Michael Falzon | Sunday, 02 August 2009
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MEPA and Piano, having the cake and eating it

I had a nightmare. Whether it was too much cheese or too much watermelon before I went to sleep, I cannot say. But a nightmare it was. Certainly not a dream!
I imagined I was a MEPA case officer who had to deal with a development application for some works in Valletta. As a conscientious case officer, I normally do not bother to look up the name of the applicant and his architect before I arrive at my main conclusions, but this time I could not help myself. The applicant was one Lawrence Gonzi, Prime Minister and the architect was Renzo Piano, one of the foremost world famous architects that this century has produced.
As a MEPA case officer, this is just an uninteresting detail. What matters to me is whether the proposal is in breach of MEPA policies and rules and this is what I checked. At the end of my exercise, I had no option but to recommend a refusal of the application. I will not bother anyone with the details of the site history and the planning arguments. That I pursued. After all, what really matters is the number of policies that the proposal breaches. The rest is incidental.
I will therefore just reproduce the final recommendation on the project. It goes on as follows:

Recommendation: refuse – for the following reasons:
1. The proposal is in breach of Structure Plan Policy BEN 1 which says that development will not normally be permitted if the proposal is likely to have a deleterious impact on existing or planned adjacent uses because of visual intrusion, noise, vibration, atmospheric pollution, unusually high traffic generation, unusual operating times, or any other characteristic that constitute bad neighbourliness.
2. The proposal is in breach of Structure Plan Policy BEN 1 which says that development will not normally be permitted if it is incompatible with the good urban design, natural heritage, and environmental characteristics of existing or planned adjacent uses, and is unlikely to maintain the good visual integrity of the area in which it is located and that there will be a presumption against development which does not generally observe the design guidelines issued by the Planning Authority for built-up areas.. The visual integrity of the area would be heavily compromised by virtue of the inclusion of unsympathetic materials such as large glazed openings and concrete.
3. The proposed development is considered to be of excessive scale and would lead to an overdevelopment of the site. This would not be in the interests of the amenity of the area as a whole and it would exacerbate the problems of overdevelopment in the area. The proposal is therefore unacceptable and runs counter to Structure Plan policy BEN 1.
4. The proposal is in breach of Structure Plan Policy BEN 21 which says that pending the development of standards for noise emissions, development that causes noise emissions should not be approved. Since maximum noise emissions and times would be virtually impossible to enforce, the permit should not be issued.
5. The proposed development would detract from the overall objectives of the Structure Plan for the preservation and enhancement of buildings, spaces and townscapes within Urban Conservation Areas and so does not comply with Structure Plan Policy UCO6
6. The proposal does not comply with Structure Plan policy UCO7 which only permits the demolition of buildings in Urban Conservation Areas where the replacement building will be in harmony with its surroundings. The design of the proposed building is such that it is not considered to be an acceptable replacement.
7. The proposal is in breach of Structure Plan Policy UCO 7 which says that Grade 2 buildings of architectural or historical interest or which contribute to the visual image of an Urban Conservation Area are to be retained.
8. The proposal does not comply with Structure Plan policy UCO8 which only permits development in Urban Conservation Areas which is compatible with the existing character and urban design of the area. The proposal would not be sympathetic with the adjoining buildings in terms of building line and height.
9. The proposal does not comply with Structure Plan policy UCO10 in that it would adversely affect the Urban Conservation Area and detract from the traditional urban skyline.
10. The proposal runs counter to paragraph 2.9 of the Policy and Design Guidance 2007 that requires new development to follow the floor heights of the existing buildings, in order to ensure that the elements of the new building correspond to those of the existing buildings and so safeguard the continuity of floor heights and building elements in those situations where this contributes to, or forms the basis of, the streetscape.
11. The proposal runs counter to paragraph 7.2 of the Policy and Design Guidance 2007 that requires the design and style balconies should relate to the overall design and style of the building of which it forms a part, and should accord with the urban design characteristics of the area in which the building is situated. The proposal features a series of projecting elements that do not follow the design parameters of this policy.
12. The proposal runs counter to paragraph 8.1 of the Policy and Design Guidance 2007 that specifies that the external wall materials used in new development should, above all, be appropriate to the context of that development an the façade of a building should be constructed in local stone. The glazed areas and minimal setting is alien to the building context of the area and should not be permitted.
13. The proposal runs counter to paragraph 8.2 of the Policy and Design Guidance 2007 that specifies that materials for balconies, windows and doors in UCAs are regulated by the Development Control Guidance for Urban Conservation Areas (June 1995), which mainly limit the use of materials in UCA to timber, stone, glazing and wrought iron.
14. The proposed development runs counter to the Local Plan for the area that designates Freedom Square for parking.
15. The proposed development will remove the existing parking spaces and so it would conflict with Structure Plan policy TRA 4 and PA circular 2/93 which seek to ensure that appropriate provision is made for off-street parking.

Waking up from my nightmare I could only conclude that being all out for the Piano project in Valletta and giving more power to MEPA case officers is a contradiction in terms. Renzo Piano’s proposal is the perfect project that makes MEPA’s rules irrelevant and short-sighted. I have no problem with opting for Renzo Piano’s magnificent architecture rather than stick to MEPA gobbledygook.
But I am free to make a choice, while others seem to want to have the cake and eat it.

Note: Robert Musumeci contributed to this article


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