Updated 7.20pm - The Planning Authority has given the go-ahead for a  32-storey tower on the Mercury House site in Paceville, nearly doubling the height of plans approved six years ago.

The high-rise, proposed by Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli, will include 48 hotel rooms, 275 serviced apartments and around 3,300 square metres of shops.

Approval was by 10 votes in favour and three against. The votes against came from PA chairman Vince Cassar, NGO representive Annick Bonello and St Julian's mayor Guido Dalli. 

Developers were told to make a contribution of €50,000 towards an artistic fund administered by Arts Council Malta. However, a proposal by the mayor for an additional contribution (planning gain) of €250,000 to cover to address the impact of the development on the locality was rejected by the board. The representatives of the two political parties were among those who had backed the mayor's proposal. 

During the hearing, several board members repeatedly highlighted the fact that the application was being considered in the absence of a masterplan for St Julian's.  

Designed by the renowned Zaha Hadid architecture firm, it includes two stacked blocks rotated around a ‘twist’ between floors 10 and 12.

According to the design statement, the tower is intended to create a “vertical, iconic, aesthetic form” and provide a “key gateway to Paceville”.

The site around Mercury House, a Grade 2 scheduled monument, has been earmarked for development since a development brief approved in 2005, which originally limited the building height to 15 storeys.

An application approved by the PA in 2012 extended this to two adjacent office towers of 19 and 18 floors.

In addition to the extra 14 storeys, the new application – which has been recommended for approval ahead of a PA board hearing today – foresees four levels of underground parking and a new central plaza between Triq San Ġorġ and Triq Sant Andrija, St Julian’s.

The project’s visual impact is expected to be highly significant

Mercury House itself, a late-19th-century building that once served as the main hub of Malta’s international cable connections, will be converted into an access point for the residential and hotel lobby areas.

A series of scheduled underground vaults, used to house communications equipment during the Cold War, will be restored and conserved, though their use has yet to be determined.

The project’s visual impact is expected to be highly significant, according to environmental studies commissioned by the developers, affecting views from Pembroke, Valletta and as far away as L-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa, apart from Sliema and its surroundings.

The studies conclude that there will be no significant shadowing effects and traffic generation will decrease – compared to the previously approved plans – due to the replacement of office space with residential units and a hotel.

Din L-Art Ħelwa has objected to the proposal, which it said was out of scale with the context.

Fimbank, which operates pre-mises adjacent to Mercury House, said that the proposal did not comply with the original development brief and was in breach of planning parameters in the outline permit.

The PA’s expected decision today comes amid continued delays on the new Paceville master plan, first published in September 2016 but quickly scrapped after a public outcry.

The document fuelled controversy after it emerged UK planning firm Mott MacDonald, which was commissioned to draft it, had been the leading consultant on the Mercury House project.

The plan sought to shift a proposed plaza from the Mercury House site to St George’s Park, which would have to be sliced and diced to accommodate the new street layout in the plan.

A second draft of the master plan was expected around May last year, but appears to have been put on the back-burner.

PD slams approval

The Partit Demokratiku condemned the decision 'wholeheartedly', asking whether the Planning Authority was simply there to rubber stamp any major development by big business.

It said the project should have been preceded by the Paceville Masterplan, but added that beyond this, there were many concerns, from the visual impact, who would pay for the increased infrastructure and services needed for the expanded design, and whether the Civil Protection department had equipment for buildings of this height.

"PA is unilaterally approving timelines on upgrades in traffic flow, in electrical supply and sewage facilities without a holistic government strategy and guidelines," it said.

FAA accuses politicians and PA of putting developers’ interests first

Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar was aghast at the approval of what was possibly the largest building in Malta, with considering the “most basic planning requirements”.
They challenged claims that it would not cause significant shadowing or extra traffic, saying these were “an insult to the public’s intelligence”.

“The PA Board’s approval of such questionable statements highlights its lack of moral fibre,” it said.

The eNGO queried whether the building meets EU sustainability regulations, and how the already strained water and drainage infrastructure would cope with the extra demands to be generated by this building. It also lamented that no wind studies were presented, explaining that winds accelerating down the tall building’s facades would create impacts for residents and pedestrians.

“FAA is also dismayed to note that St Julian’s mayor Guido Dalli’s justified request for €250,000 as a planning gain to address the impact of the development on the locality was rejected by the PA board.

“It is clear that the Planning Authority and the politicians who run it have no concern whatsoever for Malta’s residents’ health and well-being, as well as the state of the infrastructure that are essential to the island. The short-term interests of enriching developers and their cronies take priority over the long-term interests of the country.”

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