The Malta Independent 25 August 2019, Sunday

Testing the waters

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 16 July 2019, 11:26 Last update: about 2 months ago

It may come as a surprise to some, but in spite of the massive amount of construction along the coast of St Julian’s and the growing number of towering structures mushrooming in its commercial centre, hidden behind all the chaos are quaint traditional streets still representative of a time when St Julian’swas a far smaller and quieter settlement.

The village core of St Julian’s, or urban conservation area as it is officially referred to by the Planning Authority, is an area recognized as having a distinct character generally defined by low-lying limestone historical properties constructed in traditional building techniques conveying particular architectural traits, all of which attribute to the cultural significance of the streetscapes they form.

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Policies governing urban conservation areas aim to protect their historical fabric and preclude new incompatible developments that would compromise their integrity.

Today there are at least three massive developments barely 150 meters apart, all being proposed in the confines of the village core of St Julian’s,that if approved would threaten the integrity of its cultural heritage.

The first application published last May is for the total demolition of not one, but two traditional townhouses right in the centre of Triq Sant’ Elija. This narrow street, barely 4 meters wide, is still characterized by traditional buildings. Initially the applicant proposed to replace these townhouses with 10 apartments spread over 6 floors of a characterless block void of any consideration for the historical surroundings. Following outcry from theresidents, as well as from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, the developer amended the drawings slightly, opting to retain the façade to somehow ease heritage concerns, however still persisting on proposing the dissonant height of 6 storeys.

Permissible building heights in urban conservation areas are established through a context driven approach, meaning that any proposed new development in village cores must respect the surroundings by not exceeding the existing predominant height. At 6 storeys, the proposal will result in 4 additional floors that would break the visual continuity, and aesthetic quality of the streetscape defined by 2 storey buildings, going directly against policies.

Only a few weeks after learning about the first application on Triq Sant’ Elija, the residents were handed a further blow with the publishing of yet another proposal, this time one requesting 68 residential units and 700 square meters of office space set on 6 floors, spread over a 2,000 square meter parcel of land between Triq Sant’ Elija and Telghet Birkirkara. The unique property found on the site, likely to be hundreds of years old, is proposed to be demolished and replaced with car access to a multilevel garage complex.

The final blow (at least for now) came last week. The application is once again (attesting to the total lack of imagination in the industry) for the demolition of a heritage building and its replacement with 56 apartments over five floors. The heritage building being proposed for demolition, described as ‘derelict’ in the application, is in fact a prominent townhouse with a 17 meter wide facade along Triqil-Karmnu (just behind Triq Sant’ Elija). The house is reported to have a formal garden with a separate theatre in its grounds, believed to be the only one of its kind, all of which will be lost if the development is allowed to go through.

These streetscapes along TriqSant’ Elija, Telghet Birkirkara and Triqil-Karmnu were specifically designated as part of the urban conservation area of St Julian’s because they represent a building tradition, a way of life, that forms part of Malta’s architectural and social history.

If these applications are allowed to go through, heritage buildings would be demolished and replaced with 5 to 6 storey blocks, disfiguring the rhythm of these streetscapes and breaking their historical skyline with glaring blank walls towering above. The applications are in no way compatible with the urban conservation area, and if approved would be a catastrophic blow for the village core of St Julian’s, rendering its protection status meaningless. 

If you want to help protect our shared heritage there is still time to object to PA/05431/19 on Triq il-Karmnu, by sending an email to the Planning Authority at [email protected].org.mt, quoting the application reference number and stating your reasons for objecting. Complaining won’t change anything, but action can.

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