By Astrid Vella FAA Co-ordinator
For years we have been told that it is better for the community if we construct tall buildings, rather than in the traditional style. It is however becoming increasingly evident that this is nothing but politician/developer double-speak.
MYTH 1: The mantra that our politicians love to repeat is “Better up than out” into the countryside. This reasoning is however totally flawed, as one building type cannot simply be swapped with another. Those seeking to build a toolroom/greenhouse/bungalow/farmhouse/weekend getaway in the countryside will not be opting for a high-rise apartment. The proof of this is that in spite of the many applications for tall buildings presently being processed by the Planning Authority, the number of Out of Development Zone applications is at an all-time high.
MYTH 2: According to the FAR (tall buildings) regulations, developers are obliged to leave public open space around their buildings for the public to enjoy. However reality shows otherwise, as open space that developers indicate in the approved plans gradually gets encroached on by satellite buildings. The Portomaso development has closed off the public walkway by the yacht marina and even extended its private beach resort onto the public beach, a sacrosanct public open space. Other open spaces are designed to boost the patronage of commercial centres, and not to attract the general public. Thus The Point piazza is increasingly encroached by cafes and restaurants while the six broomstick trees do nothing to relieve the unrelenting ‘concreteness’ of the area. Growing ‘real’ trees on the roof of a multi-storey carpark is not easy!
Neighbouring Fort Cambridge offers the public an off-putting canyon thrown into deep shade by its flanking tall buildings – no wonder no members of the public are ever seen enjoying this space, as it offers nothing to enjoy.
Furthermore, Planning Authority regulations stipulate that the public open space is to be located at street level or not more than 1.5m above. And yet the same Planning Authority granted a permit to the Metropolis public open space three floors above street level.
Again, would a public open space at Mriehel really benefit the public? Would mothers pushing strollers or elderly people risk their lives crossing a busy motorway, when they can access the beautiful San Anton Gardens far more safely?
MYTH 3: Tall buildings reduce urban congestion. Again, tall buildings do not replace traditional buildings as they do not provide accommodation that average Maltese residents can afford. The €200,000 purchase price for an average 2/3 bedroom apartment would easily jump to a starting price of €350,000 in a tall building, due to the increased costs of extra foundations, project management, surveyors, supervision of works, specialist engineering designs, higher quality materials, higher and speedier lifts, and the need for centralised services like air conditioning and sprinkler systems, garbage collection areas, extra stairwells for firefighting/security and added costs for bigger/higher cranes, concrete pumps and service lifts during construction works.
Similarly, the costs of maintaining a skyscraper rise exponentially the higher the building, given the dependence on lifts, difficulty and risks of working at that height, and also the fact that materials wear out or corrode at a faster rate at higher levels due to exposure to sun and wind. Thus an apartment owner can expect to pay up to €2,000 annually in maintenance costs/sinking funds as well as the additional costs of security staff, garage space maintenance, landscaping costs and possibly even facilities like swimming pools. In these projects maintenance costs are never given up front and tend to increase yearly, much to the astonishment and incredulity of the residents.
Since Maltese residents cannot afford such luxury properties, we will still need to build traditional blocks of flats within the development areas. Therefore tall buildings will simply add to the congestion, not relieve it.
MYTH 4: It has been said for years that the Maltese economy needs modern office facilities, however a Planning Authority official had stated that the demand will be satisfied by the projects that have already been granted permits. So far, no proof has been presented to show that these new towers will be occupied and not end up as vertical corpses like the Addolorata A3 Towers.
MYTH 5: Contrary to their early image of being more environmental, tall building have been found to consume energy disproportionately; since apartments are far more exposed to sun and wind, they depend far more heavily on cooling and heating while water needs to be pumped high up and lifts are in constant use.
Tall buildings in Malta do not provide the full complement of parking spaces required; the Mriehel towers are predicted to draw 2,900 users but the Planning Authority is only imposing the minimum parking standard of 1,000 car spaces. Traditional buildings would provide the same amount of car spaces, but would offer far more on-street slots which don’t exist with tall buildings, therefore the 2,000 extra cars looking for parking will increase the rate of air pollution in residential areas in Attard, Balzan, Birkirkara and Santa Venera, where parking is already a problem.
Finally, tall buildings deprive surrounding residents of light, air and solar rights, as well as undermining tourism by ruining heritage vistas like the view of Mdina. Do tall buildings offer any benefits at all to the community or is the only benefit going to speculators’ bank accounts?
Given that the injunctions instituted by Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar along with other NGOs and residents have prevented the first permits from being issued prematurely, the authorities are in time to change parameters and impose better standards. It is up to us to speak out.