In Balluta, a battle over how to restore a historic villa’s value

An architect who drew up plans for the proposed regeneration of the large 19th-century Villa St Ignatius in Balluta says the project will restore the building to its original glory and sustainably inject life into it.

But two local councils, an NGO and several residents insist it will be the complete opposite – the development would ruin the villa’s great historic value and rob residents of much-needed peace and quiet in the neighbourhood.

Villa St Ignatius, situated at the top of Scicluna Street, a few metres away from Balluta church, was originally built as a high-class residence. It formed part of a larger property and was later transformed into an education institution, a Jesuit college, and a military hospital. It was mentioned as a landmark building as early as 1839.

The villa is no stranger to controversy, amid several recent attempts to restore or develop it.

Developer Paul Gauci has now submitted a fresh application to transform the rundown edifice into a hotel.

It would come with a restaurant, outdoor heated pool and deck area, a spa, exhibition space, multipurpose hall on two levels, an outdoor catering area in the front garden and two levels of underground parking.

The development would restore the building, reinstate an external stairway, masonry features and apertures, and demolish a number of more recently constructed blocks and accretions on site, as well as incorporate extensive landscaping and paving works.

Objectors say its historical and architectural value merits a Grade 1 scheduling and restoration to its former glory, spared of most commercial activity.

‘Villa would regain status’

But the architect behind the proposed design, Antoine Zammit, argues the development would revalue the villa as “an important historical and architectural landmark”.

“The design philosophy has revolved around embracing this unique element and enabling the villa to regain its status within its neighbourhood,” Zammit told Times of Malta.

“We undertook an intense process of research and discussions, including ones held with Din l-Art Ħelwa and historians, in order to ensure that we remained true to the spirit of the villa and very careful with the additions that were being proposed.

“We would not have embarked on this project if we did not believe in it and the quality outcome that could be delivered, so as to retain, restore and elevate the villa’s architectural and historical status.”

He said significant restoration and rehabilitation works are envisaged for the villa, with the investors happy to carry them out, but these would naturally come at a cost.

“There is always an ‘economies of scale’ aspect that cannot be denied and we must always put such a project in this wider perspective – certainly we should retain, restore and bring back the villa’s value, but balancing this out economically with an investment that makes sense and that may yield a return.”

‘Additional floors unacceptable’

The proposed development, however, would entail the building of three additional floors set back above the villa, for hotel rooms and suites. And residents insist this is too much.

Retired lawyer Franco Vassallo lives across the street from the villa and says the commercial development would not only ruin the villa’s value but also disrupt the area, which is designated in the local plan as a residential zone.

“Surely a 64-bed hotel with an outdoor pool and restaurants cannot be considered as being an acceptable development to a residential locality,” Vassallo said.

Architect Edward Said, who has long studied the villa’s history, said: “The proposed structures all impinge irreverently and disproportionately onto the existing fabric, exacerbating the already compromised context, even destroying the last remnant of the once grand garden below, thus smothering the villa.

“The only development which should be permitted once the villa is scheduled as a Grade 1 monument is for the present fabric to be fully restored.

“Villa St Ignatius is too culturally and architecturally important for additions and enclosures on and around as being projected by this application. It must be preserved in toto internally, externally and volumetrically.”

NGO Din l-Art Ħelwa has already objected to the project. One of the NGO’s architects, Tara Cassar, argues that instead of elevating the villa’s distinct architectural and historical characteristics, the project is “yet another attempt to develop a heritage building beyond that which the current plans and policies permit”.

Its approval, she said, would be simply unjustifiable.

“The developer is proposing to practically engulf this iconic heritage building with a five-storey block on one side and a six-storey block on the other. A further three floors would be built directly above the property itself if the application were to be approved.

“Under no circumstances can such an overwhelming and insensitive proposal be considered acceptable.”

