The Malta Independent 22 September 2019, Sunday

V18-a race for Valletta regeneration

George M Mangion Sunday, 24 August 2014, 09:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Jason Micallef, the chairman of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, was quoted in the media as saying that the Foundation has to be funded to invest in tools that will help it address the challenges Valletta faces in the artistic and cultural sectors. These tools, he said, would outlive the Foundation and be useful to those working in these sectors long after 2018. The Netherlands and Malta are the two member states that will be a European Capital of Culture in 2018.

Valletta was the only city to apply for the title in Malta. The application was examined by a panel made up of 13 independent cultural experts – six appointed by the member state concerned and the remaining seven by the European institutions who thoroughly assessed the application on the basis of the criteria laid down by the European Parliament. Valletta was successful following months of intense preparation and it was equally fitting that a final verdict was given at a press conference, held in St John’s Co-Cathedral, by a team of four international judges. The team had earlier toured the island to determine whether or not Valletta fulfilled the necessary criteria to be European Capital for Culture in 2018. Thanks to its glorious credentials, Valletta was approved, with Manfred Gaulhofer, president of the selection committee, affirming that the decision was “unanimous”.

Valletta's turn as European Capital for Culture is expected to provide a boost to tourism, as well as create cultural infrastructures that could benefit local artists and cultural operators in the future .One may stop to reflect if we truly deserve to qualify for such a prestigious honour as certain parts of the Renaissance city have not been upgraded to the desired level commensurate with such a title. Many have written that this gem of a fortified city, built by the Order of the Knights of St John in the 16th century deserved better treatment from the islanders. It is true that Valletta’s bid to host the European Capital of Culture in 2018 is a strategic benchmark, a unique opportunity and a cultural ambition to transform Malta into a hub for creative exchange. However, the city is hardly inhabited although it serves as the seat of government, diplomats and bureaucrats while most people now live outside the walls of Valletta. Valletta also serves as a national hub for public transport as all buses converge from different nodes around the island.

Another aspect for the members of V18 committee to consider is the state of Malta’s cultural infrastructure, which in my opinion is a top priority that needs to be addressed. It stands to reason that a cultural city of Europe ought to be properly supported by an infrastructure which befits such a title; critics have noted a number of areas for investment that is badly needed for urban regeneration and the creation of cultural hubs with an international resonance. To start with, apart from the Manoel Theatre, Valletta lacks technologically – advanced spaces for the performance of music, be it concert, choral or operatic. The roofless ruins of the ex Royal Opera house is a poor substitute for providing a unique audience/ spectator experience.

Another aspect is moving the national public library from Floriana to Valletta, which critics quickly pointed out is a poor substitute due to its limited space. Without the proper space for a modern library and its archives, there is little capacity for accessing cultural, social, educational and economic connections both nationally and internationally which a city of culture deserves. Needless to say, it is a positive step to move the Museum of Fine Arts to a larger Auberge in Merchants Street, as hopefully this will lead to the propagation of modern and contemporary art, facilitating links to the design and architectural output of local artists.

Speaking in general, Valletta as a city with its Grand Harbour has been the subject of many plans by politicians in the past to improve its urban and artistic heritage. Indeed, the best ideas on how to regenerate the inner harbour area has being championed by both parties. The good news is that with €1.2 billion of EU funds, the possibilities to renovate parts of the city and the inner harbour areas are endless. But can we risk doing something in haste? Experts tell us regenerating the entire inner harbour area is a job which should be part and parcel of the V18 Committee’s wider remit. It is a monumental task. It involves urban mobility and possibly better education of some depressed areas, such as the Three Cities, with the lowest literacy rate. Ideally, the V18 would incorporate this geographic and spatial planning opportunity with regeneration and redevelopment nodes in the City around the Inner and Outer Harbour precincts. The main issue most waterfront cities face across Europe is the decline of traditional port activities, such as cargo handling and fishing, and the consolidation of business in fewer and larger ports. Let us say that it is commendable that there is a political commitment to give life to Valletta with its natural harbour which over the centuries has served as the umbilical cord to other nations.

In 2001/2, the PN administration had triumphantly promoted a master plan incorporating 20 new capital projects that targeted Valletta and its environs. There was a bold proposal for the removal of all heavy industrial activity from the Senglea side of French Creek, where the current quay will be upgraded and converted into a new cruise liner terminal. It is a pity that the project promoted by Valletta Cruise Port on the construction of a cable car project was rejected by Mepa, as this would have connected the Pinto Sea Port to Valletta. This is similar to the famous cable car linking Sonoma Island to the Singapore mainland. With some modifications to the original plans to respect the surroundings, it is more than certain that visitors who have seen the massive cable transportation project in action in Singapore would agree with the cable car project in Valletta. Can the V18 committee revisit the application for the cable car proposal, which in my opinion is an innovative, provocative, and functional, considering the serious mobility issues visitors have to visit Valletta on arrival at the sea terminal. Cruise liner agents have been making a case for more facilities to enable more ships to make it to port as the current quay is practically operating at full capacity and the Valletta Cruise Port consortium, which runs the terminal, have often lamented that it had to turn down business because of lack of capacity. It is positive that both political parties are focusing on the regeneration of the Grand Harbour area.

Ideally, we could wake up one morning and see Rinella (i.e., SmartCity), the Cottonera and Valletta waterfront as one contiguous development. Others warn us not to repeat the mistakes in design, quoting the overcrowding and marring of the Sliema coastline due to the cacophony of high rise flats in Tigné and the neglected buildings at Lazaretto.

As a rule, waterfront redevelopment in other countries can take a long time, even decades. Governments aim at achieving short-term social and economic benefits from a long-term development process, and bridging from “now to then” to minimise disruption and maximise the economic benefits of waterfront development. Also, tenders have been issued for commercialisation and re-design of Dock No 1 where rumours have it that a replica of the naval galleon, as used at the time of the Great Siege in 1565, will be a focal point. Any large-scale conservation project will inevitably stimulate the regeneration of a key area of the inner and outer harbour area with designs that blend and respect with great sensitivity the historical significance combined with the functional considerations of a busy cruise line terminal and a promenade with multifarious commercial, cultural and leisure activities.

In conclusion, the Knights of Malta engaged the best architects to preserve the baroque design of palaces, churches and Auberges in Valletta .While mindful that over past centuries the fortified city served under different masters, Valletta is an enduring city left to us by the Knights of St John. It is without any doubt an architectural jewel which is now the responsibility of the V18 Foundation to nurture and embellish.

 

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The writer is a partner in PKF, an audit and business advisory firm

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