13 NOVEMBER 2002
Architect Edward Bencini speaks to David Lindsay about the proposed Qala Creek development in Gozo and outlines the projects environmental safeguards, its innovative design and responds to criticisms levelled at the project
What do the Hilton Hotel, the Mgarr Hotel, the Malta Financial Services Authority building and the proposed Qala Creek development have in common? They have all been designed by architect Edward Bencini.
But while these projects have all broken new ground in their own way, the proposed Lm35-40 million Qala Creek development appears to be the most controversial to date and criticisms have arisen from environmental groups, members of the clergy and the Qala Local Council.
However, Bencini affirms that a number of misconceptions abound over the project, particularly over the beach at Hondoq ir-Rummien, which despite the protestations that have arisen of late, is not included in the development plan.
The site for the Qala Creek development, which would be completed some three and a half years after approval, lies within an abandoned quarry and while Bencini is able to draw a number of similarities between the Hilton development and the Gozo project, he emphasises there is one main difference.
He explains, "The Hilton is a cosmopolitan site, while Qala is a rural site that has been tremendously spoilt, damaged and is in a disastrous state after years of dumping rubbish, household waste, tyres, cars you name it and its down there.
"Theres a scree on one side of the quarry made up of large amounts of clay deposited over the years going right down to the bay. There can be no doubt about the beauty of the bay, but driving down to it you pass this atrocious eyesore, the Hondoq ir-Rummien quarry.
"The clients had come to me to see what could be done with the property and I told them first of all that there are policies within the structure plan that insist any hard stone still remaining in the quarry need to be extracted. After carrying out geological tests at the quarry, we found there is a lot of it about 500,000 to 600,000 cubic metres of first quality hard stone.
"So just forgetting this resource and covering the quarry would run contrary to policies of sustainable development and of the structural plan. The latter requires that prior to rehabilitating a quarry you first have to salvage any usable stone and then develop the area.
"Along these lines, we will be extracting 100 per cent of the remaining stone and a bit more, as we will dig just below sea level in order to eventually let the marina in."
Once that is done, the developers will rehabilitate the quarry in such a way that it will fit into the landscape, ensuring that at no point will the building rise higher than the quarry walls behind it.
Bencini explains, "We are going to create this tourist/residential village that wraps around two of the quarry walls and overlooks the marina.
"So all along the back end of the development there will be the quarry face, which rises up from a height of five to 13 floors (40 to 45 metres). The building will be constructed rising up against the quarry face and pushed against it, terraced as you go up, but nowhere will it rise above the height of the quarry."
However, Bencini emphasises that no land outside the existing quarry will be included in the development.
Bencini elaborates, "In fact, what we are proposing on the east of the development is a site of about 25 tumoli of dilapidated fields where all the rubble walls have collapsed. In this unused area we will be rebuilding the rubble walls throughout the fields and we will be reinstating sufficient quantities of agricultural soil. The area will then be recovered to agriculture and made into an agro-farm.
"On the other side of the land there is an area of garigue. Again, it is in rather poor condition. This area, comprised of about 15 tumoli, will be cleaned up with the help of specialists, such as Dr Charles Grech, and if Nature Trust would be interested, we would be very glad to have their advice as well.
"We are aware that Nature Trust, and others, have declared themselves against the project. We have had meetings with them, and also with Friends of the Earth and Din L-art Helwa, during which we explained the project to them and we always remain disposed to give further explanations and to hold more meetings with them.
"We realise that these groups are all important contributors toward Maltas environmental issues. However, we feel that they havent quite understood the scope behind the development and we are always prepared to involve them at a later stage when, as we hope, this development will go forward.
"We could involve them in the cleaning up of the garigue zone, and other areas, which will be made into a garigue park, which will be furnished with the right kind of plant life so as to rehabilitate the area in terms of a garigue area."
Bencini explains there are a number of other similar measures on the drawing board, such as a heritage trail that would run from the development to the redout of historical Sant Antnin, which has fallen into a bad state of repair.
According to Bencini, "We are proposing to rehabilitate the fort and convert it into an interpretation centre, where tourists can listen to information about the history and geology of the area, the land and marine ecology, the agricultural history, that of the quarry and of the area as a whole.
