Reviving Manoel Island

PAUL COCKS speaks to MIDI plc CEO Mark Portelli about the revised masterplan

Fort Manoel Parade Ground
Fort Manoel Parade Ground

The Manoel Island masterplan has been unanimously approved by the planning board of the Planning Authority. The project consists of a mixed-use development, incorporating residential, commercial, leisure facilities, sports facilities for the local community, public amenities and a Centre for the Arts and Culture.

The planning board commended the efforts that have been made to achieve a more sustainable Masterplan having a better balance between built-up and open spaces, with the open spaces now heavily outweighing the built-up area. More land has been committed to parks, squares, pedestrian priority streets and promenades, with most of the Island to become a pedestrian-friendly shared-surface destination. All parking and service facilities are to be located underground.

Significantly important is the elimination of the land reclamation that has got approved in the northern perimeter of the Island.

MIDI has substantially downscaled original plans for Manoel Island and set a precedent by allocated spaces previously identified for development to public open spaces. Yet concern remains on visual impact on Valletta views from Gzira and take up of part of promenade to accommodate a large roundabout… is there still room for changes to address these concerns?

The decision to revise the Masterplan is a result of the site investigations carried out, during the last two years, under the supervision of an independent archaeologist approved by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage (SCH). The investigations established that a large part of the site, which was previously earmarked for development, is of archaeological importance. The new Masterplan approved by the Planning Authority in September contemplates that the footprint of the new buildings to be developed on Manoel Island will be scaled down to cover approximately 6% of MIDI’s concession and the gross floor area of the new buildings will total 55,000sqm compared to the 95,000sqm permitted in the original Outline Development Permit. Furthermore, the revised Masterplan does not include the land reclamation in front of the Gżira promenade, thus largely mitigating the impact of the development on the Gżira community.

Although some views of Valletta will be affected from a particular location on the Gżira promenade, MIDI’s development will help to create new viewpoints and alternative public open spaces where such views can be better appreciated.

The creation of a roundabout to link Manoel Island to the road network was envisaged in the 2006 North Harbour Local Plan. The roundabout junction, which is estimated to take up approximately 450sqm of the promenade, will improve road safety and ensure that the existing conflict between vehicles and pedestrians along the promenade is eliminated. Well-designed roundabouts minimise congestion and improve the movement of vehicles at crossroads by reducing conflict points and simplifying the right of way. As part of the planning process alternative solutions were studied, including proposals made by the Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA). The result of these studies have concluded that the roundabout option remains the best solution. Having said this MIDI remains open to explore alternative options.   

During the Planning Authority public hearing board members had expressed concern on an extra glass floor on the Lazzaretto for which a permit had been issued in 2012. Do you consider further changes to this?

The interventions being proposed on the Lazzaretto, whilst being very sensitive to the context of the building, will bring a new lease of life and relevance to the building without compromising its historic fabric, while allowing it to function and fulfil contemporary needs.

The works contemplated are covered by a valid full development permit which includes an element of new buildings. The proposed interventions to this building were assessed in full by The Heritage Planning Unit (HPU) prior to the issue of the permit which commented that “the proposed additions are acceptable and sensitive to the cultural and historic values of the site primarily as they are aimed at the reinstatement of missing parts.”

The additional floor structures will be developed in line with the established schools of thought when it comes to restoration and the adaptive re-use of historical buildings. In fact the interventions intend to show as a contemporary intervention to the original masonry fabric.   

It has been reported that in 2017 MIDI was close to selling part of its stake in Manoel Island to the Tumas Group. What prompted this and is MIDI in a position to carry out the development alone or will it be seeking new partners?

As reported in October 2018, MIDI had entered discussions with Tumas Group to explore the possibility of establishing a joint venture with respect to the development of Manoel Island, but no preliminary agreement had been reached. In December 2019, by mutual agreement the discussions between the parties were terminated.  MIDI is committed to the development of Manoel Island and the possibility of bringing in a strategic investor is not excluded.

What role will MIDI have once Manoel Island is developed and apartments sold to new owners and how will MIDI ensure that development conditions are also binding on individual owners etc.? 

To ensure that the public interest is safeguarded, MIDI together with the Gżira Local Council set up the Manoel Island Foundation. The creation of the Manoel Island Foundation was the idea of the Gżira Mayor, Conrad Borg Manche and Dr. Claire Bonello who both publicly led the campaign during 2016 for MIDI to provide access to Manoel Island and who are now both administrators of the Foundation.

The Manoel Island Foundation has provided a unique model to ensure that the development of Manoel Island creates a balance between the development objectives set out in the concession granted to MIDI and the objectives of the local community. MIDI has committed to bind itself and its successors to provide public access to the Manoel Island public open spaces, the foreshore, the swimming zones and Fort Manoel.

What is your outlook with regards to property development in Malta? Does Malta risk a property bubble which can burst anytime? And how can this be averted?

For some time property development has been one of the main pillars of the local economy and it has proven to be extremely resilient. Needless to say, the success of developments like Tigne Point and Manoel Island is dependent upon delivering a quality product which meets the different and contrasting expectations of the various stakeholders.

What kind of market exists for these high-end properties or is this a case of speculation with people just buying with intent of selling? From your experience in Tigne how easy is it to sell these properties?

MIDI’s experience at Tigne Point has shown that there is a strong demand for high quality properties and this demand remains buoyant. The development contemplated at Manoel Island is unique as the density of development will be less than 10% and the building heights will be limited to four floors. This coupled with the historical setting, the amenities including the yacht marina, the pedestrian priority environment and the extensive open public spaces will make Manoel Island a sought-after destination.

There is a lot of talk about need for new marinas. How do you assess demand in this sector?

There is certainly a requirement for new yacht marinas as current demand for berthing exceeds supply and demand is expected to continue to grow. MIDI’s concession includes the yacht marina on the south shore of Manoel Island, which will be developed into a 200+ berth marina protected by a floating breakwater. This marina will replace the existing Manoel Island marina which is currently being managed by a third party on a temporary basis.    

What are your plans for Fort Manoel? What kind of cultural activities do you envisage taking place on a permanent basis in this landmark? 

Prior to MIDI’s intervention, Fort Manoel was in a total state of neglect and abandonment. The restoration works undertaken by MIDI were extensive and included the reconstruction of the internal buildings including the St. Anthony Chapel and the restoration of over 26,000sqm of fortifications. In terms of the Guardianship Deed entered into with the Gżira Local Council, MIDI is committed to ensure that the Fort remains accessible to the public and therefore the Masterplan contemplates that the internal spaces at the Fort will be curated to include   activities such as museums, interpretation centres and other ancillary uses.

Many have compared Manoel Island to some sort of central park, a potential island of green in an over developed area. Do you agree? 

The Masterplan for the development of Manoel Island contemplates public open spaces which will total 175,000sqm. The public open spaces include the 80,000sqm glacis park which surrounds Fort Manoel and a 35,000sqm landscaped public open space extending from entrance of Manoel Island to the Lazzaretto quay. The public open spaces account for more than two-thirds of Manoel Island and MIDI is committed to ensure that these remain accessible at all times for the enjoyment of the public. The public open spaces being provided, in particular the glacis park, will go a long way towards providing the outdoor recreational space which is sought after by people living in the area. Furthermore, apart from the public open spaces MIDI is committed to provide amenities for the benefit of the local community, including a football pitch, amenities for bathers and a slipway for local enthusiasts.