Gap Holdings is likely to be unhindered in seeking a permit for the new tower block
Malta Today 27 May 2017
The Government Property Division will not be renegotiating the price of the land acquired by Gap Holdings, which in 2007 was selected to develop Tigné’s Fort Cambridge area according to the specifications of a development brief.
Despite being instructed not to increase the height of the Fort Cambridge barracks adjacent to its 20-storey apartment block, Gap Holdings are now seeking the green light for an unprecedented 40-storey tower block atop the historic British forces barracks.
But despite this tenfold increase in building heights over and above what was set by a legally-binding development brief to retain the Tigné barracks, the brief is legally not mentioned in the deed signed with Gap Holdings in 2007.
And that means that the company is likely to be unhindered in seeking a permit for the new tower block.
Additionally, the drastic change in building heights for this part of the project that had to be reserved for office space, will now result in a massive appreciation of land value from the original 99-year lease of €54 million.
Parliamentary secretary for lands Deborah Schembri has confirmed with MaltaToday that since the 2007 deed does not take into account the development brief that guided Gap Holdings, the Government Property Division “has to honour the original deed” – that would imply that no renegotiation of the lease price or any changes are being considered.
The parliamentary secretary also sent MaltaToday copies of correspondence from the office of the Attorney General in 2007, which confirms that the development brief was given to all bidders for the land as a guideline before submitting their bid.
When former Labour MP Joe Brincat questioned the changes to the building heights that were proposed by bidders over and above the development brief, the AG had replied that the brief’s planning parameters were not included in the tender conditions.
Initially the developers wanted to raise heights for the luxury apartment portion of the project from 16 to 23 storeys. In 2008, the PA opted for a 20-storey development that would however retain the same height in metres of a 16-storey block: by lowering the height of each individual floor.
The PA board insisted this would respect the brief’s parameters, a decision that was confirmed by the planning appeals board because it was in line with the approved development brief. And indeed this would be the indication that even though the Gap Holdings deed does not refer to the development brief, the brief was still recognised as the legal mechanism regulating development in the area.
But in 2015, new planning laws allowed the Fort Cambridge development brief to be superseded by a policy that allows standalone hotels to add an unlimited number of floors. Now, by relegating development briefs to the lowest rung in a hierarchy establishing the precedence of plans, the new Planning Act effectively paves the way for the approval of the Fort Cambridge 40-storey tower.
The only snag is that the hotel heights policy does not apply to hotels located on scheduled and protected buildings, like Gap Holdings’ proposal for the Fort Cambridge barracks. And the Sliema local council has recently called on the Planning Authority to schedule the British barracks.
But if the permit for the 40-storey tower is granted, Gap Holdings will not be paying anything more to the public despite the higher value of its land; nor is the PA bound by the development brief when it comes to issue the permit.
Additionally Tigné is designated as a high-rise zone by a 2014 policy, which applies to buildings that apply the so-called floor area ratio: enabling taller buildings by creating more open space around them. But Gap Holdings’ proposed hotel does not fall in this category.