The Malta Independent 29 February 2020, Saturday

The right choice for Pietà

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 21 January 2020, 07:59 Last update: about 2 months ago

The fight for the preservation of the architectural and historical heritage of Pietà continues.

There is currently a development application concerning a 19th century townhouse along the Pietà seafront. If approved, this distinct three-storey townhouse having a raised porch, thick limestone walls as well as old timber beam and stone slab ceilings, will be demolished and replaced by an 8-storey block, with commercial space at the ground floor and 7 floors of apartments above.

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The property is scheduled. This means that it has been recognized by the responsible authorities as being one of particular heritage value, meriting protection to ensure it is safeguarded.

Despite this, through this application the only part of the property to be ‘retained’ is its façade, and this too will be severely compromised. The applicant is proposing to have it dismantled and reconstructed with its distinct raised porch eliminated, proportions shrunk to fit in more floors and the addition of four new floors towering above.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage reaffirmed the property’s heritage value, describing it as ‘an architecturally significant building’ and in fact took a strong stance in its objection to this development.

The Superintendence opposed what it described as ‘extensive internal alterations’ as well as the proposed disfigurement of the façade, noting how the interventions would ‘permanently and negatively impact the appearance of the building’. The heritage watchdog went on to vehemently oppose the extensive increase in height, describing it as a ‘massive and ungainly volume, creating very unsightly blank walls and creating an unacceptable precedent for height increase along the streetscape’.

This seafront townhouse sits just below St Luke’s Hospital, an architectural monument of immense heritage value in its own right that is in fact scheduled as a Grade 1 property, the highest level of protection that exists.

At 8-storeys the proposed development will directly block views of this landmark building. Furthermore, it will open the floodgates for the rest of the townhouses that make up this historical seafront streetscape to be demolished and redeveloped in the same way, until the entire street’s historic fabric is lost and the commanding skyline of Pietà (that is meant to be safeguarded) hidden behind a concrete wall of 8-storey buildings.

This site was never designated for such extensive redevelopment but contrarily recognised as one of heritage value through its scheduling. The Superintendence has confirmed, in its professional capacity as the expert on matters of cultural heritage, that the property is of value and should not be demolished. Furthermore, the expert consultee fiercely opposed the replacement building describing it as ‘unacceptable’ and through its excessive height ‘denying appreciation’ of St Luke’s Hospital’s ‘significant architectural form’.

There’s no denying that many properties along Pietà’s seafront require extensive repairs after many years of neglect. However, demolishing these properties and eradicating the historical and architectural heritage of this street, as opposed to restoring them, is not the solution.

Short-sighted past decisions such as those that led to the obliteration of Sliema’s once majestic seafront, should not be repeated, especially when we have seen the disastrous results of those decisions and should now know better.

The application will be heard today. The Planning Commission’s decision should be obvious.

As was done with several similar cases in Pietà in the recent past, such as the request to redevelop the nearby Casa Vassallo up to 7-storeys, as well as the numerous requests for the redevelopment of traditional townhouses along Triq Santa Monika (that would have also visually impinged on a Grade 1 scheduled monument), this application should also be turned down.

The proposal is unjustified and unwarranted, leading to the unnecessary loss of this historic seafront streetscape as well as Pietà’s iconic skyline.

The Planning Commission can either pander to speculative pressure and allow the destruction of this historical architectural gem, or show consistency by upholding legislation calling for the protection of these scheduled monuments, and allow the area a real opportunity for regeneration through strategic planning that builds on the strengths of our past.

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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