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Maltese Environment

Sliema: Concrete cancers and social cleansing

The once quaint village of Sliema in the north east of Malta is set to become home to two tumourous concrete structures, which will penetrate the skyline and open up the doors for more eventual construction, in the hopes of transforming this village into a future social exclave of the Maltese Islands.

As reported in local media in June 2015, two plans were submitted to construct two towers with 38 and 40 storeys respectively. Close to these two plans is also the equally atrocious Metropolis development in Gzira which is set to have around 33 storeys.

To put this into context, a storey has an average height of between three and four metres. The Portomaso tower in Malta stands at 98m with 23 floors, with an average height of just over four metres for each storey. If we use this estimate for the new Sliema towers, we are looking at two edifices with a height of 152m and 160m respectively. This means that these two ‘Sliema Concrete Cancers’ will be taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt:

height graphs

The above diagram illustrates the height of this new proposed project in comparison to some recognisable landmarks, and Ta’ Dmejrek which is the highest elevation point in Malta close to Dingli Cliffs (seriously).

Can Malta handle high-rise buildings?

I personally believe that high-rise buildings can happen in Malta depending on their context and applicability. There are already a handful of such tall buildings, including the Portomaso Tower and the recently completed Fort Cambridge Apartments in Sliema (each of which are above 69m in height). Furthermore, there are already several high-rise buildings currently under construction, the most notable of these being the two pendergardens residential towers in St Julian’s, which at 24 storey and 22 storeys respectively should be similar to or slightly taller than the Portomaso Tower.

However, as with anything in Malta, history should serve as a clear indicator of how such projects should be managed. The Portomaso Tower can be classified as a sensible and responsible construction, providing office spaces in an area inundated with commercial and retail outlets – the colour choice is too ostentatious though. One the other hand, you have projects such as those at Fort Cambridge in Sliema that are completely insensitive to the surrounding landscape, and have no social value whatsoever.

This particular project had already attracted a lot of criticism from Sliema residents, who (surprise, surprise) felt excluded from the consultation process. In this respect, the Local Council at the time argued that a social impact report was not conducted for the Fort Cambridge project. This particular construction is a residential project that will provide 341 new residential apartments in the area, whereas this new ‘Sliema concrete cancer’, will be a 40-storey hotel. I had already commented in a previous post on the stock of hotels and guest houses in Malta, which stand at 15 five-star hotels, 45 four-star hotels, 46 three-star hotels and over 80 apart hotels, guest houses and hostels. All we desperately need now is a 160m tourism complex in the middle of the second most densely populated locality on the island. This brings me to the following point:

What Social Cleansing?

Sliema is officially in the running to become one of the most awful and detestable towns to live or work in the Maltese Islands. The following are some statistics on demographics and housing in Sliema for 2011, which are important to keep in mind in light of the proposed plans for these two new ‘Sliema Concrete Cancers’ (all information obtained from NSO – Census of Population and Housing, 2011):Sliema demographics

Sliema housing inforgraphic

There are many ways how these statistics may be interpreted. Firstly, it is worth noting that Sliema is an ageing population, and in 2007 two-thirds of Sliema’s households consisted of one or two residents. This ageing population, coupled with rising rent prices in the area (for 2011 it stood between €335 to €700, with a median of around €465) and the greater influx of foreign nationals is slowly culminating in a social cleansing of lower income Maltese people from Sliema.

Furthermore, the construction of more apartments and penthouses in Sliema is quite unjustifiable when one considers that 47.8% of all apartments were unoccupied or vacant. This is one of the main reasons why the Fort Cambridge development is so contentious, as it only seeks to provide apartments to cater for the wealthy at the expense of lower income local residents. In 2013, it was reported that apartments in the MIDI/Tigne Point development were sold out, but:

“The majority of purchasers this year have been overseas buyers though a number of apartments have been purchased by locals”.

The supply and demand argument would most certainly be used by developers to justify such projects, as there will be always a demand for prime properties such as those located in Sliema. What happens to these properties after they are sold is obviously not the developer’s concern, but the social cost being paid for by local residents for these towering ‘concrete cancers’ of unoccupied or vacant apartments is very high and generally neglected by the project developers.

In addition, these statistics exclude the thousands of individuals that work in Sliema. The vast majority of people visiting this town in order to obtain some form of service increases the population density astronomically, and compounds into a traffic rich zone that cannot handle such massive influxes. An impact assessment report for one of the ‘Sliema Concrete Cancers’ showed that when the project was proposed as a 23-storey tower, traffic in the area was set to increase by 27,000 cars. It does not take a genius to figure out how two 38+ storey buildings would impact Sliema, its residents and daily commuters who travel there for work.

The situation in Sliema reminds me of the housing issues in London – the construction of lavish apartment blocks and tourist facilities and increased rent prices, leading to the social cleansing of locals to the fringes of the area they used to call home. What we are seeing in Sliema had been occurring in London throughout the past decade. As reported by The Telegraph:

“More than a fifth of property sales in Central London are now being secured by wealthy foreign buyers. Houses and flats are increasingly being sold to Russian, Italian, French and Middle Eastern owners – fuelling fears of a potential housing crisis at the heart of the capital”.

It becomes apparent that Sliema is poised to become the locality for foreigners, where rent and property prices will only be affordable by those that do not live on the average Maltese salary (€12,252 net). And before you perceive my arguments as being xenophobic, the whole point here is the construction of property to cater for the foreigner while excluding the local social component. Unlike other countries, Malta does not have the space and resources to develop thousands of apartments for rich foreigners, regardless of the high demand. This is where the concept of sustainability comes into play, as the whole idea behind development projects such as Fort Cambridge and these two new ‘Sliema Concrete Cancers’ is not well planned as it does not foresee the future social impact on Malta. It only takes into account the immediate economic impacts, or as Sandro Chetcuti calls it “employing people”. We are then lumped with thousands of unoccupied dwellings that are not stimulating the economy in the long-term.

Chris Mintoff, President of the Chamber of Architects, said that high-rise would help the environment in Sliema, and that there is foreseeable ‘culture change’ in local architecture. I agree with him in this respect, as high-rise is the natural way to progress forward in Malta. However, these two buildings in Sliema have nothing to do with a ‘culture change’. The issue here is not the application of high rise buildings, but where these can and how they should be applied. Sliema looks like a “grin full of  missing teeth” because of the irresponsible and mismanaged development of the 1970s and 1980s. The addition of these two new 38+ storey buildings would constitute to the addition of two lion canines inside a human mouth – completely out of place and not fit for purpose.

What about that Skyline?

Visual impact is one of the greatest concern for these two projects. It is virtually undeniable that these two towers will stick out like two giant concrete sore thumbs. Initial reports have stated that the visual impact from Valletta would be ‘minimal‘, since the sites are located behind the Fort Cambridge and Midi developments – basically, since the skyline is already built up, there is no reason why we shouldn’t include taller buildings (#MalteseLogic).

At these proposed heights, Malta will have an edifice that is higher than the tallest building in Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Denmark. When once considers that these will be hotels (which are in ample supply in Malta), and the enormous social cost it will have for the neighbouring localities, the true cost of these two projects become apparent.

Fundamentally, the Maltese skyline, traffic infrastructures and geology cannot handle skyscrapers of this magnitude (SIDE NOTE – Can the Tigne peninsula handle all these skyscrapers before it implodes on itself?). This is why I can only call them the ‘Sliema concrete cancers’, as they start off as being benign but gradually transmute themselves into deleterious masses that will only end up causing harm of the afflicted area.

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