The Malta Independent 16 October 2019, Wednesday

Imperilling Pieta’

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 8 October 2019, 08:39 Last update: about 8 days ago

Triq Santa Monika in Pieta’ could be facing the same treatment that is to blame for the increasingly odious state of our built environment. A recent decision by the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal has placed its historical, architectural and visual harmony in a state of unnecessary and unwarranted risk.

Triq Santa Monika is one of the main streets of Pieta’ and is in fact where the Our Lady of Fatima Parish Church is found. The church and its extensive grounds are protected for their cultural heritage value at the highest degree of protection offered by law, as a Grade 1 listed site. The street is defined by this distinct church and the continuous row of two to three storey mid-twentieth century townhouses that attribute to its quaint and unique character.

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In 2017 the Planning Authority received an application requesting the demolition of one of these two storey townhouses, situated directly opposite the Grade 1 scheduled church, and to have it redeveloped into a six-storey apartment block. 

The site is zoned for four floor developments however due to changes to the Development Control Design Policy in 2015, areas zoned for four floors can now be considered for developments of up to five floors plus one recessed floor. 

Furthermore, despite its harmonious state, Triq Santa Monika was not included within the confines of the official delineation of the Urban Conservation Area [UCA] of Pieta’ when the Local Plans were last revised in 2006. UCA designation is a form of zoning recognized by the Planning Authority that would place additional restrictions on the types of interventions that can be carried out on buildings within these areas. The decision back in 2006 to exclude Triq Santa Monika from this designation is partly why this imposing development could be considered.

Still, the site’s location being directly opposite the Grade 1 scheduled church also plays a part in what heights may be permitted. Under current policy, alterations which may impair the setting or change the external appearance of a Grade 1 scheduled building, including anything proposed within the curtilage of that building, should not be allowed. This means that a six storey development that will inevitably destroy the existing streetscape that forms the context of the Parish Church should in fact be refused.

A photomontage showing the impact of the pencil development on this distinct street soon started doing the rounds on Facebook and within a couple of days outraged members of the public immediately petitioned to the Planning Authority to have the application refused.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, in its capacity as the expert consulting agency on cultural heritage to the Planning Authority, also objected to the development.

The applicant could have at this stage amended the proposal to address heritage concerns but chose not to.

The Planning Directorate prepared its report, and due to the heritage concerns raised, in particular, the detrimental impact of the proposal given its vicinity to the Grade 1 scheduled site, recommended the application for refusal.

It was only after the Directorate recommended the application for refusal that the applicant submitted revised drawings, this time proposing to keep the façade of the townhouse however retaining the soaring height of six storeys. The amended drawings were submitted at too late a stage to be considered by the Planning Directorate.

At the hearing the Planning Commission agreed that the proposal, even with the retention of the façade, was unacceptable as it did not address the heritage concerns raised and therefore the Commission rightly refused the development.

Of course the story did not end there. A few weeks later the applicant appealed the decision to the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal (EPRT). After about a year and a half, the tribunal finally decided on the case and unfortunately overturned the refusal.

The EPRT concluded that the Planning Commission should have considered the last set of drawings submitted which showed the retention of the façade, and that these amended drawings should have additionally been sent to the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage to have them reassessed. The EPRT concluded this despite the fact that the amended drawings were submitted after the statutory period within which the applicant could have done so had closed, and that even then, the amended drawings did not actually address all the heritage concerns raised since the proposal at six storeys, still soared above the existing two storey streetscape, therefore clearly having a detrimental impact on the Grade 1 Scheduled parish church.

The EPRT essentially chose to avoid going into the specifics of the case, and instead gave this application an unwarranted lifeline. The application will once again be decided by the Planning Commission in the coming months.

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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