The Malta Independent 23 September 2021, Thursday

Updated: Mriehel Towers application approved, but PA orders more parking spaces

Helena Grech Thursday, 4 August 2016, 12:48 Last update: about 6 years ago

 The Planning Authority this morning approved an application by Tumas and Gasan holdings, who intend to invest €70 million in the construction of four towers, 15, 17, 19 and 14 storeys high, in Mrieħel. The towers will be centred around a piazza and have five basement levels. Construction is estimated to take four years and it is thought to employ roughly 2,635 workers.

The authority insisted however that there should be more parking spaces, before giving the green light with 11 votes in favour and three against.

The project has come under scrutiny from environmental groups, with a court injunction on a Planning Authority decision in place in which four E-NGOs are insisting that proper studies be made on the construction of high-rise buildings before any decisions are taken. The E-NGOs are expressing concern that the towers would be visible from almost the entire island and would have an irreversible impact on Malta’s landscape. The courts postponed the PA hearing until today.

 

Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar coordinator Astrid Vella had previously said of the Mrieħel towers that the project comprises four towers that would be built directly in the line of sight between Mdina and Valletta, commenting, “It will obliterate all these iconic landscapes as we know them presently.”

Legal Counsel for the Planning Authority Ian Borg slammed the objectors who filed a judicial protest to postpone the PA's decision on the Mriehel high rise project for holding the board personally responsible for the outcome of the decision - something "unacceptable."

"This decision should be based on the facts of the case, but not based on pressure and influence," he said.

Ray Demicoli, lead architect on the project, said "This will be a milestone for development in Malta. It is an ideal zone because it is positively connected." 

"While in Malta we have a booming financial sector, we do not really have a financial district. This project could provide the natural developmental progression reflecting the growing financial sector."

 

He spoke of the initial permit filed, which was a low-rise building. He explained that after the FAR policy was issued in 2014, his client opted for a high-rise project.

He stressed that there is no difference between the low rise plan and the high-rise in terms of footprint and volume. 

Mr DeMicoli spoke of measures which would encourage people to car-pool to work, adding that bicycle stands will be placed. He said that apart from providing space to station bicycles, a number of showers would be provided within the towers in order to encourage people to cycle to work.

The project aspired to provide high standard office accommodation, served by amenities such as restaurants, a childcare centre and “facilities required by lifestyle and international contemporary demands for work places,” he said.

There is a five storey underground parking being proposed, which Mr DeMicoli said would fulfil the standard parking requirements. The car park can take up to 1,065 car spaces. There would be 28 access points to the car spaces, 54 preferential car sharing spaces, 20 motorcycle parking spaces and lastly 106 bicycle spaces and changing facilities.

The Nationalist Party (PN) and a number of NGOs have argued that the number of parking spots being provided for is far too little, and that the number should really be 3,000. 

As per requirements, PA commissioned an independent traffic impact assessment, where an access study was conducted in February 2015 and an impact assessment conducted in July 2015. 

Two junctions were spoken of, where it was said that during the day there would be queues because of a lack of capacity. It was said that in the evening, driving towards Attard would create some queues because of bottlenecks in Attard itself. 

The individual who presented the study spoke of Mriehel itself and whether it can take the added traffic. He said that certain roads were not fully completed, adding that the Mriehel bypass should be able to handle the extra flow however there would be a heavy flow during peak hours. 

They estimated that during peak morning hours, there would be roughly 550 cars entering, and peak evening hours would see roughly 400 leaving.

The MFSA junction needs an upgrade to handle the added flow, the traffic impact presenter said. He presented a number of proposals to alleviate traffic when it would be at its worst: for entering the site a slip road off Dawret Mriehel (southbound) and a sign a signised junction with two right-turn-lanes into Mriehel Industrial Estate. For exiting the site, a slip road onto Dawrett Mriehel was also proposed. He said that through these changes traffic would be diverted from one junction to another, making the flow more manageable.

He said that proposals were presented to Transport Malta, who agreed with the findings. Turning to the parking situation, he said that according to their studies the high-rise project would need more than1,500 spots, however 1,000 are being provided. A mass transit improvement was proposed, "not just for e scheme but for the entire Industrial Estate. 

An Environmental Planning Statement report, as required under law, found that there would be a major impact on the 'urban conurbation character area' due to the villages and towns nearby, in view of the introduction of a new urban feature to the rural landscape. 

 

A number of views are thought to be impacted by the Mriehel high-rise project; however such impacts affecting drivers in transit are not being considered as being an issue. There are a number of areas whose views would be affected by the project, in areas which people use to go walking. This situation is seen as having a much bigger negative impact than in the case of drivers. 

The Malta Tourism Authority, Superintendent of Cultural Heritage, Design Advisory Committee and Transport Malta have all expressed their approval with the inclusion of some tweaks, following a number of consultations. The Environmental and Resources Authority however raised a number of concerns such as ensuring that landscaping of the project follows the guidelines. 

The planning directorate ultimately gave a positive recommendation subject to a number of criteria such as the ensuring of a bank guarantee in order to safeguard development conformity

Lawyer Claire Bonello, speaking on behalf of a number of NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Flimkiek Ghal Ambjent Ahjar drew attention to the fact that the project in question was inserted into a the high-rise policy plan "by stealth" as Mriehel was not indicated as a possible location for high rise development initially. 

 

The PA board took exception to this argument, stating that it is irrelevant for today's hearing. 

Dr Bonello said the approval of such a project would be premature because the public consultation was not carried out in full, in view of Mriehel being added to the high-rise designated areas "by stealth." She appealed for a deferment on the decision until a full consultation is carried out, allowing the public their right to oppose Mriehel as a high rise area. 

Chairman of the PA board Vince Cassar gave the go ahead for the project to commence, and invited all board members to raise their objections before the official vote.

PN spokesperson for Environment Ryan Callus expressed the need for the upgrading Mriehel in terms of infrastructure, adding that he does not agree with the recommendations of the planning directorate. He said that it was neither the public nor the PA board who put forward a recommendation to include Mriehel in the high-rise policy area, meaning that its inclusion was a political decision. This meant that the public could not have their say throughout the consultation process, breaching their fundamental rights. The board has the duty to safeguard public interest through this decision. In my opinion Mriehel was placed in the FAR policy illegally, and I cannot take the decision for this project without a proper consultation period.

The approval of this project would send a precedent for other high-rise buildings next door. Mr Callus stressed that nobody has given absolute assurance that Mdina will always be visible from Valletta, meaning that he cannot approve the decision. 

"I am not against the upgrading of Mriehel, but it is the only solution we have been presented with and I think we are being premature."

"If the decision is approved today, this will be suicide for the credibility of the PA board," Mr Callus concluded. 

Objectors argued that changes in the FAR local plan meant that high-rise projects are not eligible for the entire area of Mriehel, but for two specific areas within the locality. Allowing the project to commence, objectors said, goes contrary to the FAR plan itself.

Petra Caruana Dingli from Din L-Art Helwa supported the arguments made against, and questioned how the local plan for Mriehel could be considered as valid in light of "the area being included upon a Minister's recommendation, clear breach of policy." 

 

The visual intrusion of the project was stressed upon. Objectors also spoke of a legal requirement for having the project being surrounded by four streets. One objector said that under the legal definition of what a street is, the project does not meet the requirements as one surrounding street cannot be considered as such. 

 

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