The Planning Authority batted away 121 letters of objection, some by neighbours, in a five-line paragraph in a case officer report recommending approval for the first phase of a redevelopment in which the replacement building, on 16 levels, is set to tower over the bay in a wide, forbidding block.
The Shift revealed last September that the block is one of a cluster of three developments of property magnate Joseph Portelli and his two partners, Mark Agius and Daniel Refalo. At the time, two of the applications appeared under a Joseph Vella.
The smallest of the three, comprising 25 flats, is currently being built after being granted a permit last summer.
The other two have generated widespread opposition from NGOs, the local council and residents: they consist of two adjacent blocks that are set to form an almost complete frontage of 100 metres, the blocks dominantly perched on the top of one of the flanks of the bay.
One of these, consisting of 65 flats, is being challenged in an appeal by residents after it was granted a permit last October.
In the appeal hearing, scheduled for next Thursday, the residents’ lawyer is expected to press for suspension of the permit until the appeal is finalised.
The third development is staggered in two phases. The current application for demolition and excavation – phase one of the project – is set to be granted a permit on 26 January following the directorate’s recommendation for approval.
Architectural plans submitted last summer show the redevelopment, or phase two of the project, would see an 88-room hotel set on 12 floors and four underground levels. These plans were then suspended; the architect stated that fresh plans would eventually be submitted.
Most of the 121 objections centred on the magnitude of the building and its impact on the bay, both visual and infrastructural, particularly issues of traffic and parking.
The Planning Directorate took no consideration of these points because “this application solely involves the demolition” and any issues “which are mainly related to the eventual replacement building are subject to a separate planning application which will be assessed on its own merits and subject to planning policy and considerations”.
This fragmented approach is designed to neuter opposition. “Once you have a gaping hole in the ground,” the source told The Shift, “almost anything else is better.”
The Environment and Resources Authority also wrote to the PA twice saying that it can only “be in a position to consider this proposal further and provide its position once phase one and phase two of the project are assessed holistically.”
In one of the letters, this point was made more directly by stating that the two phases “need to be incorporated together and assessed holistically.”
Residents who spoke to The Shift fear their concerns would similarly be ignored once the demolition and excavation takes place and the developers apply for the replacement building.
This is one of the grievances raised in the appeal against the 65 neighbouring flats granted a permit last October. The legal application emphasises that the “case officer in no way addressed the issues” raised by the residents.
The failure to give “due to consideration to the various objections raised in the course of the application process,” wrote the residents’ lawyer Victoria Cuschieri, “is a violation of the principle of natural justice audi alteram partem [to hear both sides, to accord a fair hearing].”
Buttigieg wrote of this “fundamental principle being furnished upon whoever is burdened with the power to decide.” She added: “This cannot be merely a superficial exercise of submissions (oral and verbal) that the Authority doesn’t pay attention to”.
The appeal also made the point that the “evaluation of the case officer was narrow, and the Authority failed to apply applicable policies in a holistic and comprehensive manner.”
Residents who spoke to The Shift expressed particular concerns about traffic congestion and inadequate parking, which are already a problem that is set to get worse as the density of habitations intensify with such larger-scale developments.
This is something that features in the appeal as well as a significant proportion of objections. These developments are taking place on a 180-metre stretch of street some six metres wide, including the pavement, and the concern is that vehicles will get stuck if the entire street is built up to the new height and density as these blocks.
A precedent has already been set by a block built in recent years. The residents are now keen to contain that precedent as an aberration, and not allow the entire street to be developed in the same way.
Some residents spoke about the impact on their privacy and properties from having developments that tower four or five storeys higher than the present height in a narrow street. Others wondered what would happen if a fire breaks out and fire trucks have to manoeuvre in the narrow street – or worse, find themselves blocked by parked cars.
The local council also raised some of these points in a letter that it sent to the PA. It told the PA chairperson that it is “imperative that the rights of the surrounding residents are safeguarded.”
The Council also wrote that the decisions on these developments “would surely effect other similar applications in the same streets that the Authority would be faced with, and as such it would be wise not to compromise the ‘skyline’ of the zone and that no precedent is set.”