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Govt’s housing scheme could turn east side into ‘Benidorm’

Pic by Eyleen Gomez

The development of Hassan Centenary Terraces under its current design risks turning the east side of the Rock into “a kind of Benidorm”, the Development and Planning Commission was told yesterday.

The stark assessment on the Gibraltar Government’s latest affordable housing scheme was delivered in a joint statement prepared by Environmental Safety Group, the Gibraltar Heritage Trust and the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society, all of which have seats on the DPC.

The statement, which was read out by GONHS’ general secretary Dr Keith Bensusan, stemmed from concern about the impact Hassan Centenary Terraces would have not just on the immediate surroundings and landscape, but also on the planning process.

“Our organisations are not against sensible development and we are certainly in favour of new homes for those who need them,” Dr Bensusan said.

“But we also have a duty to speak out when those aspects of Gibraltar that we are expected to defend the interests of, the natural and built environment, our heritage and wellbeing, are compromised.”

The project was the sole application under discussion at yesterday’s meeting of the DPC, which also heard from the architect at WSRM who designed the six-tower development.

“The project needs to be seen as part of a new city district for Gibraltar,” the architect told the DPC, adding that the development would act as a “catalyst to unlock the potential of the landmass known as the Eastside development”.

The design envisages construction of six towers of varying heights, set above a two-storey podium accessible via ramps and external stairs.

A public promenade is a key part of the development in line with the government’s aim to keep the seafront open to all members of the public. This promenade will have benches, chairs and possibly picnic areas, the DPC heard.

But the DPC was clearly lukewarm on the designs, which differed significantly from earlier plans for the site.

“It’s very disappointing I think, to put it mildly,” one DPC member said.

But it was the joint statement from the three organisations that summer up the negative reaction to the current plans.

GONHS, the Heritage Trust and the ESG had submitted feedback on the project when requested to do so and all “expressed deep concerns to the Government”.

The three groups also held a lengthy meeting with the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, to discuss their views on the project.

But they were conscious too that the pressure to provide affordable housing meant the government would press ahead with the project, prompting them to air their concerns publicly.

They believe the project is a major departure from the previous Bluewater project, where a holistic plan had been drawn up after extensive consultation nd heights were 2.5 times lower than the buildings before the DPC yesterday.

“The scale of these buildings so close to the north face of the Rock and to the beach will have a negative visual impact on our iconic landscape,” Mr Bensusan said, reading from the joint statement.

“Such tall buildings will create a precedent for the remaining major plot awaiting development on the Eastside, creating a kind of Benidorm effect.”

The groups felt there was a lack of timely consultation when compared to earlier projects, meaning concerns were not able to be addressed and appropriate feedback given.

They noted that the timing of the three Environmental Impact Assessments, building construction, coastal works and removal of the spoil mound and the synergy between them appears to be “suboptimal”.

The impact on beach users has not been assessed adequately, the groups said in the statement, adding that “there is an urgent need for a holistic plan for Gibraltar that values our iconic vistas and protects them effectively.”

“This is an issue that has been pursued jointly by our NGOs over the last few years,” Mr Bensusan added.

The statement also acknowledged that a more effective way of assessing Gibraltar’s housing needs was required, “…including improving management of existing affordable housing and Government rental stock.”

“An evidence based impartial approach would surely improve land use,” Mr Bensusan said.

The group noted that the transparency of the DPC’s deliberations had improved greatly, but noted that Government projects were not subject to a vote and were only presented for comment, not for permission.

“This has to change,” Mr Bensusan said, reading from the joint statement.

“We recognise that the Government tends to subject its projects to the full planning process in due course via the new Town Planning Act. But, we urge the Government to do so straight away.”

The groups also asked that the new Gibraltar Development Plan be produced as a matter of the highest priority, integrating the need to protect the “iconic vistas that define this Rock and this community”.

Ending the statement Mr Bensusan read that urban development is a façade of Gibraltar’s economy and that Gibraltarians need homes.

“Crucially one of our most important assets, land for development, is also one of our most scarce,” he said.

“We believe that this can only be managed effectively with as robust as possible planning process and development plan.”

“One that is capable of scrutinising all projects equally.”

Dr Carolyn Francis from Jacobs Engineering Group presented the Environmental Impact Assessment, which concluded in summary: “The construction and operation of the affordable housing development would affect the character of the local landscape and the views of people living in, working in and visiting the area.”

In terms of impacts on views, the further away the viewer is the less impact on the vista there will be and the closer they are the larger the impact.

She noted that it is only when the detailed designs are produced that the full impact on the vistas can be ascertained.

The assessments adds: “The landscape character of Catalan Bay will be adversely affected because it will change from a tranquil, traditional fishing village to a busy area with an increase in built form, noise, traffic and light.”

“This change would have been the same if not an even busier situation had the development proposed in the 2007 Eastside proceeded.”

The Town Planner commented on the development stating it was not the way they would have liked to deal with the Eastside and that the DPC had to recognise that the project would have a visual impact on the urban and natural surroundings.

It strongly recommends that a holistic master plan be prepared for the rest of the Eastside so that this project does not set a precedent.

It acknowledged that there was “little benefit in recommending reducing the height of the individual tower blocks” and suggested improving the design instead, in a bid to mitigate the environmental impact.

Other recommendations related to colour schemes, landscaping and wind mitigation measures, lighting, transport arrangements and public areas.

Amongst other requests it also asked for a noise management plan, a construction traffic management plan, dust control management plan, a predictive energy assessment, and archaeological watching brief and details of measures to protect the two World War II Canadian constructed bunkers.

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