The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage has strongly opposed the conversion of an 18th-century palazzo in Żebbuġ into a 50-bed hotel, recommending instead that the building and its gardens be given the highest level of protection.

The recommendation for Grade 1 scheduling of the historic Villa Buleben was made by the culture watchdog and the Planning Authority’s Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee in response to a planning application.

They recognised the palazzo’s historical value and that of its gardens and water channels and expressed serious concern over the proposed development, which would include building extensions and doing excavations.

Villa Buleben is a two-storey grand palazzo, with large gardens of different sizes, water channelling for irrigation and several structures which possibly served as the servants’ quarters.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Forsaken Souls is part of the property, located within the Urban Conservation Area of Żebbuġ.

This historic chapel is included in the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese islands and enjoys Grade 1 protection. The villa is scheduled at Grade 2.

The superintendence noted that the chapel, the palazzo and its gardens had significant cultural value which ought to be “recognised and protected”.

Approval would succumb to the zealous desires of speculators

Any proposed development should include the retention and integration of significant internal and external architectural spaces and features, it said.

It also noted the presence of World War II air-raid shelters located just a metre away from the proposed development.

The application, by Daniel Bonnici, proposes the restoration, with alterations, of the palazzo, garden, boundary walls and nearby chapel, the conversion of the vacant residence into a hotel and construction of two wings as well as underground parking.

“While the Superintendence is generally favourable to the rehabilitation and restoration of the existing historic property, this application as currently proposed is unacceptable from a cultural heritage point of view,” the superintendence said in its report to the PA.

Any proposed excavation works underneath the palazzo would be unacceptable as they would threaten the structural stability of the building.

And the extensions proposed in the gardens were “excessive, overpowering and totally incongruous with the historic Villa Buleben”.

Residents also objected to the project, saying that the proposed ancillary facilities, such as a multipurpose hall, may attract all sorts of activities day and night in an otherwise quiet residential area. This would have an adverse environmental impact even in terms of traffic.

Approval would “succumb once again to the zealous desires of property speculators, resulting in the destruction of the setting of a protected site and the integrity of the scheduled surroundings of Villa Buleben,” one of the objectors wrote in a note filed with the PA.

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