The Planning Authority on Thursday postponed a decision on expansion plans by the American University of Malta in Cottonera but expressed itself against the proposed development which has been recommended for approval by the Planning Directorate.

The developer will now have to return to the authority with amended plans in the coming days on which the PA board members will then vote.

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Plans submitted by AUM architect Edwin Mintoff on behalf of the Sadeen Group are for three projects in one application:

* the building of a large student accommodation block behind its Cospicua campus, on the existing car park leading up to Senglea Gate;

* the extension of the campus to a disused building known as the Knights Building on the old dock front, which will also be extended; 

* the construction of an administrative building between the British and Knights buildings.

Video: Mark Zammit Cordina

The Planning Directorate had already recommended that the AUM file a separate application for the accommodation block and opposed plans in their current form but had recommended approval of the other plans.

On Tuesday, Cottonera residents held a protest to call on the PA to refuse the application. 

They expressed concern that this development would deface the historic Senglea bastions, while the proposed alterations to the Knights Building were deemed as being too invasive with a “destructive effect” on this heritage site. 

Objections were also raised from a sociological perspective on grounds that the project would wipe out two public open spaces on either side of the Knights Buildings, one of which was only inaugurated a few years ago as part of an EU funded project.

The four-hour meeting on Thursday was characterised by a large presence of Cottonera residents, NGO representatives as well as AUM officials. None of the 11 board members agreed with the proposal in its current form, with all expressing some kind of reservation. 

Concerns raised by members of the board during the four-hour PA meeting on Thursday included the development of the open space between the Knights and British buildings; that proposed alterations to the Knights’ building would mask the bastions and Senglea Gate; and that the project would generate massive traffic.

Developer makes his case

In his presentation, Dr Mintoff pointed out that the design of the administration block had been altered to reduce its footprint and preserve the open space along the seafront as much as possible.

This was done by proposing a building on stilts whereby an existing staircase and public lift would remain accessible and part of the adjacent open space retained. 

As for the dormitory and car park, he said these were in line with the Cottonera development brief. Nonetheless, a “less voluminous” design of a four-storey building with a receded top floor was presented.

Dr Mintoff also pointed out that the open spaces proposed for development were built up. These included the Dock One seafront, all the way to the Maċina.

Attempt to turn Cospicua into Sadeen Town

However, his explanation did little to quell the barrage of criticism levelled against the project.

The objections were raised on the grounds that the Cottonera community would not benefit from this project, it would increase traffic, exacerbate the parking problem and destroy the few remaining public spaces. 

Lawyer Claire Bonello described the proposal as "an attempt to turn Cospicua into Sadeen Town", the name of the Jordanian investors behind AUM. She also lamented that such a big project should not be evaluated in piecemeal fashion but holistically.

Senglea deputy mayor Anthony Bonavia complained that the council had never been consulted on the project, which he was afraid would “suffocate” residents as it would obstruct the view of Senglea bastions and its gate. 

AUM President makes his plea

The final intervention was made by AUM President Louis Parker who insisted that the project would be beneficial in the long term. His presentation was constantly interrupted by the audience who made their disagreement pretty clear.

PA Board raises objections and reservations

In his reaction, PA board chairman Vince Cassar expressed reservations on the design of the administration building but came out against the proposed new block adjacent to the Knights Building due its visual impact on the surroundings.

Though he expressed himself in favour of the car park, he said the open space should be retained and converted to a public recreational area.

Environment and Resources Authority chairman Victor Axiak also came out against the proposal while reacting to the points raised by the AUM President.

“This is like grafting a tissue to the body. It is only successful if the community is ready to accept it. If not, there will be a tissue rejection,” he said. 

Decision deferred

Following a brief suspension, during which the applicant accepted a condition whereby he agreed that the proposal for the carpark and dormitory should be treated through a separate application, the board members proceeded to take their decision. 

It transpired that none of the 11 members present were entirely satisfied with the plans and all signalled their intention to vote against. Consequently, the final decision was deferred in line with the set procedure for cases where the board disagrees with the recommendation of the case officer.