Much like Floriana in Valletta’s shadow, Gżira has always been considered Sliema’s suburb, a humble status that until a few years ago saved it from developers’ ravages. Gżira’s streets, wide by Maltese standards, were an example of ‘bellezza nell’armonia’ – beauty in harmony – as its terraces of identical houses gave this town a sense of elegance.

 Furthermore, the range of architectural styles in Gżira far exceeds what most imagine, including vernacular, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and the Moderne style, not to mention Fort Manoel, said to be the ultimate in Baroque military engineering.

Sadly, Gżira’s proximity to Sliema has been its undoing. Sliema’s development-on-steroids has spread to Gżira, turning it into a developers’ stomping ground without the least concept of urban planning or community benefit.

It is a textbook example of what development should not be, destroyed streetscapes and communities.

Due to the cheaper value of property compared to Sliema, Gżira has been gutted wholesale, made possible by the outrageous fact that Mepa did not protect Gżira’s older streets as an Urban Conservation Area as it did in every other Maltese town and village. This could not have been accidental, this had to be planned through incestuous relationships between politicians and businessmen.

A skyscraper has been built on what, in other countries, would be considered a traffic island, its narrow flower beds making a mockery of the principle of landscaped public green spaces compensating for increased height that throws long shadows over surrounding homes.

Gżira’s local plan policies are bitterly ironic: “Mepa will ensure that any building proposal is compatible with the character of strategic and local views in terms of setting, scale and massing... development will not generally be acceptable if it impinges on locally important views or skylines, or if it would appear too close or too high in relation to a scheduled building or other landmark building/feature, or behind it so that its silhouette is marred.”

How could the Planning Authority board approve the high-rise building in the light of this policy?

How could they approve a massive nine-storey hotel with a hideous blank party wall overpowering the scheduled Grade 1 Orpheum Theatre, Gżira’s art nouveau gem? None of the problems identified in the 2006 local plan have been addressed.

On the contrary problems have been exacerbated as Gżira has been turned into the private fiefdom of one of the prominent leaders of the Malta Developers’ Association who has been allowed to take over Gżira.

Unlike most Maltese towns, Gżira lacks a parish square, so rampant development has turned it into a concrete jungle without open spaces for people to enjoy.

The only green open space was Triq ix-Xatt with its views of the bastions of Valletta and Floriana, the over 100-year-old garden and Manoel Island with its rich heritage. Now all these are under threat by greedy private interests. The common good being given over to private gain.

First the pavement along the seafront was privatised by restaurants, leaving barely enough space for a wheelchair to pass.

Next was the granting of a lido taking up much of the seafront promenade and depriving the people of views across the harbour. Gone are the pleasant walks along the community shops and seafront.

Even its century-old public garden is under threat- Astrid Vella

Incredibly, while ministers talk about the importance of making our towns and villages greener, Gżira’s century-old public garden is under threat. First the PA approved a petrol station to be located in a part of the garden.

Secondly Infrastructure Malta intends widening the road by eating into the area of the garden. The third attack concerns the building of a 500m2 yacht marina administration block.

The transformation of Manoel Island into a massive estate of luxury apartments will deprive Gżira residents of their much-loved birthright.

What moral right did the previous government have to sell an island, one of Malta’s few green areas, to private interests?

Malta is awash in luxury apartments and commercial projects; with over 33 per cent of its land built-up, Malta is more than twice as built-up as Belgium, the next highest rate at 13 per cent.

What Maltese residents lack desperately is not luxury apartments but open green spaces which, studies show, are essential to our physical and mental health.

Malta’s psychiatrists have reported an alarming rise in mental illness in overdeveloped areas. Malta also has one of the highest rates of air pollution in the EU, and the highest rate of hospitalisation for pulmonary diseases in the world. Adding more unnecessary buildings and cars is criminally irresponsible.

It is not too late to save Gżira. Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar has appealed against Midi’s Manoel Island permit, while 7,871 people have petitioned parliament to buy back Manoel Island and turn it into a heritage park, a project that would for once benefit Malta’s health and heritage as well as enhancing Malta’s touristic and investment appeal. This is the sort of project that governments are remembered for, not flyovers! 

Let’s make it happen!

Astrid Vella is coordinator, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar.

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