FAA Coordinator Astrid Vella
Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar is in favour of the sensitive conversion and re-use of heritage buildings; however, there is a clear line between re-use and outright greed. When the authorities responsible for the protection of our heritage and environment support these speculators’ greed, they become personally responsible for the destruction of our heritage and the undermining of residents’ health and quality of life.
In Malta heritage and quality of life are closely intertwined: most old buildings are located in narrow village core streets, surrounded by residences. While any change to those buildings invariably affects the surrounding homes, an increase in height has greatest impact, throwing neighbouring homes into darkness, depriving them of light, air and solar rights.
Maltese Planning law is based on the predominant height – two-three floors in this area. Why, then, was this scheduled building allowed to rise to four floors, depriving neighbours of light and air? The eNGO representative and the PA Chairman argued that this would increase over-development and traffic in this congested area. Why did Dr Victor Axiaq, Chairman of the Environment Resource Authority vote in favour of this project? Surely clean air is the most basic of environmental norms, and without a traffic impact study, the precautionary principle should have called for a refusal.
The developers of the Blackley Bakery at Pieta were also allowed to gut the building, with Johann Buttigieg, PA CEO, claiming that is allowed in Grade 2 protected buildings, contrary to heritage law which stipulates “Permission to demolish Grade 2 buildings will not normally be given. Alterations to the interior will be allowed if proposed to be carried out sensitively and causing the least detriment to the character and architectural homogeneity of the building.” Why did the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage approve such violations of heritage law?
Having been granted such a generous exemption which allowed for more developable space inside, FAA maintains that the project should have been limited to one extra floor.
Similarly, in the case of The Cloisters, one of Sliema’s first buildings, short-term financial interests took precedence over preservation of the nation’s heritage. This building, notable for the clean lines of its vernacular Baroque façade will become an aggressive overdevelopment, its garden built up to seven floors in violation of the PA’s regulation on heights within Urban Conservation Areas (UCAs). What is the point of designating UCAs if they are ignored?
With both of the main political parties, as well the authorities charged to preserve our heritage, approving its disfigurement, is it surprising that the public perceives them all to be in the developers’ pockets?
Mismanagement of heritage destroys the very element that makes Malta special. Cultural heritage provides Malta with a unique identity and lifestyle that attracts foreign investment and effective tourism marketing. Heritage skylines, historic architectural façades and internal period features are what draw tourists to Malta – tourists do not come for Valletta and Mdina alone. As we continue to destroy the rest, we’ll be left with a soulless island choking in the fumes of its traffic and short-sighted overdevelopment.
This article originally appeared on The Times of Malta on 02.03.17