"Again, this will be done with the advice of specialists such as Nature Trust or the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, who will advise us on the best route to take for the passage.
"The route is included in the draft local plan for the area and we are prepared to do that as one of the 11 policies included in the local plan that we will be financing as part of this development.
"The important thing is that the nature trail would give access to two very large and attractive rocky beaches that are at present almost inaccessible by foot and can only be reached by sea.
"So its not a question of, as some people are saying, that we are going to do anything to spoil the beach at Hondoq ir-Rummien.
"On the contrary, what we are going to be doing is ensuring that the beach is improved and that we make additional beaches accessible that today are inaccessible to the general public.
"There have been a number of articles these last few days pointing out that the project is being misinterpreted deliberately by members of the clergy and even by the local council itself and unfortunately this is the truth.
"What happened during the first public debate on the project in Gozo on 10 August, was that the debate was hijacked by members of the clergy assisted by around 30 noisy locals who were banging chairs and making all kinds of unruly noises. They just didnt allow the discussion to take place."
But what are the main objections, I ask?
"Some, I have to say, would make you split with laughter. There was one article by a former Qala arch-priest that appeared on the Lehen is-Sewwa issue of 28 September, where he spoke about the moral danger of Qala Creek to Gozo. He said that the project would create great immorality and would result in an increase of people who are more interested in selling drugs, which come in on yachts. He also said there would be more opportunities for prostitution, pornography, money laundering, contraband activities and so many other vices. He adds that all this is happening so that the developers will help their rich friends and that the project would lead to a moral regress resulting from pagan and loose living.
There are all kinds of moral coercion taking place in the lead up to a referendum on the project for Qala residents, which in an election this would be tantamount to coercive practices. This whole referendum has been thrown into tremendous doubt as it is hard to imagine how any referendum manipulated by members of the clergy and of the local council in this manner could have any impact on the project, which has been approved by the Malta Tourism Authority, encouraged by the Malta Maritime Authority and which has been manipulated by a very small group of people.
Bencini stresses that the site itself, which consists exclusively of a quarry, is not a green field site, but all around it is, in fact, a green area.
Bencini explains, "The structure plan itself says that rehabilitation projects for quarries will be considered and the draft local plan for Gozo, published at the beginning of summer, actually argues in "GZ-QALA-4", the policy related to this quarry, that it is a tremendous eyesore and that something has to be done to remove it.
"Furthermore, the 6,500 square metres of public area, excluding the beach, will remain 6,500 square metres of public area once the project is developed.
"However, the footprint of unrestricted public access will be increased enormously. The public beach area will remain the same as it has always been and the beach itself will not be modified in any way, except for a cleaning up.
"But then there will be nearly a kilometres length of public promenade around the waterfront, all the stairways, pjazzas, public zones within the village and the commercial outlets.
"Hotels today, apart from the private rooms themselves, are public areas so really the entire zone is going to be a public area. As such, what is happening is that from the 6,500 square metres of public area today, youre ending up with 65,000 square metres of public area tomorrow."
Bencini addresses criticism over the effect of construction on the nearby village, "There has also been a lot of discussion about the disruption of the village during the construction phase. One of the first things to be built when we start work on the site will be a wharf large enough to accommodate either the current ferry boats or large craft that could be filled with the hard stone we are to excavate. Almost all this 600,000 square metres of hard stone will be transported from the wharf to Cirkewwa for storage in quarries in Malta.
"So really all the transport of quarry stone, apart from that which will remain in Gozo will not pass over the roads of Gozo. Again, we will also be using this quay so that all the building materials coming over from Malta will not arrive via Mgarr, but will come straight to the sites quay without passing through the streets of Qala.
"We are looking in great detail at all these impacts and we will responsibly carry all costs of mitigating each and every one. We have carried out 13 studies with independent experts who looked into issues such as the present marine climate in the area, hydrology, land and sea ecology and the developments potential impact on land and water. These studies were carried out along guidelines given to us by the MEPA in preparation for us to be given the terms of reference for the environmental impact assessment.
