An application for the extension of the American University of Malta campus in Cospicua has been unanimously refused by the Planning Authority.
The decision was hailed as a big victory by Cottonera residents and NGOs who turned up in numbers for the public hearing.
The AUM, owned by Jordanian investors Sadeen Group, wanted to build a four-storey dormitory block and an underground parking facility in a public car park off Senglea Gate.
The developers were also seeking to restore the dilapidated but historic Knights building along Dock 1 while adding an additional floor.
The project included a new modern block in a public open area next to the Knights building, and a new administration block on the other side.
The site earmarked for this administration block is also a public open space, which was embellished a few years ago through EU funds.
The proposal was fiercely opposed by a group of Cottonera residents and various NGOs on grounds it would destroy the few remaining public open spaces in the area and ruin a historic skyline without contributing anything to the community in the surrounding area.
Proposal in line with policy - developer
At the start of the meeting, Architect Edwin Mintoff, on behalf of the Sadeen Group, said the group had no intention to amend the proposal as it was in line with the 2005 Cottonera development brief.
Moreover, except for the dormitory block, the proposal was well below the maximum allowable development in terms of storeys and floor area.
His remarks prompted an immediate reaction from Senglea residents who turned up in numbers to object to the project.
Brandishing posters featuring a photomontage of the historic Petra Temple in Jordan with the proposed modern AUM building in Cospicua adjacent to it, they said developers would have never dared to submit such “shameful” proposal in their own country.
Time for 2005 Cottonera brief to be amended
In his remarks, planning board chairman Vince Cassar said there was no point in debating the application further as no fresh plans had been submitted since the previous meeting.
“Last time we gave you a clear indication of our intention to refuse, and you had the chance to submit new plans. This gives me no option but to proceed to the vote straight away,” he said.
Commenting on the 2005 brief, Mr Cassar expressed his view that it was time to revise the policy to give more weight to certain considerations such as the cultural and historical heritage of surrounding buildings.
However, Dr Mintoff said that the developer should have been alerted to the fact that changes were in the pipeline, prior to submitting the plans.
'No sense in obstructing Senglea bastions'
Prior to the vote, the government’s representative on the board, MP Clayton Bartolo, said it made no sense to approve the development.
“This proposal would obstruct the Senglea bastions, the same fortifications which are currently being restored at a cost of €2 million,” he said.
Moreover, board members were bound to safeguard historic buildings, regardless of any policy.
The unanimous refusal by the board was greeted with applause by Senglea residents who chanted “Viva l-Isla” as they exited the room.
Yana Bland Mintoff welcomes decision
Yana Bland Mintoff, Chair of Forum Komunità Bormliża, expressed her relief that the board voted not to accept this application.
“The Forum has been concerned about this development from the start. This is the first step in making these open spaces available to the whole community,” she said.
“We need more open spaced that can be enjoyed by the community. Especially the people from Senglea, who have no open spaces available to them. One playground was closed near Cospicua, just a year ago. And now the playground in Kalkara is threatened with closure,” she said.
Doubts on AUM's need to extend campus
Though the project was originally recommended for approval, all the Planning Authority board members expressed their intention to vote against it during a highly charged public meeting last September.
According to official data supplied by the AUM, there are 143 registered students, 59 of whom joined at the beginning of the current academic year - a fifth of the 710 students promised when it was granted a five-year licence in 2016.
Last month, the Education Minister said the AUM should not be granted any more public land until it showed it had enough students. The low numbers raised even more questions about the AUM’s insistence on the need to expand its existing campus at Dock One in Cospicua, a move that has been met with fierce resistance from residents.
Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield, Labour MEP candidate Cyrus Engerer, Valletta Cultural Agency chairman Jason Micallef and PL candidate Yana Grech Mintoff were present for the PA meeting.
Last week 11 NGOs wrote to MPs in the second district, the minister of transport and the minister responsible for culture, reiterating their opposition to the extension plans.
Some 3,000 petitioners also signed a petition and more signatures were collected during the protest.
On Saturday, former president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca came out against the extension plans, backing residents in their fight.
Posting on Facebook she said that Cottonera residents had always expressed the wish to have more open spaces in their localities.