Minister questions need for apartments in Jerma site

Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo questioned why the planned redevelopment of the Jerma site needed to include a significant amount of apartments as the site’s development brief was discussed by Parliament’s Environment and Development Planning Committee on Tuesday, echoing concerns raised by the Marsascala local council.

However, in spite of the minister’s reservations – and those of the opposition’s planning spokesman Kevin Cutajar, who emphasised that he shared the local council’s reservations – the committee’s five MPs unanimously voted in favour of the development brief, which remains up for public consultation until 29 July.

The proposed development brief has been roundly criticised by environmental NGOs, and the justification for the apartments provided by the PA officials who attended the meeting is unlikely to change their minds.

“Developers always place great importance in residential development. This has always been our experience,” PA chairman Martin Saliba said.

Saliba and PA assistant director Joe Scalpello also repeatedly mentioned the need for the project to be viable, implicitly shedding doubt on the sustainability of a tourism project in a country which considers tourism to be a key economic sector.

On his part, Marsascala local councillor John Baptist Camilleri said that while the council has long wished to see a new hotel replace the Jerma, it deemed the apartments ‘unnecessary.’

“We sacrificed that land to build a hotel; and now we must emphasise that it should remain a hotel,” Camilleri said.

‘Massive gain for developer’ through development brief

The existing derelict hotel has a floor space of around 30,000sqm, but the development brief massively increases this area by requiring a hotel of equal or larger area whilst allowing for a generous amount of apartments, as well as commercial facilities.

The original development brief suggested a total floor space of 100,000sqm, though it was revised downwards to 65,000sqm after an initial round of consultation which saw the authority flooded by criticism.

This revised figure is higher than the footprint that would have been permissible even according to the PA’s own estimates, which suggest a footprint of 61,000sqm. But this estimate was strongly challenged by Din l-Art Ħelwa executive president Alex Torpiano, who is also the dean of the University of Malta’s Faculty for the Built Environment.

He noted that the site is surrounded by low-density development, adding that no planning policy would have given the right to build many apartments in the neighbourhood: an exception had only been made for tourist development. Instead of policy respecting the context of the area, he argued, PA was increasing pressure to increase its building density: during the consultation exercise, the Malta Developers’ Association had itself suggested rezoning the nearby area to allow for 7-storey buildings.

The PA officials also mentioned the proposed planning gain of €25/sqm, translating to some €1.6 million, and noted that the developer was to guarantee access to the foreshore and to the St Thomas Tower, but this reasoning was also met with cynicism by Torpiano.

 “The gain for the developer is phenomenal in return for them to give us what is ours – the foreshore and the tower,” he quipped.

Dwarfing the watchtower

One fundamental flaw of the Jerma Palace Hotel had been that it ruined the context of the St Thomas Tower. The tower was built in the 17th century as a coastal watchtower, but the hotel stands right between it and the coast.

The PA development brief acknowledges this, stating that the tower’s line of sight should be restored. But the proposed development would still be higher than the tower, as needed to accommodate the floor space envisioned.

The Marsascala local council is adamant that the project’s height should not exceed that of the tower, and Refalo questioned what would be the most prominent structure in the area: the tower or the hotel that dwarfs it.

Scalpello insisted that while the proposed structure would be taller, the tower would be more prominent, insisting that the development would not dominate the area.