Architect Zammit insists the development would not devalue the villa at all. The villa, he argues, is already engulfed by much higher developments built over the past decades which have completely undermined it and its setting.

“Seven-storey blocks (plus setback) front the villa and tower over it – nobody batted an eyelid at the time when these were constructed. Similarly, the rear of the property grounds is characterised by a large blank wall that significantly compromises the villa,” Zammit pointed out.

“Had there been greater sensitivity in the past to transition the setting around the villa, or even limit and contain development all around it, then this would be a different story. But we cannot deny the presence of this immediate context that progressively accumulated over the years.”

Zammit said the project aims to elevate the villa’s visibility, cover aesthetically unpleasing blank walls and open up the grounds to make it inviting for people to move towards the courtyard.

The new structures would be finished with high-quality cladding, “unlike the surrounding apartment blocks”.

Zammit also defended the construction of additional floors, saying they were a better solution than building in the front garden and hiding the villa. That way he could retain the openness with the street.

‘Quality tourism’

“The project investors have deliberately chosen this site for a quality tourism product purpose given the unique assets that the site has and the immense potential that such a redevelopment would offer to the tourism sector and the locality of St Julian’s alike,” Zammit added.

He said the choice of a four-star hotel, although yielding fewer rooms than a three-star, was informed by the investors’ desire to create a better tourism product and by tourism statistics that consistently illustrate the bigger market share in terms of four-star hotels.

“Naturally, a four-star hotel has a number of amenities, defined legally, that must be provided so that it may qualify for such a rating.”

Local councils object Both the Sliema and St Julian’s local councils have already filed their objections to the project.

The St Julian’s council said the current local plans only allow for small hostels but this project was far bigger and would be detrimental to the residents’ quality of life.

Residents, the council says, expect the neighbourhood to retain it residential characteristics and not be wrecked by commercial development.

The council says the villa should be acknowledged as part of the history of the town, scheduled and restored as such.

Furthermore, streets in the neighbourhood could not handle more traffic congestions, while the proposed entertainment and swimming pool area next to a Jesuit church was not sensitive to residents and their religious beliefs.

Architect Zammit responds that internal studies have already been undertaken to ensure this volume is not visible from the side of the church on Old College Street and setbacks have been worked out accordingly.

Meanwhile, the Sliema local council filed similar objections, arguing the development would breach several planning rules and regulations and would generate heavy traffic with large vehicles going in and out of the hotel grounds.

Zammit, who has worked on several mobility projects locally and abroad, acknowledged that traffic in the area is a problem, and not just because of this project, but said that a good traffic management system should improve the situation significantly.

“These issues go beyond this or other developments – they

demand a newfound approach where residents and pedestrians are prioritised, vehicular speeds are controlled and cars deterred,” he said.

“City hotels abound all around the world and they do not create more of an impact than, say, residential developments. Indeed, if this project were for a residential development, the impact would be significantly greater. In most part, hotel patrons travel using more sustainable means than cars.

“In addition, the hotel’s star rating should already be a good indication of the quality of amenity and service that is being sought.

“This hotel’s entrance, inevitably the highest activity interface, is not being proposed on the street but has been pushed further in and is proposed to occur through the villa’s courtyard.”

Another resident, surgeon Gordon Caruana Dingli, also told Times of Malta that the plans would disrupt the area with excessive excavation, would change the character of the historic building and would cause traffic and noise disturbance.

Virtually all objectors also complained that in 2017, the developer had illegally demolished part of the building days after NGO Din l-Art Ħelwa made a formal request for the villa to be scheduled. The case is still in court.

But Zammit calls this unfair criticism, since all of that happened before his company was engaged to design the new project.

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage (SHC) had previously appealed to the Planning Authority to reject all development applications for the villa and schedule the building, but it is not objecting to the latest plans. Together with the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee (CHAC) it did not object in principle to the proposed development and is awaiting a restoration method statement and a works method statement which the architect will be submitting in the next few days.

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