Works on the landmark Barracuda restaurant in St Julian’s started over the New Year weekend, stripping the building of its wooden Maltese balconies even though the project's planning application is currently suspended.
According to the Planning Authority website, PA/03863/21 is currently suspended at the request of its architect, Robert Musumeci. The application seeks to make alterations to the interior and façade of the building and change its use.
But on Saturday, New Year’s Day, workers were seen dismantling the characteristic wooden balconies and windows of the iconic seafront building, which once housed the popular Piccolo Padre and Barracuda restaurants.
The building also neighbours another controversial development that was precariously constructed over the seashore, engulfing the adjacent restaurant and obstructing its views in what was considered a "convulted planning process" to replace two protected houses by a nine-storey block.
St Julian’s mayor Albert Buttigieg flagged the works in a Facebook post, saying they were carried out on New Year’s Day, when many were on holiday and various entities were shut, prompting him to ask a “simple question: Is the law for everyone or is it optional for some?”
Buttigieg demanded answers, harsh sanctions and a reinstallation order, but conceded this was “wishful thinking with the law of the jungle”.
The mayor, who has been putting up a strong front to save St Julian’s from rampant development and destruction, noted on Monday that neither did the project have a permit for a hook loader, which was parked in front of the building, obstructing buses from turning the corner of the coastal road along Balluta Bay.
The works, he said, made a “mockery of our institutions”.
Stivala plans for building
The new owner of the building, developer Carlo Stivala, has applied for a change of use from Class 4A offices to Class 4D, the category for food and drink establishments.
In its review of the application, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and its advisory committee said the proposed interventions to the facades were "not incompatible with the scheduled nature of the property, while also rectifying a past intervention".
But it wanted to carry out a site inspection of the property for a "better understanding" of the proposed interventions and would comment further following that.
The SCH also remained concerned about the extensive internal alterations, which, it said, would redefine the property.
Stivala and Musumeci are also behind a permit application to demolish and develop the modernist Palazzina Vincenti across the bay, having applied to turn it into a 14-storey hotel, restaurant and office complex.
The PA has, however, issued a one-year Emergency Conservation Order (ECO) for one of the "best modernist examples on the island", describing the property as "heritage at risk", following a public outcry to save the residence of acclaimed architect Gusatavo Romeo Vincenti.
The authority has been asked if it is aware of the works going on without a permit at the Balluta Bay building and what action will be taken.
Meanwhile, national trust Din l-Art Helwa has alerted the enforcement arm of the PA.
"This case takes Malta's development anarchy to new levels," decried environment NGO Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar in reaction.
"Carrying out abusive works, not covered by any permit, on a landmark old property is bad enough. But doing so on a scheduled building, on a project where an architect, who is a government consultant, was involved, shows the level of impunity, arrogance and disrespect for our heritage that this administration has actively fostered."
FAA questioned where the PA Enforcement Directorate was in all this, maintaining the fact that the authority was informed of these illegal works two days ago showed "the only thing that is protected in this country is developers' illegal abuse".