The Malta Independent 8 April 2020, Wednesday

From Grade 1 Scheduling to Commemorative Plaques

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 3 March 2020, 09:42 Last update: about 2 months ago

In June 2019, Scicluna Enterprises submitted a planning application requesting to tear down one of the oldest townhouses in St Julian’s and develop in its place 14 apartments over four floors. The application also included the excavation of its extensive garden in order to develop three basement levels of garages over the entire extent of the site.

In the application, the developer failed to note that within the garden being proposed for total excavation, lies a neoclassical theatre believed by historian Albert Storace, to have been built in the 1870’s and is in fact thought to be the ‘oldest theatre of any kind’ in the Sliema/St Julian’s area. In the drawings submitted, the applicant simply referred to this once popular venue at the heart of St Julian’s social activity, as a ‘structure in yard’. The applicant also failed to mention that the townhouse being proposed for demolition was for many years the home of the former president Dr Ċensu Tabone.

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Several objections were submitted against the requested development. Of course, objecting to this specific development alone, would not ensure the long-term protection of theproperty. Therefore, in October 2019 Din l-Art Ħelwa filed a formal request for the site to be scheduled.

In February 2020, following the guidance of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, the Planning Authority’s Executive Council upheld Din l-Art Ħelwa’s request and proceeded to schedule Dr Ċensu Tabone’s former home, its neoclassical theatre and the full extent of its garden, as a Grade 1 Listed property, the ‘highest protection status offered to a building’.

The Authority described the theatre as having ‘played an important role in the growth of making theatre a popular platform of entertainment in Malta’, referring to it as the ‘birthplace of the most important [local] theatre company of late nineteenth and early twentieth century’. The Authority deemed the entire estate itself as not only being of ‘architectural value’ but also of ‘historical, political and social significance’.

Of course, the story does not end there.

A recent article published in the Times of Malta revealed that the developer, still keen on demolishing this historical property to build an apartment block in its place, is appealing the scheduling. According to the developer’s ‘expert advice’ the neoclassical theatre is not of value and not worth preserving, nonetheless (as if to do the community a favour) the developer claims to now be proposing to restore it. 

This slight modification from the original proposal may seem favourable however a closer look at the latest application drawings submitted on the 20th February 2020, suggests otherwise. The developer is still proposing to demolish the entire townhouse, save for its façade and front entrance, and is still proposing to excavate the full extent of the site to now provide one level of basement garages. The development would also still constitute four levels of apartments that would spill over onto the land where the theatre stands today. The theatre will not actually be restored, but completely dismantled and rebuilt in another location towards the rear of the site, simply to make room for the more apartments.

The proposed retention of the property’s façade, in an attempt to address heritage concerns and reduce the proposal’s impact on the historic surrounding, is also pitiful. Retaining only a façade of a building is not preservation. It only serves to give the impression of preservation, whilst the true value of that which we should aim to safeguard is lost. A building’s cultural value is represented by its built fabric in its entirety, be it through the play of internal spaces, the display of centuries’ old building techniques or the curious architectural details in the most unassuming places.

Perhaps the most absurd suggestion is the developer’s proposal to name the apartment block ‘The President’s Residence’ in a botched-up attempt to ‘respect the historical value of the house’ which is still being demolished. The developer also offered to throw in a plaque just in case people didn’t get the message from the illuminating name.

A commemorative plaque cannot make-up for demolishing one of St Julian’s oldest townhouses, a property with a rich past tied to the very core of this locality’s civil history, not only as the home of a former president, but as a site that played a direct role in the development of this town’s social and theatrical communities.

Grade 1 scheduling is only ever offered to buildings of immense heritage value, properties that must be safeguarded at all costs. The Planning Authority’s decision to schedule this property was one based on material and historic evidence and must be upheld.

Still, even without scheduling, there is no justification for developing this site into an apartment block. The historic townhouse lies in the heart of a designated urban conservation area. Current planning policies already set a presumption against the demolition of such properties. The request to replace this historic townhouse, theatre and its garden, with an apartment block, is simply unjustified. The Planning Authority must stand by its original decision to safeguard this property through it scheduling and outrightly refuse this inadmissible application.

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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