The great siege of Lija

Speculative reach is once again grasping at Lija's monuments with scant respect for history and residents'quality of life

Two scheduled monuments in the quiet and picturesque village of Lija are once again being assaulted by a proposed application set to dwarf these monuments. PA7986/19, submitted by Mr E Farrugia on September 16th, 2019 proposes “to demolish the existing dwelling and construct basement garages and overlying apartments”. The application does not specify the number of floors or apartments which are being proposed for construction. However the area is, according to the Central Malta Local Plan, set for three floors and a semi-basement. This effectively means that the proposed building will most likely go up to near five floors. This is because the semi-basement can be as high as only 3 courses below street level and the penthouse, though not applied for in this application, is almost a given.

A historic pair under siege

This application falls within a buffer zone created after the scheduling of two important national landmarks: Villa Gourgion and the Belvedere. The whole of Transfiguration Avenue was indeed, part of the grounds of Villa Gourgion. This 18th Century stately house had a Belvedere, a folly, in its grounds, something which was fashionable at that time. Apart from the architectural significance of both house and Belvedere, the latter also has historical significance as the 1921 constitution was signed there. When seen from the street, the entrance of the Belvedere seems off centre. In fact, the entrance of the Belvedere is linked directly to the garden door of Villa Gourgion, unifying both house and folly. MEPA had scheduled these two monuments and created a buffer zone around the monuments after a similar attempt to the integrity of these two buildings had been made a few years ago.

The Villa Oleander saga

Number 17, Transfiguration Avenue sounds very modest. It is, in fact, a villa with garden set in a serene avenue lines with fragrant oleander. It is also right next door to Casa Oleander. This is a neighbour with a history. In 2006, a Dr C Galea applied, through Perit R. Musumeci, to “demolish part of the existing building, construct basement garage, eight flats at the ground, first and second floors and penthouse at third. Permission was granted in 2007. At that point, residents and the local council had been quite unaware of these comings and goings. The Council got a shock in March 2008 when the decision notice was posted and the then-mayor Ian Castaldi Paris immediately mobilised the troops to counter this massive proposal.

A magistrate irate

Just after the feast of Santa Marija, demolition started on Casa Oleander without the authorisation from the local council. The council asked the police to stop works until a local warden was engaged to supervise the works. However, things took an unusual twist when Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera entered the council offices to demand that demolition takes place for the apartment block, one of which belonged to her estranged husband Lawrence Scerri. A short while later, a fax from the applicant came into the council authorising the magistrate to act on his behalf, which, according to Maltatoday, read: “I am authorising magistrate Dr Consuelo Scerri Herrera to apply in my name for any permit, licence or authorisation to enable me to start and continue the demolition and excavation of the building.” He also authorised the magistrate “to accept any condition even if absurd and unreasonable which the local council imposes on me if Magistrate Scerri Herrera thinks this is opportune.”

Slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia reported that the Magistrate’s behaviour had earned her a complaint with the Commission for the Administration of Justice about her involvement in this case. The investigation, or so it was reported in the press, sought to find out why the magistrate had a power of attorney to act on a developer’s behalf.

MEPA puts its foot down

Following the public furore, MEPA, unable to legally withdraw the permit, had permitted the re-development of the site within the existing footprint and envelope. The new building, while increasing slightly the density, since from one habitation there were now about 4, was kept to the current height limitation. A buffer zone was also created to further protect the integrity and authenticity of the two historic monuments as well as the amenity of the area.