"What these studies have done was to establish the baseline conditions in all these areas so that when the project hopefully goes ahead we will have to make sure that these baselines conditions that exist today will remain in place tomorrow.
"There has also been a lot of talk about the impact on the sea and on the beach. The only interest we have in public areas, such as the beach, is to rehabilitate them, have them landscaped properly. Rather than the shambles the area is in today it will be made into a nice area with barbecue facilities, benches, tables and all the furnishings required for people to really enjoy themselves,
"The road leading down to the beach will follow virtually the same road that exists today. We will just widen it in places to have a constant width throughout, as in some areas it is only wide enough for one car, and see to issues of banking, slopes and gradients so access to the beach will become easier.
"Access to the development is from high ground, and does not pass through this road so we are leaving that road for the people that frequent the beach and the beach facilities.
"Some have argued about the profit motives involved and part of the whole argument being put forward is that the developers are hungry to make profit. But I never knew that profit is anathema in this country, profit is something that keeps employment going in Malta and Gozo. So the profit motive is really no argument against the project.
"But what has to be understood is that any profit motive is going to ensure that out of this monumental eyesore that we have at the moment, Hondoq ir-Rummien is going to made into a little Porto Cervo in Gozo, which is going to elevate Gozo to a new plain in tourism activities.
"Gozo is already a quality tourism destination and this is very much the flavour of the project. The area of the bedroom suites in the hotel will not be of 36 metres, the standard for a five star hotel, they are going to be more like 50 square metres. Each will be like a mini farmhouse in a way - each with a large terrace overlooking the marina.
"The hotel will not be just a hotel on its own like so many others across the Islands, there will be tourists living in a village in its own right. There will be shops, artisan crafts, restaurants, cafeterias, the marina an attraction in itself a complete village with so many varied moods that the tourist coming here will have four or five days with no reason to leave the site, apart from typical Gozo tourist activities.
What about the traffic impact once the development is up and running, I ask.
"There will be an impact and we cannot fool ourselves that there wont be as there will be a community of some 800 residents when you consider the hotel, the residents in the village and the marina residents and some workers. Having said that, there is going to be some additional traffic but this is something that will have to be addressed during the environmental impact assessment. If we need to have some road widening, a one way traffic system, traffic lights/management or ultimately even a bypass and we will, of course be willing to take up any such recommendations."
The construction of the breakwater and the marina have also been the recipient of a great deal of attention.
Bencini explains, "We are being very careful because it would have been very easy, given that we have some 600,000 square metres of hard stone here of the kind that was made to construct the Mgarr breakwater, in the design of the breakwater.
"However, the footprint of a rubble breakwater would have been much larger than the footprint of the concrete breakwater we are putting in.
"Our advisor on marine matters is Joe Sciortino and I had originally insisted with him to use a rubble breakwater, but he insisted on the concrete breakwater. He also wanted to avoid using boulders because he knows that using boulders from the site would have created an impossible problem in the creation of dust that would find its way into the water and would cause a lot of damage.
"Also we cannot breach into the sea, to create the marina, until the project is completed and at that stage we will begin removing the construction plant situated where the breach will occur.
"At that point we will put in a pair of silk curtains so that when the final breach is made, any dust created will be stopped by the curtains. Before we remove them we plan to bring in large pumps to collect any residue and dust that has dropped to the bottom. As such the impact on the sea will be practically non-existent."
Bencini and his team are, apart from the architectural points, giving minute attention to the visual impacts of the project, which will be minimal, given the projects placement against the quarry wall.
Bencini adds, "The project isnt just about putting in a beautiful village, but its about doing it properly and in a way that is going to be beneficial to the Maltese and Gozitan economy.
"We will be creating 400 jobs here and the multiplier effect it will have on the Gozitan economy is probably immeasurable.
"When you think about it, its not just about the jobs that will be generated, but its also about the kind of first class tourism that will be generated for Gozo, over and above what is happening today. This goes hand in hand with the lifting of the standards of tourism and the satisfying of the niche market.
"The positive impact is immeasurable and the multiplier effect will be far, far more than the Lm35 to Lm40 million being spent on the project, since after that people will be spending additional millions at the site and in Gozo. This counts much more than the jobs created or the developers investment.