Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Decisions on Sliema’s Townsquare and Mriehel high-rise on Thursday: will PA open floodgates?

James Debono - Malta Today 3 August 2016

The Planning Authority is tomorrow set to take two major decisions on two highly controversial high-rise projects: the 38-storey tower proposed by the Gasan group in Sliema and four cylindrical tower blocks, comprising 14, 16, 17 and 19 storeys, proposed in Mriehel by the Tumas and Gasan groups. 

Controversy about the Mriehel proposal, located in an industrial area, has largely focused on the way this locality was designated as a high-rise zone directly by the government after the closure of public consultation.  

But in the absence of a residential community opposing the idea, the decision on Mriehel is bound to create far less controversy than that on the Sliema Townsquare project which promises four long years of intensive construction activity in a residential area. 

Approval of the project may therefore be more politically toxic. Although the tower will be located in a Nationalist-leaning district, Sliema is also home to hundreds of floating voters whose resentment may increase with approval of the project.  

While it is widely anticipated that the PA will approve the Mriehel project, it may be wary of creating resentment among residents who will have to endure the immediate impacts of the project on the surrounding infrastructure for the next four years.

Both the Mriehel and Sliema Townsquare applications carry the endorsement of the Planning Directorate and the newly set-up Design Advisory Committee, a committee appointed to assess the design of new buildings, but are opposed by environmentalists and in the case of Sliema also by the town’s local council.   

While the Sliema application dates back to 2005, with the height being increased from 23 to 38 storeys in 2015, the Mriehel one was proposed in 2015 after the inclusion of Mriehel as a high-rise zone by the government.

Mriehel was originally not included, in a draft high-rise policy document issued for public consultation, as a location where high-rise development can take place, and was included in the final document in the absence of any consultation. Planning Ombudsman David Pace had criticized the government for including Mriehel at such a late stage.

“The inclusion of Mriehel in the approved zones where the policy is applicable, should have been put to public consultation prior to the final approval by the MEPA board,” the planning ombudsman told MaltaToday in June 2014 a few months before the towers application was presented by the Tumas and Gasan groups. 

While the government has committed itself to not approve any high-rise project in St Julian’s – another area earmarked for a number of skyscrapers – before the approval of a master plan for the area, a decision on the Mriehel project will be taken before the approval of a similar master plan which is being drafted for the area. No such master plan is the pipeline for the Tigne area, where a 40-storey hotel has also been proposed by GAP Holdings.

The role of the Gasan group in the Sliema and Mriehel applications, and the Tumas Group also in the latter, is also politically sensitive, due to their involvement in the Electrogas energy consortium, which will be providing Malta with LNG energy for the next 18 years.  

Ray Fenech, director of the Tumas Group, insisted that the company did not request the inclusion of Mriehel in the zones identified for high-rise development.  

“An opportunity came and we took it,” Ray Fenech told MaltaToday in 2015, while outlining ambitious plans to turn Mriehel into a business hub.

159 new units in Townsquare 

The Townsquare tower will comprise 159 residential units, 4,719 square metres of offices, 8,241 sq.m. of commercial space and 748 parking spaces as well as the restoration of Villa Drago. 

The case officer acknowledged that the project will break the Sliema skyline but said the PA’s policy on tall buildings approved in 2014 now identifies the Tigné area as “a cluster of tall buildings.”

The project’s environmental impact assessment said it expected residents in the area to keep windows shut to minimize noise during the excavation, which will take 10 months, and construction, which will take four years.

The Townsquare project, which includes the premises of the former Union Club and the scheduled Villa Drago, a former Libyan cultural centre, which is to be restored, dates back to 2005 when an application was presented to construct a shopping hall, residential units and an underground car park on this site. 

A Project Development Statement presented by the Gasan Group in 2007 proposed a 32-storey tower on the site, apart from a public square, pedestrianised areas and a number of smaller blocks. 

Three years later the height of the tower was slashed to 23 storeys, but a new tower rising to 15 storeys was also proposed along with the central tower. The studies commissioned by the developers in 2010 – after the height of the main tower was slashed to 23 storeys – concluded that the project would have a “minor impact” with regard to the shadowing on the neighbourhood. 

But the same study acknowledges that the project will increase the shadowing on the public open spaces along the Qui-Si-Sana seafront. 

“The scheme will extend this impact further over the sea. It will also impact additional areas of the rocky foreshore at noon insofar as there will no longer be patches of sunshine.”  It was only in 2015, after the approval of the new policy on high-rise buildings, that a solitary 38-storey tower was proposed. 

3,500 more cars in Sliema

Environment Impact Studies commissioned by the developers of the Townsquare project in Tigné, Sliema, estimate that the project will increase daily traffic peak flows in the Qui-Si-Sana area from the present 24,444 to 27,947.

Interviewed by MaltaToday, developer Michael Soler, a director of the Gasan Group, insisted that the creation of more car park spaces means that cars will not have to move around Sliema until they find where to park. That means eliminating the creation of on street congestion, he argued. “The car park will ensure a better traffic flow.” 

But studies also show a shortfall of 234 parking spaces. This is because the project would only include 778 parking spaces of which 355 will be reserved for the residents of the tower while the project will create a demand for 982 parking spaces. The case officer report concludes that the shortfall would impact on visitors to the commercial establishments included in the project and not the residents of the tower. Still the case officer also refers to studies showing that when the parking needs of different users are also taken into account the project would have an “adequate parking provision.”

Michael Soler insists that according to the local plan the developers can develop the 12,000 square metres of land in the area into 26 blocks with an average height of seven to eight storeys, which would have the same impact on parking.  

“The only difference is that by using the floor area ratio we will keep half of the site as an open public space.”

Visual and geological impact of Townsquare

The Environment and Resources Authority expressed concern on the visual impact of the project. While the EIA consultants commissioned by the Gasan Group warned that the project would have a major impact when seen from Tower Road and from the Preluna Hotel, the ERA contends that the project would also have a major impact when seen from Manoel Island and the Valletta ferry landing.

The Environment Resources Authority had expressed concern on the results of a scanline geological survey included in the EIA, which warned of the “potential collapse of excavation”. This impact is described as “uncertain” in the EPS.

Geologist Peter Gatt has warned that a geological study submitted as part of the Townsquare high-rise project did not flag a layer of “very weak rock” that could pose problems in supporting tall buildings.

(Article then continues on Mriehel project - read more here 

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