The Malta Independent 23 October 2019, Wednesday

A Tale of Two Scheduled Sites

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 25 June 2019, 08:20 Last update: about 5 months ago

Last Thursday the Planning Board refused an application that sought to turn the 19th century Villa Leoni property in St Julians into a multi-storey hotel. The application would have resulted in the demolition of a large extent of the property, the construction of a 7-storey extension towering above its remains, and the desecration of its extensive garden through its replacement with an 8-storey concrete block. The board rightly deemed this unacceptable since Villa Leoni is protected under Maltese legislation as a Grade 2 scheduled property, under which only alterations that are carried out sensitively, and that respect the property's architectural form and character, are permitted.

Some question how such an application that goes so blatantly against the legislation necessitating the protection of these properties is even allowed to get so far - this is simply how our planning system works. The principle is that anyone can apply for anything, irrespective of how conflicting, obscene or damaging to the environment or heritage, the proposal may be. It is then up to the Planning Authority to decide whether or not to allow it. Of course, since these decisions are governed by legislation and policies, one would expect them to be consistent, meaning that if the Planning Board considered 7-storeys dwarfing a Grade 2 scheduled building inappropriate for one site, it would find excessive additional floors above another protected site, equally unacceptable. However, this is not the case.

An example of the PA's inconsistency can be seen in how the Planning Board reasoned when it decided to approve the controversial DB mega-development back in September of 2018, which also concerned a Grade 2 scheduled property, this time, the St George's Barracks.

The St George's Barracks are considered among the most important military buildings in Malta from their era. The barracks were constructed in the 1860's when the British had realised the need to house men in more sanitary conditions. This led to a change in the architectural typology of barracks both in terms of their configuration and even their aesthetics, as the British adapted to the Maltese climate and building materials. The architectural style applied to these barracks was the foundation of a new building typology that the British would then repeat and adapt for other military buildings over the following decades across the island. The St George's Barracks were granted Grade 2 scheduling to ensure their protection as a part of Malta's heritage.

Today, the St George's Barracks (formerly housing the ITS building) are found right in the centre of the site of the controversial DB mega-project. When deciding on this application, and the proposed treatment of the Grade 2 scheduled barracks, the Planning Board ignored rules governing scheduled properties, and proceeded to OK a development that would not only lead to the Grade 2 scheduled building being completely buried under a 17-storey hotel, but also allow its total demolition with the sole retention of only the outer skin of the porticoed façade, and two coats of arms almost as a token measure. To add insult to injury, these retained remnants would then be completely disassembled and reconstructed at a higher location. The Grade 2 scheduled building would be butchered and stripped of its architectural and historic significance, resulting in a pitiful structure detached from its context, engulfed by a monstrous development.

How can the same board observe legislation for one application, such as in the case of Villa Leoni, choose to completely ignore the same protection status for another?

Last Wednesday justice prevailed when the Court of Appeals decided that due to a clear conflict of interest of one of the members sitting on the Planning Board, the board's decision to approve the DB mega-development was to be considered null and void. This means that the application will be sent back to the Planning Authority where the Planning Board (possibly composed of different members) will have to again decide on the application.

The abhorrent treatment of the Grade 2 scheduled St George's Barracks, as initially approved in the DB-mega development, is one of many reasons why the application should not be allowed to go through.  Whether or not this will be considered the second time round, and legislation necessitating the protection of our heritage be observed, remains to be seen. What is certain though is that through the Pembroke residents' determination and resistance against the monster-development threatening their home, we all have another chance to keep fighting for justice in planning, for our communities and for a better future.

Tara Cassar is an architect focusing on planning policies and environmental issues related to land-use, active with a number of local eNGOs and sits as NGO representative on the Users' Committee

[email protected] 

 

Can you spot the 'protected' St George's Barracks? - Photomontage by applicant of development as approved in September 2018


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