Thursday, September 20, 2018. Outside a school in Ħamrun I’m going through the second round of security checks; you’d think it were the aftermath of Columbine where everyone who could hold a spoon was a potential terror suspect. Then Planning Authority chief Johann Buttigieg oversaw proceedings and grimaced as I walked by, possibly his best expression of relief at the fact I wasn’t carrying drumsticks, megaphones  or maybe grenades and the odd submachine gun.

I took a seat towards the back of the packed hall, facing the PA’s executive board perched proudly on a raised platform like the finest of South American military juntas. I was, as one does in such settings, prepared for the worst.

I wasn’t the only one expecting the worst, either. Pembroke residents sat huddled awaiting the fate of their town, and indeed their own homes, as the db Group presented its grandiose plans for the (foregone) PA approval. A massive tower with apartments already on sale (some for roughly €7 million, peanuts to you and I of course) together with a massive hotel and Hard Rock Café’s branding all over. See, I’ve always thought of Hard Rock Café’s as a brand for boring, insipid people who get their kicks off doing air guitar to Jethro Tull. But more of this later.

Two hours of presentation from an uncharacteristically enthusiastic case officer and another 90 minutes of spiel from the droning monotone that is former minister and db architect Jesmond Mugliett were comically followed by three minutes of airtime for us poor souls in the floor.

Just like the voices of commuters drowned by an incoming tube, the objections were largely ignored; this tube had places to go, and quickly.

The junta, after sitting through hours of its own monkey tribunal, finally pronounced itself. Jacqueline Gili showed no signs of jet fatigue as she gave her “yes” to the project merely minutes after landing from Sicily on an expensive private flight chartered by Buttigieg himself; an NAO report would go on to highlight quite a few reasons as to why Gili, the director of the Department of Contracts, should have voted against the project.

A real estate franchise owner who “somehow” found himself on the PA board voted in favour of the project his own agency was already selling.

Why is this project going ahead if there’s going to be even less demand?- Wayne Flask

Pembroke mayor Dean Hili, echoing the sentiments of the vast majority of the residents he was elected to represent on the PL ticket, voted against the project, as did PA chairman Vince Cassar for reasons related to the dismantling of the former ITS building.

Half of the hall erupted in a round of applause. See, there’s a reason why the hall was packed: db packed tens of their own employees into minivans and sent them to Ħamrun in a show of support to ‘is-Sur Debono’ and his megalomaniac project, in a bid to defuse the opposition of the towns of Pembroke, Swieqi and St Julian’s.

A court sentence and an outright damning NAO report later, db’s monster has reared its ugly head again. This time, it’s taken a little haircut and wears a smile on its face, accompanied by a veritable deluge of press releases and online advertising.

The monster has listened, they said, so it’s shaved off a couple of floors here and there and now believes itself to be fit for King of Saturday Night.

It finally seems is-Sur Debono has put his PR Lou Bondi to good use, considering the latter must have felt a bit depressed at losing the €50k salary from the Arts Council for doing precisely nothing except the odd air guitar to Jethro Tull.

Capitalising on the opportunity to do something more than serve water to his bosses at a PA hearing, Bondi also capitalised on the wreckage wrought to newspapers’ advertising revenues by a global pandemic  and kicked off a suffocating roadshow advertising db’s good intentions.

“We listened.” Selective hearing is clearly one of Bondi’s and db’s main traits but they haven’t perfected ‘understanding’, maybe. One moment they smile, telling us how nice of them it’s been to downscale the project by a few inches. The next, like an ogre with severe personality disorder, they go into self-pity mode before raging fire onto critics.

“We’ve been unfairly singled out,” cried CEO Arthur Gauci, before walking into a row with fellow monster-makers MIDI, whose skins aren’t made of velvet either. And then, of course, they decided to lash out at the Pembroke council for endorsing a press release condemning the project.

If Bondi issued this last attack on the local council, then it’s confusing how he’s worth all that money. Db have basically admitted they tried to pressure a local council into voting for the Memorandum of Understanding which, they believed, would have cajoled the council into betraying its own residents. To most, but maybe Bondi lives in a world where any bad tune sounds like music, a private entity pressuring a local council is both wrong and bad PR. Whining about it in the media is the proverbial cherry.

The monster may have heard the cries of “no way” coming from three towns, several NGOs and indeed the Local Councils Association itself. It believes in its own superiority, however, and almost believes its own hogwash, such as that saying that Għar Ħarq Ħammiem will be safe from excavation works nearby. Seeing the class with which they dismantled the ITS building, which bore the same dust and destruction of a day in Tobruk, 1941, I hope nobody visits that cave while db’s contractors are doing “works” in the vicinity.

But it’s not really about a cave, is it? It’s about the quality of life of hundreds of people, the visual and social impact this monster-with-a-haircut will have on them, with years of dust and congestion to build what appears to be a rather unneeded… monstrosity.

The last MDA survey spoke about a lack of interest in high- end properties from foreign buyers, mostly because of the poor quality of the finishes and shoddy work in general. Added to a record amount of objections, db’s project is, statistically, unattractive locally and abroad. Considering the global pandemic, one wonders why this project needs to go ahead if there’s going to be even less demand.

The answer? Silvio Debono wants to be remembered in the way Egyptian pharaohs achieved immortality: building a mausoleum for themselves. Both buildings may require cheap labour (does the name TACA ring a bell?) and both will be there to be seen for centuries. Sadly, unlike the pyramids, db’s monstrosity will not serve as a historical wonder but as entertainment for millionaire foreigners who, rather sadly, are also fond of Jethro Tull.

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