The Planning Authority’s approval of the ITS site development at St George’s Bay has sent shock waves. The implications of this approval go well beyond the site itself. It reflects a deep malaise in our planning system, one that has consequences across Malta and Gozo. The well-choreographed meeting of September 20 was a mere facade hiding the rot that runs deep in our urban planning system.
The PA bent over backwards to accommodate the applicant. Thousands objected. Valid concerns were raised about the visual impact, inadequate transport infrastructure and bad neighbourliness. The PA refused to listen. To me the most straightforward reason for refusal was the floor area ratio policy (FAR).
The PA chose to interpret the FAR policy in the most abusive manner to inflict untold distress on Pembroke residents. At the meeting it was disappointing to see the board members accept the case officer’s twisted logic without question. Hopefully the blatant wrong committed will be explained and made clear in an eventual appeal.
If this were a normal application submitted to an autonomous authority, the application would have been thrown out long ago. Instead it was approved.
Nowhere is safe. Wherever you live in Malta, if you think your area is safe from development monstrosities, think again. The PA can use the same abusive interpretation to justify any building monstrosity, anywhere. When the photomontages were first made public, most people instinctively felt that it was wrong. People are right to trust their instincts. The massive structures will completely dominate the surroundings and the nearby residential and hotel buildings.
The PA board members chose to ignore their instinct. Did they realise that the 17-storey hotel is 150 metres long? That’s the length of a football ground and a half. Imagine that. Add to it a 30-metre diameter, 140-metre-high tower.
The Planning Authority bent over backwards to accommodate the applicant
Did the PA board members look at the plans and photomontages? Is it not obvious that a building this size on a promontory is an unacceptable visual imposition on the area? It is obvious to everyone, but not to the PA board members.
Then there is the traffic issue. It boggles the mind how the PA acknowledges that there is a severe traffic problem and yet approves a massive project without the required remedial actions. Without immediate road investments, the ITS site development will make the traffic situation many times worse. People in the area are in for more and more traffic stress for many months and years to come.
Thousands of homes and three major hotels will be cast into shadow for many hours each day, throughout the year. There was no mention of this at the PA meeting nor any consideration whether this could be justified.
The ‘yes’ vote of the chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority was particularly disappointing. Environment protection is about people first. Societies care about the environment because a healthy environment benefits people and improves their quality of life. But when it came to the crunch, the ERA chairman voted against people. This reflects very badly on the ERA.
September 20 was a very bad day for the urban profession in Malta. To be an urban planner here one has to be a yes-man or -woman and follow the diktats of politicians and developers. The essence of good urban planning is to further the public good. Evidently the PA has no intention of allowing that to happen. For any regulatory agency, credibility matters. Whatever little credibility the PA had has now gone out of the window. The ITS site decision has confirmed what many people have long suspected – that the PA’s agenda is something other than the public interest. During the PA meeting, no concern was shown for how the development will impact people’s lives.
September 29 was also a very bad day for the architecture profession in Malta. The developer’s team included foreign architects. In the PA meeting, the not-so-subtle hint was that they are competent, internationally renowned and that therefore they know best. Their presentation was a charade meant to force an architectural monstrosity down people’s throats.
As an architect, I cringed with embarrassment during their short presentations full of buzz words and fancy talk. It meant nothing to an audience keenly aware of the disastrous impacts the development will have on their quality of life. They spoke about ‘hanging gardens’, greenery, ‘vibrancy’, ‘monumental steps’ but stayed away from talking about scale, massivity, context, imposition, excessive shadowing and visual intrusion.
In my younger days, I was led to believe that the architecture profession is a means for improving people’s lives. Instead it has been used to impose so much distress and anguish on the people who will live in the shadow of db Group’s architectural monstrosity.
John Ebejer is an urban planner.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece