Developer Joseph Portelli is planning “another Mercury Towers” project for a site in Qawra, with “two 35-storey towers, the maximum allowable by law,” expected to be built “behind the Big Ben apartments,” according to property agents working for J Portelli projects.
Journalists from The Shift visited property agents posing as potential buyers to learn more about controversial apartment projects involving Portelli being sold before a Planning Authority permit is issued.
One of the options offered was the Qawra towers project, which is not on anyone’s radar. Thinking they have a potential sale on the horizon, the agents said, “part of [the towers] will consist of serviced apartments, with units increasing in price the further up the tower you go,” describing the project as similar to the Mercury Towers project in Paceville, “but with different styling”.
An application for the project, expected to be built along Andrew Cunningham Street, just metres away from the Salina Nature Reserve and Kennedy Grove, has yet to be submitted to the Planning Authority.
The site is no stranger to attempts at construction, with applications from Charles Gauci, one of the Big Ben Group brothers, from 2001, 2004, and 2007 all proposing massive residential developments.
The 2001 application, PA/4794/01, proposing the construction of an apartment block with underlying garages, was approved by the Planning Authority (at the time, MEPA) but was never built with no Planning Authority documentation available online.
Two more applications, PA/7440/04 and PA/7250/07, proposed the “construction of tower blocks” and the construction of four levels of underground garages and more than 400 overlying residences, respectively. The 2004 application was withdrawn by the applicant, and the 2007 application was stopped at the Planning Directorate.
Portelli’s Mercury Towers project in Paceville, to which the upcoming Qawra project has been compared, was heavily supported by the government. Finance Minister Clyde Caruana declared the development part of Malta’s Special Designated Areas (SDA).
In July 2022, The Shift reported how the SDA policy was introduced through a legal notice published by the finance ministry. It allowed foreigners, including EU citizens, to buy unlimited amounts of property in Mercury Towers and Pender Place while also benefitting from tax incentives.
Property industry sources described it as “a significant government move to make Portelli’s mega project more attractive to multi-millionaire foreign buyers, particularly Russians, Saudis and Chinese, who can invest their cash into multiple properties as an investment.”
The Mercury Towers project was controversially approved in 2018 despite criticism of its appropriateness within the context of and impact on the surrounding locality. Portelli’s close ties to the government meant the project was given an additional golden boost through a scheme with tax incentives for foreign investment.
Portelli, a Labour Party donor with close ties to the government, has been afforded VIP treatment from the authorities, with the PA taking an inconsistent approach to sanctioning blatant illegalities, Enemalta purchasing concrete from Portelli’s illegal batching plant and the education ministry dishing out favourable contracts and direct orders to Portelli.
Qawra is one of five localities in which buildings higher than 11 storeys may be allowed under another Labour Party policy known as the Floor to Area Ratio Policy or the Tall Buildings Policy.
The policy allows developers to construct buildings much higher than permitted in local plans if they implement public spaces within their design.
It was approved quietly by the government almost ten years ago, on 24 May 2014, the same day Malta was voting in the European Parliament elections, with no official press release announcing its introduction.
Joseph Portelli and J Portelli Projects CEO Claire Gauci Borda did not answer questions from The Shift.