The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

After 45 years, Pjazzetta development finally approved

Noel Grima Thursday, 18 December 2014, 16:56 Last update: about 8 years ago

 

The last word was said this evening regarding the area known as Pjazzetta in the heart of Sliema.

For these 45 years it has rivalled the ruined Opera House in Valletta as the ruin which has always been there. Now that the Opera House has been restored to use (though its format is controversial) the Pjazzetta site was the only one left.

The Mepa board today pronounced its approval of the umpteenth proposal. Visually, the approved permit posits a restored Victorian house against a background of highrise flats, which many will find quite shocking.

It will be called Ghar il-Lembi Square. Originally this was a palatial home built around 1852 with a large front garden. The Gasan family, which owns it, has been trying to develop it since 1969, proposing various applications even before Mepa or the Planning Authority came into being. One recurring issue always regarded the large open space in front which has resisted all attempts to see it built. On the side, somewhere along the line, the Pjazzetta apartments and shops were built.

During the time of the British forces, the building was a naval clinic and people still refer to its shell as the Clinic.

Architect Martin Xuereb had prepared a video presentation but had to abort it half-way through because the members of the board could not hear what was said and because, as the chairman said, it was not interested in history but in the present application.

The present application, much changed from its previous incarnations, is for the full restoration of the palatial house with the use of Maltese stone and green windows and balcony, rising up to eight floors in all with a penthouse at the top. The open space will remain, largely an open space and while parking will be relegated to two underground levels, it will become landscaped and have, on the Tower Road side, a kiosk at pavement level with tables and chairs.

The entire development will have 24 residential units and also underground there will be a large commercial development with shops while parking is provided for 100 cars. There will be a drop-off point at the foot of the steps leading to the palace's main door while commercial deliveries will take place in Ghar il-Lembi Street where there will also be access and exit from the underground car park. The top units including the penthouse will have a recessed frontage on Ghar il-Lembi Street.

In consultations, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage commented positively that the gateway pillars will also be restored and urged care in the excavation due to the presence of sensitive caves in the vicinity.

Transport Malta pointed out at traffic in the area, also due to upcoming developments around but  at the end came out in favour of the application especially after a redesign of the loading bay meant this will be within the application's footprint. The Sliema local council said it had no objection and this was a restoration of a long abandoned building but it warned about the underground caves in the area and also about a wartime shelter underneath the open space. The sensitive caves mean that excavation cannot be done by means of percussion type diggers.

It was not clear at the meeting what caused the collapse and neglect of the shell of the building but it was pointed out this had been declared a Scheduled Grade 2 building after its rooms had been pulled down.

The Directorate seemed eager to explain how it allowed the building height of the development to be two and a half meters above what should have been allowed. The same principle used has been apparently used in a neighbouring extension to the Preluna. The historic building has two floors but these take up the space of four floors. Not everyone in the room, and around the table, seemed convinced with this explanation.

One of the conditions attached to the permit is that the Gasan Group accept to commit itself to leaving the open space as is and to withdraw within six months appeals it has submitted to the Court against Mepa's previous decisions.

Dr Ian Vella Galea and architect Edgar Caruana Montalto then launched into a long series of arguments against the application being approved mainly regarding the height issue but also regarding rather minor points, such as whether a ramp was included or otherwise in the submitted plans, about some rooms at the back which will be pulled down, and about a pavement that is six inches lower than was stated.

Other residents had weightier points to make. A neighbour said Ghar il-Lembi has become a canyon with high rise on each side and traffic flowing from the carpark, and the supermarket and a future hotel down the street. Many times vans get stuck passing through. Other objections regarded the kiosk and one person said hemuch prefers a gazebo to provide shelter from the sun.

Astrid Vella from Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar and also a neighbour said the wartime shelter is not a corridor as it was described but a fully-fledged wartime shelter, part of Sliema's dwindling historic remains whose plans can be found at the Public Works archives.

She said she cannot understand how a Traffic Impact Assessment has not been carried out and pointed out the real problem is that one side of Ghar il-Lembi is taken up by parapetti, not pavements. To the present confusion will now be added the cars entering or exiting from the carpark. There is no turning circle and cars will not be able to turn and go the other way.

In this regard, some people explained that at first cars exiting from the carpark and the supermarket were meant to exit by the former Joinwell but the traffic signs were changed around.

Ms Vella also asked why a shadow exercise had not been carried out to show how the new tower block would impact on the existing residences.

When the application was being discussed at board level, it seemed for a time the board was about to be asked to vote on a proposal that the architect presents better plans. But then it was agreed the design would be a reserved matter. Other board members pointed out that with neighbouring buildings such as those in Ghar il-Lembi there was not much the architect could do. Yet others pointed out the negative value of leaving this area in such a decrepit state for much longer.

Mark Gasan committed his company to withdrawing the existing appeals at court while Mr Xuereb will possibly apply for a DNO or a new application to excavate a further level down for additional parking.

 

 

 

Photo Jonathan Borg

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