This was again a good year for developers and a bad one for the environment and quality of life.
The Planning Authority (PA) continued to issue a large number of questionable permits including scores of small scale ODZ buildings and other developments which are deforming historical town and village cores.
But only a few are big enough to attract the media spotlight. These were the five most controversial permits issued in the past 12 months.
City Centre project
Over 4,500 objections and the stern opposition of local councils and NGOs was not enough to stop the PA from issuing the most controversial permit of the year. And no expenses were spared to ensure that Silvio Debono’s mega-project is approved.
The Planning Authority spent €8,750 on a private jet to fly in board member Jacqueline Gili from a family holiday in Sicily. During the meeting Gili did not say much, apart from voting in favour of the City Centre project in St George’s Bay, St Julian’s.
Moreover, The Shift News revealed that Matthew Pace, one of 10 PA board members to vote in favour of the project, is a franchise owner of Remax Alliance Group – the agency that was selling the project’s apartments at a time when there was no planning permit and the land still belonged to the public.
The €300 million project, which includes a 37-storey tower and 17-storey hotel, is on halt until an appeal filed by NGOs is concluded. Meanwhile, the Auditor General’s investigation into the transfer of land has yet to be concluded.
ODZ Fuel Stations
There are currently 12 pending applications for ODZ fuel stations covering a total area of over 52,000 square metres. Four ODZ fuel stations with a total area of 12,000 square metres squared have already been approved.
Eleven months ago, the PA approved a massive 3,500 square metre fuel station, including a car wash and a retail outlet in Maghtab. In May, the PA approved the relocation of the Savoy petrol station located on Rue d’Argens in Gzira to ODZ land in Luqa that will include car wash facilities, a pumping station, a tyre service garage, a shop on two floors, a VRT garage and a small car park.
In September, dramatic scenes unfolded at the PA’s offices in Floriana when police officers were ordered in to physically remove activists protesting against ODZ fuel stations.
Activists from Moviment Graffitti and Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent called for the suspension of all fuel pump applications until the PA’s policies were reviewed by Parliament. But while the PA said that the new policy will be implemented in 2019, more applications were submitted over the last 12 months.
The Fortina development in Sliema was approved by the PA is September. The approval, which saw just one Board member voting against, will see part of the former hotel transformed into a 15-storey office block.
However, 4,878 square metres of public land was sold to the Zammit Tabona family in the 1960s on condition that it would only be used for an extension to the then Fortina Hotel.
Apart from the block of offices and a retail area, the Fortina Hotel is to be extended by another five floors to reach 23 storeys.
In April, the developers obtained a planning permit to build a residential block of luxury apartments, but just six days after the permit was issued, they changed plans to convert the residential development into offices.
Government is still negotiating with the owners on which terms the restriction could be lifted and according to Lands Authority CEO James Piscopo, “discussions are still ongoing and any agreement would be referred to Parliament to approve”.
In October, the Times revealed that Piscopo, a former CEO of the Labour Party, holds shares in two private businesses together with members of the Zammit Tabona family, including the Fortina’s CEO Edward Zammit Tabona.
The Church’s environmental commission and the Sliema local council opposed the project insisting that the development will have a negative impact on the community.
The planning application proposing the demolition of an abandoned hotel and the construction of a ‘high quality residential complex and landscaping of adjoining land’ was approved in December.
The Halland Hotel in Ibrag, will be replaced by a residential complex. The eight-storey complex will include 71 residential units and 130 underground parking spaces.
Residents protested that part of the area on which the proposed development is to be built is on ODZ land, with one part of the proposed development extending some 11 metres into the Wied Ghomor valley which environment minister Jose Herrera said should be protected under the Public Domain Act.
During the PA meeting in which the project was approved the architect representing residents, accused the PA of “mathemical yoga” in attempting to reconcile the proposal with planning policies she said it breached, and highlighted concerns over the impact of the large scale development on the surrounding villa area, as well as the protected valley.
Despite opposition from the Swieqi, St Julian’s and San Ġwann local councils, the PA approved the project, insisting it was not in breach of any policies. The part of the development planned on ODZ was removed from the plans.
In January, the PA approved a 31-storey tower in Paceville. The Mercury House development includes 275 residential apartments, and 48 hotel rooms.
Gozitan developer Joe Portelli had formally submitted the new application despite the Paceville Masterplan being on hold.
The original development brief for the Mercury House development approved in 2005 had earmarked most of this site for office development and Din l-Art Helwa had objected to the increase in height.
The Paceville Masterplan effectively changed the goalposts for the new owners of Mercury House by earmarking the area for residential development and moving the open space proposed in development brief to St George’s Park.