Planning Authority approves seven-storey extension of Ramla Bay hotel

'I support this project,' new PA chairman Emmanuel Camilleri says in first meeting since his appointment • Project approved despite Superintendence for Cultural Heritage’s concern on visual impact on iconic view from Gozo channel

The view of the proposed development
The view of the proposed development

Six years after issuing a permit for a controversial, heart-shaped extension to the Ramla Bay Hotel, the Planning Authority has approved another application to replace the adjacent four-floor hotel originally designed by Richard England, with three, large seven-storey blocks.

The project was approved in the first meeting of the board since the appointment of accountant Emmanuel Camilleri as board chairman. It was also the first time since COVID-19 broke out in which the board met in the Authority’s board room although public participation was limited to online interventions.

Board chairman Emmanuel Camilleri declared that he “supports” the project and praised “its innovative design”.

“I support the project as it complements the first phase of the project and the proposal is approved by the Malta Tourism Authority, the Environment and Resources Authority and the SCH supported the project in terms of the impact on heritage buildings.”

In reality the SCH had objected to the visual impact of the project on the landscape while approving the demolition of the existing hotel.

The new development will comprise of 400 guest rooms, a banqueting area, restaurants and new kitchen facilities, gym and indoor swimming pool, car park facilities, and new landscaping
The new development will comprise of 400 guest rooms, a banqueting area, restaurants and new kitchen facilities, gym and indoor swimming pool, car park facilities, and new landscaping

The only board member who voted against the development was NGO representative Romano Cassar. The other board members were largely silent, limiting themselves to voting for the development.

Romano Cassar pointed out that the hotel has been expanded trough nine separate applications over the years.

“What started as a small hotel has grown in to a large one located in a sensitive area.”

As proposed by architect Ray Demicoli, who also designed the first phase approved in 2016, the new development will comprise of 400 guest rooms, a banqueting area, restaurants and new kitchen facilities, gym and indoor swimming pool, car park facilities, and new landscaping. The new development will complement the 100 apartments approved in 2019. Rooms will increase by 40% over and above the existing number.

During the meeting, the project’s architects explained that the aim of the project is to provide a seaview to all rooms in the hotel and splitting the massing of the present structure to create a new design which is more harmonious with the natural surroundings. Moreover, the lighting of the new structure will be subdued to minimise light pollution.

Existing hotel which includes development approved six years ago
Existing hotel which includes development approved six years ago

‘We made a big attempt to reduce the height of the building by moving services from the roof of the hotel and solar panels to behind the atrium building.”

A restaurant building originally proposed as a separate block overlooking the coastline was also removed to address visual concerns.

One of the positive impacts of the project, according to the Environment Impact Assessment, is the removal of alien shrubs from the site while other impacts on surrounding fauna depend on the proper implementation of the lighting plan.

The removal of protected rubble walls was also considered as a major impact of the project. The EIA consultants confirmed that the project will have a major impact on most views.

The case officer report advised the Planning Board to approve the second phase, describing the design as an “innovative” one, which will contribute “to a new lively and livable high-quality accommodation standard.”

According to the report, “the landmark building will merge within its context due to the organic shapes extruded from the morphology of the promontory.”

But Claire Bonello, on behalf of Friends of the Earth, poured scorn on this claim and insisted that the visual impact on the Natura 2000 site remains excessive. She described the changes like the removal of services from the rooftops as cosmetic.

“The structure will become more massive than the existing one, as confirmed by all visual studies. We shouldn’t use an existing monster as an excuse to justify an even larger monster.”

She also expressed bafflement at the increase in the hotel’s beds when Malta’s national tourism plan refers to “a glut in tourist accommodation”. The same concern was expressed by board member Romano Cassar.

The developers replied arguing that the proposed hotel is located on a prime site and the hotel offers a quality product which is bound to attract more tourists.

In February, the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage had warned that views of Marfa as seen from Comino and from seacraft in the Gozo Channel will forever “be conditioned and marred by the enormous volume extending above the existing skyline.”

Malta’s cultural heritage watchdog warned that this development will “subvert the current and longstanding perception of Malta as seen from the ‘il-Fliegu’ crossing”.

The case officer insisted that the concerns of the SCH were addressed by removing the rooftop structures and relocating solar panels.

But these changes, which include the removal of a restaurant block near the coast, fall short of the more radical changes requested by the SCH which called for a lessening of the proposed heights and a considerable redesign and terracing of the development.

During the meeting, the PA’s Executive Chairman Martin Saliba insisted that the SCH remit is limited to the impact on heritage buildings and not to the visual impact on the landscape, which remains “a planning issue.”

Saliba also insisted that the sea view from the Gozo ferry is already impacted by other commitments including the first phase of the project approved six years ago. Moreover, the PA had taken a proactive role in guiding the developer away from earlier plans which foresaw a more intensive development.

A deed will be signed to ensure that the hotel extension is restricted to tourist accommodation.