Residents and NGOs gathered on Monday to protest plans to turn a dilapidated farmhouse in Sliema into an 11-storey hotel.

The development (PA 5962/21) is being proposed by hotelier and Malta Developers Association president Michael Stivala on a site that directly abuts the gardens of the scheduled Villa Bonici and that is characterised by residential buildings.

The garden that once surrounded the century-old farmhouse had already been cleared and was illegally being used as a car park for a number of years, before being sanctioned by the Planning Authority in June.

Those who spoke at the protest stressed that the site is zoned within a residential area and that it is unjust for the PA to use its geographical proximity to tourist establishments on The Strand to justify recommending the hotel application for approval.

Residents: 'They have taken our open spaces'

Resident Adrian Gatt said that while he was charmed by Sliema when he moved here many years ago, that experienced has since soured due to constant development.

“My children have never known a time where somewhere close to us hasn’t been under construction,” he said. “They have taken our open spaces, our peace of mind and our tranquility, all to line their pockets with.”

From staircase to hotel

Stivala initially filed a planning control application in 2017 to rezone the site to a residential one. It was originally earmarked for a pedestrian area or open space. The PA accepted that application.

Excavators then cleared the farmhouse garden and demolished part of the farmhouse, without a demolition permit. The area ended up serving as an illegal car park for a couple of years.

In June, the PA sanctioned the car park. Shortly afterwards, Stivala filed an application to turn the entire site into an 11-storey hotel that includes the staircase he proposed as part of his 2017 rezoning application.

The hotel application was recommended for approval, despite over 150 objections by residents.

Speaking at the protest, Gatt said residents had to endure four months of raw sewage flowing into their streets because excavators had hit a pipeline while demolishing the garden, farmhouse and vernacular well.

Residents’ objections had been completely overlooked, he continued.

“It’s as if no one ever objected in the first place,” Gatt said. “The farmhouse has been forgotten, with the SCH giving clearance to demolish what remains of the building. And as it seems he (the developer) had some issues with the local plans, they gave him an extra two meters in height as well.”

“Since the site is close to The Strand, they’ve thrown all town planning policies in the bin,” Gatt complained.  

Fellow resident Brian Hallis, who attended the protest with his two young children in tow, said he was perplexed by planners’ seeming willingness to allow tourism developments in residential areas.

“Where is the respect for the community? This is not normal, their moral compass is completely lost,” he said. “Do tourists really want a view of me and my children eating dinner?”

Hallis pushed back at Stivala’s claims, made during a radio interview, that NGOs are backed by large companies, saying activists were the ones trying to help.

Resident Brian Hallis speaks at the event. 'Do tourists want to watch us eat dinner?' he asked. Photo: Jessica ArenaResident Brian Hallis speaks at the event. 'Do tourists want to watch us eat dinner?' he asked. Photo: Jessica Arena

“We’re not the ones looking to profit. The only thing we want to profit from is to live our everyday lives without this concrete hanging over our heads.”

Graffiti activist Marie Claire Gatt said that growing up around Sliema and Gżira she had found memories but that in the years since an onslaught of rabid development has “turned her nostalgia into concrete bricks”. 

She hit out at Stivala directly, calling him one of the people “personally responsible for the destruction of the country”.

“Stivala is not just the philanthropic employer he portrays himself as, but the person who has forged ahead with arrogant development with impunity and a lack of care for the character of cities and the quality of life of citizens,” she said. “His only interest is profit.” 

Gatt said she hoped that those in attendance could see for themselves that the area is a residential one. Rules could not continue to bend for more tourist spots on the laps of residences, she added.

Culture watchdog's U-turn

Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar coordinator Astrid Vella noted that the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage had had a sudden change of heart about Stivala’s proposal. The SCH initially expressed concern about the application but then gave it its blessing, she said.

“Stivala says we cannot point a finger at developers because they follow the rules,” she said.

“Our planning policies hold that development in such a site must beautify the area and respect the characteristics of the community. This application will literally tear down a building that has characterized the community for more than a century.” 

Vella said that the authorities are clutching at straws and misleading the public to give developers what they want.

“While boasting about saving a baroque house that no developer is interested in, the PA is on the other hand happy to let genuine Maltese vernacular architecture go to developers without a care.”

The activists encouraged the public to attend the virtual hearing that will decide the fate of this land, which is scheduled for November 22 at 11am.

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