The Malta Independent 15 December 2017, Friday

High-rise development: beyond for and against

Alex Torpiano Tuesday, 16 August 2016, 08:31 Last update: about 2 years ago

The term "high-rise" has become a catch-all for anything between 8 and 38 floors; and policy-makers, let alone the public, have failed to make this important distinction. Skyline and visual impact are clearly important issues; however, even more important considerations are context and scale. These considerations seem to have been conspicuously omitted from planning "policies", by those entrusted with the shaping of our future built (and hence unbuilt) environment; it is not surprising that the media debate polarizes around two extreme positions, in favour or against "high-rise" building, black or white, full-stop.

In favour, there is the facile argument that land area is scarce, and therefore we should use it to its maximum. This argument fails to distinguish between high-rise and high-density - not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, another argument is that high-rise allows the same volume of development over a specific site, (i.e. same density), whilst liberating a substantial part of the site, say 50%, for landscaped public areas, with visions of dense greenery and children playing!

A senior PA official recently pointed out the benefit that had accrued to the public as a result of the "tower" in Paceville by the upgrading of a garden, which, however, was already a public open space, albeit neglected by the authorities.

The gain in public  open space could be a laudable objective, but there are many creative ways of interpreting this "policy". Simple arithmetic also belies this argument. If 8-storey development were permitted over the whole of a specific site, leaving 50% of the site open ought to require development at 16 storeys height. Development at 38 storeys ought to require less than 25% of the original site.

Against, we hear arguments based on excessive traffic generation, or of excessive demands on infrastructure. "Policy" requires that these issues be studied, and an objective judgement made on the respective impacts. The negative arguments do not necessarily always hold water; in transport engineering terms, high density development makes a lot of sense, if the (public) transport system were designed to serve these nodes of high density. Higher infrastructural demands do not arise from high- as contrasted to medium-rise development; if it were true that a high-rise development is allowed only when the total volume of development, over the whole of the site, is equal to that over part of the site, the infrastructural load would be the same.

The real point is the need for better planning, before embarking on directions that could have major and irreversible impacts on Malta's built environment. Planning is not the "application of policy" as if policies were tablets given to us from heaven. Planning is primarily about a vision of the built environment we would like to have in the future, and about guiding the industry, developers, and the public alike, towards that vision, at the right pace.

When a "policy" is approved, surreptitiously or not, it ought to stand up scrutiny against questions like: if this were allowed in one place for one developer, what would be the impact of allowing similar development by all other developers in the same locality? Is it just a question of first come first served? If every site in a locality were developed to the intensity envisaged by one developer, what would the total volume be of real estate put on the market over a specific period of time. Is it really just up to market forces? What is the economic impact of property which remains empty, dragging down on the market?

Apart from any subsidies (that is, public money) that the construction industry lobby periodically asks from government when things do not go as swimmingly as envisaged, what is the economic impact of empty real estate?

Another important economic impact is that on the property and rental market. One leading voice from the developers' world has suggested that any recent reports of steep increases in rent as only the result of previous tax evasion! Construction at certain scales of high-rise, say 20 floors or higher,  typically costs 50-100% more than medium or low-rise construction.

If it were true that the same development volume were possible on a specific site, doubling the cost of construction should imply doubling of rentals or sales values - indeed, one could argue that since the risks are higher, the returns ought to be higher to make the project equally viable. The truth is that the profit margin must be greater, otherwise the whole effort would not be worth it. And this implies that the business model assumed a hefty increase in rentals or sale prices. The social impact from such changes, particularly over a very short period of time, needs careful consideration.

Finally, if Malta has proved such an attractive and viable tourism proposition, because of its climate and natural resources, but also because of its unique built heritage and environment, what would be the impact on the industry if key parts of Malta were to become very much like other parts of Europe? This, and not just photo-voltaic panels, is the real meaning of sustainable development. Spatial planning in Malta needs this socio-economic dimension.


Professor Torpiano is the Dean at the Faculty for the Built Environment at the University of Malta


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