Manoel Island development: the real, ugly implications – Arnold Cassola

On December 20, the Planning Authority will be deciding on the plans for Manoel Island. Another piece of our limited public land is going to disappear.

First of all, Midi are planning one year and seven months of excavation on Manoel Island. This will entail continuous digging. The removal of the debris will require 11 large trucks per hour coming and going, trundling through the streets of Gżira. In all probability the trucks will pass through Gżira Road, onto Sliema Road and onwards to the dumping sites. And now, thanks to a gentle concession by the government, they can even start before 9am.

Whether the excavation works will be limited to 19 months is still to be seen. Whatever the case, this is only the beginning of the real saga.

Part of the Gżira waterfront is going to disappear. In fact, the plans envisage the removal of the waterfront from Manoel de Vilhena Street up to almost Stuart Street, which will become the starting point of the new bridge to Manoel Island and will be expanded to four lanes.

Thus, a large length of the widest part of the Gżira promenade will be lost and turned into an intersection for cars. The promenade will be cut short by the roads running into and out of Manoel Island and the new bridge.

In addition, it is envisaged that a large roundabout will be built in front of Reid Street as a junction leading to the new Manoel Island bridge. Once again this will eat into the promenade and a large part of the present public area will be lost.

To put it in perspective, I am featuring above a crude design prepared for me of what is going to happen.

The sea passage will thus be narrowed by half while a small part at present occupied by the Gżira United premises will be excavated to widen the sea passage. The reclaimed land will be split between the Manoel Island Yacht Yard and the Midi project. 

Midi will then use the reclaimed land to build a massive block of apartments facing The Strand, Gżira, in the area where there is the slipway and the Ducks’ Village. This block will rise to 26.5 metres above sea level.

A similar block will be built on the other side of the road where there is the former Nichol’s ground. These blocks will face the Gżira waterfront from Manoel de Vilhena Street right up to Ponsomby Street across from a narrower sea channel which will be about reduced to half its present width.

The consequence of all this is that the only open space in Gżira will be gone. A large part of the promenade will be lost to the new alignment of The Strand in order to provide access to the new Manoel Island bridge. The long-range views from the Gżira waterfront towards the Valletta bastions, the Phoenicia Hotel, Excelsior Hotel, Pietà, St Luke’s and Ta’ Xbiex will all be lost, to be replaced by a view of the rabbit hutch style of apartments. 

Midi prepared a photomontage to show the block being built. The perspective is from the side and the volume of the building is slightly diminished from this angle. The bridge is also seen from the side. Unfortunately Midi did not prepare a photomontage from the perspective of the widest part of the promenade.

I tried a little photomontage of my own.

What will happen is that a sizeable part of the recreation area for the people and families of Gżira will be gone, and what will be left will have to make do with a view of a block of unaffordable block of apartments.

Let’s face it: Gżira has already lost the landward side of the waterfront. Pavements and even parking slots have been taken over by kerbside huts full of tables and chairs. No one can walk comfortably on the pavement and go about their business in the small shops that were once located along the seafront. Many have sold out. What was once a beautiful public promenade is now a private food court. Now even the seaward side is being gobbled away, to be lost forever. 

Parking space in Gżira is at a premium. At the moment, Manoel Island is used as a vast parking lot on a daily basis by the many people who work in the offices in the surroundings. The same happens with the quay at the Gżira marina, which has become a huge car park.

Once the 14 East tower block (formerly Hertz garage) is completed there will be even greater demand for parking spaces from the hundreds of office workers over there. When the works on Manoel Island start, all those who park on the island will have to park somewhere else. In all probability, they will try to find a parking spot in Gżira and will therefore provide even worse competition with the residents of Gżira, exacerbating the existing problems. 

Who is going to cater for the parking requirements? Midi? The Planning Authority? The local council? No, it will be the ordinary people of Gżira who have to share the limited spaces available.

What is also being overlooked is the elimination of the only slipway in Sliema Creek. This is used by hobbyists. Superyachts are catered for but nothing for the ‘little’ guys and their little boats.

Sensible and sustainable development is instead necessary. The residents of Gżira are being asked to put up with years of misery while construction works are going on. Considering what happened in Tigné, this will last for years and years.

And considering that the majority shareholding of Midi is destined to be taken up by Tumas Group, the situation is not at all rosy. These business groups do not know any boundaries.

How will the residents of Gżira be repaid for their forbearance? They are going to lose a substantial part of their recreation space. Open spaces and long-range views over the harbour will be lost. The promenade will be turned into a roundabout, a road and a bridge. The little sense of space available over the harbour will be lost, to be replaced by a narrow confined space facing a massive block of flats. 

I believe that the people of Gżira deserve better. They themselves have to make their voice heard loud and clear in order to ensure that on December 20, the Planning Authority Board keeps in mind Article 3 of the law that “the duty of the government (is) to enhance the quality of life for the benefit of the present and future generations… whilst having full regard to environmental, social and economic needs”.  

Arnold Cassola
Published in The Times of Malta – Sunday 9 December 2018