The Malta Independent 21 September 2019, Saturday

Next stop, Birżebbuġa

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 10 September 2019, 09:09 Last update: about 11 days ago

The seaside town of Birżebbuġa at the Southern tip of Malta seems to be set for the same transformation that hit coastal towns all over the island over the past decades, as traditional townhouses are being torn down and replaced by apartment blocks.

This sweeping change is leading to the loss of the beauty and authenticity of the locality as traditional limestone buildings adorned with soft detailing and timber apertures are replaced by concrete blocks decked with heavy balconies and a mish-mash of concrete frames awkwardly jutting out of the façades in a series of failed attempts at design. These blocks, whilst being dull on the one hand through the sheer lack of imagination that has come to define them, manage to simultaneously be an overbearing eyesore. They are completely unrelated to their surroundings be it in terms of aesthetics, materials used, height or volume. They tower over streets lined with traditional limestone buildings, breaking the old skyline.

A recent case attesting to this is the application for the demolition of a corner townhouse on Triq San Frangisk Saverju and Triq San Patrizju along Birżebbuġa’s seafront, and its replacement with a 7-storey apartment block. The property dates back to the 1920s. Its façade has been described by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage as having ‘an eclectic style created from a fusion of naval-style features and Liberty Style’, with distinct characteristics such as two bull’s eye windows on Triq San Patrizju’ and iron railings in the Art Noveau style.

The property is surrounded by traditional townhouses also built over 2 floors, and just across the road is a row of well-preserved and distinct Grade 2 scheduled buildings, also from the same era. Together these townhouses define the traditional seafront streetscape of this town.

The outcome of this application would be 5 additional floors (built in a style that is completely unrelated to the traditional character of the surroundings) hovering above this quaint streetscape. It would be the tallest within the block. Since the adjacent properties are both original 2 storey townhouses, the new 7 storey block will create a massive 5 storey blank party wall glaring over the skyline.

This is the exact type of development that is destroying our heritage and permanently disfiguring the character of our towns. It is the exact type of development that resulted in the transmutation of other seaside towns such as Sliema and St Paul’s Bay. How is it that planning principles that had already failed in the past, are still being applied today when we should know better? Are the policies guiding the Planning Authority’s decisions to blame? Or are they being misinterpreted?

In 1995, the Planning Authority had designated the height limitation along the seafront of Birżebbuġa to four floors, noting that particularly along the seafront ‘pressure still remains to increase storey heights’. However the authority also noted the street’s well-balanced width in relation to the existing building heights, describing it as a ‘pleasing aspect of the town’ that ‘is worth retaining’. The Authority also warned that ‘a relaxation of building height limitation, especially along the waterfront could lead to oppressive over development’. 

In 2015, the Planning Authority issued a blanket increase in building heights for all sites within the development zone through the amended Development Control Design Policy, generally referred to as DC15. Through this policy document, building heights previously capped at 4 floors could now go up to 6 floors.

So in the case of the property in Birżebbuġa with a Local Plan designation of 4 floors, a proposal of 6 floors and one setback floormay be considered to be within the building height limitation. But does that mean that the development should be permitted?

The Planning Commission is obliged to take other factors into consideration when determining an application, such as the proposal’s impact on cultural heritage, on neighbourhood amenity, on the streetscape’s continuity as well asthe infrastructural capacity of the area.

In fact the same Local Plan policy under which the site in Birżebbuġa is designated for 4-storey development, also states that ‘The Planning Authority may also refuse applications which, although observing the height limitation, nevertheless create "bad neighbour" problems or detract from the amenity of the area, when the height and detailed design or use are considered together. Typical problems might be a loss of privacy to neighbouring dwellings, overlooking, or visual impact’.

The Planning Authority is not bound to approve developments that will ruin our towns simply because they are within the building height limitation but isobliged to observe all relative policies especially those that place restrictions on development in order to prevent the loss of cultural heritage.

In the case of Birżebbuġa it is clear that 7 floors on the seafront would spell the end for this traditional distinct streetscape and should simply not be permitted by the responsible Authority.

Tara Cassar is an architect focusing on planning policies and environmental issues related to land-use, active with a number of local eNGOs.

[email protected]

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