The Planning Authority has approved an application by Transport Malta to build offices and a restaurant on a stretch of public open space along the Gżira and Ta’ Xbiex promenade on Friday, despite numerous objections. 

The project will see 500 square metres of space between the Gżira gardens and the yacht marina quay transformed into office space with meeting rooms, a retail outlet, a restaurant and an outdoor catering area. 

PA/00680/22 also proposes the ‘reconfiguration’ of a stretch of road on the seafront, including the existing parking area and promenade extents. 

A digital render of the proposed project. Photo: Studjurban Architectural FirmA digital render of the proposed project. Photo: Studjurban Architectural Firm

In a virtual hearing on Friday, which lasted over two hours, Planning Commission members Stephania Baldacchino, Anthony Camilleri and Lorinda Vella unanimously agreed on the application.

“It is clear that this marina needs upgrading,” Camilleri said.

“Apart from that, parking will be more organised, there will be more access for the public and more control of the marina.”

While all three members agreed on the application, they also drew up three conditions for the project.

The proposed roof garden of the building must not be used for any commercial use; the pedestrian promenade must be free from any obstruction and if a €35,000 concession agreement between Transport Malta and the council to maintain the Gżira garden is not maintained, a planning gain will be introduced. 

A planning gain is a financial contribution which is imposed when an application has an impact on the community or environment. 

A render of the proposed capitainerie and restaurant. Photo: PAA render of the proposed capitainerie and restaurant. Photo: PA

Earlier this month, the PA’s case officer gave a thumbs up to the ‘capitainerie’ plan, and said part of the site that the development is proposed on is designated as public open space while other parts do not have a designation.

Back in 2021, Transport Malta withdrew plans which proposed similar facilities. After going back to the drawing board the agency applied once again to develop a part of the Ta'Xbiex promenade in August 2022.

Building will not impact promenade or garden: architect 

Speaking during the hearing, project architect Antoine Zammit said there was a lot of misinformation on the application and that many of the objectors "copied and pasted" objections to the previous application. 

“This application is part of a master plan we have for the area,” he explained. 

He said the upgrading of the quay and pontoons, along with the construction of a proper promenade along the front have already been developed and will remain in place. 

“We have a vision which is being worked in phases - upgrading the quay, the promenade, and now the reconfiguration of the capitainerie, the arrangement of the parking area and eventually, the maintenance of the garden.”

Zammit also argued that the application will not take away any of the garden’s public space nor include land reclamation. He said the land for the building will be taken from the current car park and will not hinder the use of the promenade.

The building will take up 325 square metres of the current 500 square metres and claims the rest will be an “open area”. He added that the project will see some 1,400 square metres of new public space. 

He said the visual impact of the project will be minimal and that the building will not cover any existing views of Valletta. 

A render of the proposed capitainier showing the visual impact from the Ta' Xbiex side of the promenade. Photo: PAA render of the proposed capitainier showing the visual impact from the Ta' Xbiex side of the promenade. Photo: PA

Regarding parking, Zammit said that currently there are no designated parking bays in the parking lot behind the garden and many park bumper-to-bumper or park illegally.

“The application will include over 148 designated parking slots, and over and above that, there will be disabled parking bays, EV charging slots and parking for bicycles. It will be a more efficient layout.”

He said the fact that the buildings are separate and not one big “box” is aesthetically more pleasing and added that the catering area is 48 metres away from the residents' area. 

'Open space it was and open space it should remain'

Objectors who spoke during the hearing raised a number of concerns, the main one being that the proposed project will be developed on land which is designated as a public open space. 

“Open space it was and open space it should remain as,” said Noel Debattista, a Ta’ Xbiex resident. 

“I am also an architect and I cannot understand how such an area will be taken away from the people.”

He said the development will impact him directly and his neighbours and that if approved, a civil case will be opened. 

“Does this country only know how to develop? You are telling me that to upgrade this garden, we need to build this building?”

Lawyer Claire Bonello argued that the area does not need yet another restaurant and an outside catering area will only take up more public open space. 

“This public area should remain an uncommercialised open space.”

Astrid Vella from Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar said the project will impinge on the historic garden. 

“This application will lead to a proliferation of such facilities, which will then make it impossible or very difficult to refuse similar applications in the area,” she warned. 

PA biased for Transport Malta - FAA 

In a statement on Friday, the FAA said it was “disgusted” that the permit had been approved, claiming it is “mired in illegalities” because Transport Malta had declared that it had a permit for the site in tender documents issued in 2017. 

The PA’s case officer, they said, had failed to report that the site is within the buffer zone of a scheduled building and proves that the report and approval were “biased in favour of Transport Malta”. 

“This application violates the policies protecting the setting of scheduled sites. It was also highlighted that since it fronts on the Marsamxett Area of High Landscape Value, this building and those that will follow, will impact the buffer zone of Valletta’s UNESCO World Heritage Site,” the FAA said. 

“In spite of all the valid points made by the objectors and an impassioned plea for the Commission to study the facts presented instead of just basing themselves on the highly slanted Case Office Report, the Commission proceeded to issue a hasty approval, confirming objectors’ conviction that this application was pre-determined in order to uphold Transport Malta’s illegal tender commitment.”

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