Valletta: polishing a jaded jewel

Published on The Malta Independent¸ issue 1st May 2011

It is a pity that the harbour regeneration plan that was announced with such ceremony by the erstwhile Public Investment Minister Dr Austin Gatt three years ago has been scaled down. When the plan was announced¸ everyone agreed that Dr Gatt¸ a resident of ‘the City’ knew best how to augment Valletta‘s faded values. Furthermore¸ the pet idea of Valletta’s regeneration had the undisputed advantage of being administered by him¸ the same Minister who gave birth to the ubiquitous SmartCity project.

But three years down the line there is a crunch to the fulfilment of this dream¸ as the top priority is to cut the deficit. Sceptics warn us that starting such an ambitious capital project with our legacy of unbridled cost-overruns and delays is always a risky venture¸ although it is true that a superior effort is necessary to protect our fragile heritage. Only last month Dr Gatt announced alternative plans which included infrastructural work to upgrade and conserve a number of maritime assets including a €10 million refurbishment of the Marsaxlokk breakwater and spending another €23 million on a major upgrade of the deep-water quay at Marsa. Smaller projects involve the alignment of Lascaris Wharf and major developments along Barriera and Boiler wharfs. This project¸ when completed¸ will provide three new berths for big cruise liners. As can be seen further on in this article¸ the original plan included the renovation of a major part of the inner harbour area. But times are hard and¸ instead¸ Dr Gatt has proposed a modest and scaled-down project.

One may remember the hype just before 2008 elections when both parties jumped on the bandwagon and extolled the virtues of restoring the Citta Vecchia (“built by gentlemen”). Three years ago¸ both political parties were enthusing about plans to regenerate the inner harbour. Ample coverage in bold headings was given to the news by the media¸ with the ambitious master plan including 20 new capital projects based on research conducted by Mimcol. These projects were listed in the Grand Harbour roadmap and the public rejoiced that the energetic Austin Gatt was in charge of the project.

One of the original projects included a far-sighted plan to remove all heavy industrial activity from the Senglea side of French Creek¸ with the existing quay being upgraded and converted into a new cruise liner terminal. In a positive turn of events¸ we have seen The Three Cities enjoying a major boost from cruise liner tourism¸ which is growing year on year. Perhaps this is another good reason why the harbour regeneration idea should be revisited. Romantics will ask if increased patronage from visiting cruise liners would revive the traditional dg?ajsa service from and to the city. This train of thought leads naturally to other ideas connected with the improvement of access and the mobility of visitors to the area. It is a pity that Mepa rejected the cable car project proposed by the Viset Consortium that would connect Pinto Wharf to Valletta. If approved¸ this modern method of mass transportation would provide a fast and scenic service for visitors. Travellers to Asia will recall a similar cable car system linking Sonoma Island to the Singapore mainland. There is no doubt that the original plans can be modified by Viset to respect the surroundings and a fresh application can then be submitted to Mepa. Once the cable car is in