Townsquare strikes back

Townsquare strikes back

Michael Briguglio

The Times, Friday, May 27, 2011

The proposed Townsquare development in Sliema does not seem to make much news headlines. There could be various reasons for this. For example, it could be the case that news items on development in Sliema have been so frequent in the past years that they have created an overkill effect and, to put it bluntly, have become boring. It could also be the case that, save for some exceptions, environmental and local residents’ NGOs have too much on their agenda to be able to catch up with everything. Or, perhaps, in a society so much characterised by informal networks of power, the developers prefer not to have the proposed development in the news to avoid public discontent. Silence can be an effective tool in politics.

Irrespective of such reasons and other possible ones, this does not mean that the proposed Townsquare development is not important. May I remind readers of The Times that the developers are proposing commercial and residential development in an area situated between the Union Club and the former Libyan Embassy (Villa Drago) and, among others, includes a 23-storey tower (which was previously planned to be 32 storeys high, though it was originally indicated to have 15 storeys).

When the development was originally proposed in 2002, the Greens welcomed the way it was presented, especially since it included gardens, pedestrian lanes, avenues and piazzas in a zone that was previously not fully accessible to the public. However, as time went by, it became clearer that the proposed development would give Sliema more of the same, similar to nearby developments at Tigné Point and Fort Cambridge.

Unfortunately, this is of little concern to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, which approves projects on a piecemeal basis rather than adopting a holistic approach. This is very rich when one considers that one-fourth of properties in Malta are vacant and that areas such as Sliema are plagued by traffic problems.

Besides, studies commissioned by the developers showed that the development will result in further shading of parts of the Qui-Si-Sana promenade, the sea and the rocky foreshore and will have a major impact on the landscape, as is the case with the other nearby development referred to previously.

Indeed, last year, Alternattiva Demokratika said that the proposed changes to the Townsquare development in Sliema were not sufficient to protect the rights of residents and that these will further increase environmental problems such as pollution and traffic congestion. Hence, we feel the development as being proposed is far too extensive. For this reason, we had objected to Mepa on the proposed development on grounds of overdevelopment and the overstretching of services, negative impact on traffic and more air and noise pollution.

More recently, a revised environment impact study was produced and it confirmed that, as being proposed, Townsquare will increase air pollution and thousands of cars in an already congested area. Indeed, the study projected an additional 4,430 vehicles in daily traffic in Qui-Si-Sana, increasing peak flows in the area from the present 24,444 to 28,874 vehicles.

This will not only help deteriorate people’s health and increase traffic jams but will also possibly put Malta in infringement of EU directives on issues relative to the quality of air. In this regard, Mepa is legally obliged to ensure that the air quality limit values enforced by the Ambient Air Quality Directive are not exceeded.

The silence of Sliema local council on the Townsquare proposal is striking. The council seems to be in a total stalemate and is conspicuous on its absence regarding environmental issues in the locality. If residents are happy with this situation all they have to do is vote for the status quo next time round. But residents can also empower themselves, not only by supporting the Green party and NGOs that are really concerned on the Townsquare development but also by petitioning the European Commission should their right to clean air quality not be respected by the authorities. Sliema residents – like all other residents in the EU – have a legal right to air quality, which is within the limits specified by EU directives.

Like all other developments, Townsquare is not pre-determined to take place at all costs. It can be recreated and contested and can perhaps be made more environment-and resident-friendly. But things don’t happen automatically. Surely, activism and voting patterns can help change things. But are Sliema residents ready to do this? Or will the majority keep having confidence in the political “super saints” whose claim to power is very much the result of patronage rather than concrete action for sustainable development?
The author is chairman and spokesman for economy and finance of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.