tables, umbrellas and street furniture.

But according to Keith Sciberras, head of the university’s art and art history department, “it ignores so many other aspects of town life, urban semiotics, and heritage". 

Stressing on “sensitive regeneration and respectful commercial practices”, he said the problem was widespread in the capital, referring also to Archbishop Street, where “cheap furniture” had spread.

“The unabashed commercialisation of Valletta is now almost complete,” warned the professor, who has seen this coming.

Valletta mayor Alfred Zammit also expressed his opposition to the platform, saying the local council was "against exaggeration and so we are against this type of structure".

He added that the council was never consulted on it.

However, the AX Group told Times of Malta that it had consulted "with all stakeholders", and assured that the structure will "complement Valletta and Malta’s strategy of upgrading the tourism product".

'Permit was fast tracked'

Meanwhile, according to former Valletta mayor Paul Borg Olivier, the permit had been fast-tracked.

Commenting on the “record time” in which the Planning Authority granted it, he highlighted that the full development application – for the placement of two separate areas for outdoor catering over 40 square metres – was decided on in under one month from the closing of representations when the target date was October.

PA 02520/21, approved by the Planning Board, was for street furniture – “not quite the definition of a platform”, he pointed out.

Artist James Vella Clark, who resides in Valletta, has also joined the chorus of criticism, decrying the structure as “disgraceful”.

This was not on, he insisted, and a permit did not make it acceptable.

Area should be fully cleared for public use

The Malta Tourism Authority has said it did “not issue any permits for structures (for tables and chairs)” and suggested forwarding questions to the Planning Authority, which, until the time of writing, has not answered on the legality of the structure and whether a commencement notice was submitted according to procedure.

But the case officer’s report states that the proposed development is acceptable since “the extension of outdoor catering area on public open space is in line with zoning, design consideration, Policy, Guidance and Standard for Outdoor Catering Areas on Public Open Space (2016), SPED Policies and Objectives”.

According to the PA’s board minutes, the platform should be demountable.

“All the permitted furniture, including the tables and chairs, but excluding the demountable platform, bollards and planters shall be in place only for the hours of operation of the catering establishment and removed in their entirety when it is closed, ensuring that the area is fully cleared for public use,” the minutes say.

The possibility of public use while keeping the platform in place was questioned by objectors, who were appalled by the site of the construction.

AX Group: traditional activities still possible

Replying to Times of Malta questions on Monday, AX Group said the design of the structure was “in full conformity with the approved permits and has been done in a way to ensure that it is fully demountable”, meaning ceremonial, social and cultural activities can continue as per local tradition.

“In line with the group’s strategy for quality initiatives, we are confident that the structure, once completed, will complement Valletta and Malta’s strategy of upgrading the tourism product,” it assured.

Before kicking off the works, it had “diligently followed all the necessary planning and consultation processes according to law”.

The entire planning process was carried out in consultation with all stakeholders as part of the standard process, AX Group said.

“Throughout this lengthy process, the public and all stakeholders were free to comment, give feedback and raise objections in the public consultation process. No objections to the proposal were raised during this period,” it said.

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