Left: Photo from the Manoel Island break-in of 2016. Right: Snapshot of MIDI’s development plans
It was back in the summer of 2016 that environmental activists and Gzira’s own mayor knocked down the gates of Manoel Island and allowed the public inside, in what was one of the greatest public displays of dissidence in recent Maltese history.
For many people, it was their first ever taste of Manoel Island – a massive green space in the centre of one of the most-developed places in Malta. No cars, no kiosks, no swarms of tourists – just an island reclaimed by nature, a majestic fort, a couple of abandoned buildings, clear waters and spectacular views of Valletta.
Yet there was always a nagging sense that the dream was going to be a short-lived one, hindered by a concession that development consortium MIDI had signed with the government way back in 2000 to develop a luxury-real estate village there. MIDI had for many years put Manoel Island on the back-burner, choosing to focus on developing Tigne instead. However, the concession binds it to develop Manoel Island by 2023, under threat of daily fines and potential eventual seizure of the land by government.
Environmentalists camped at Manoel Island in protest two years ago
Protests by the Gzira local council and environmentalists pressured MIDI into opening the foreshore of Manoel Island to the public and changing its original development plans. A casino will no longer be built and Fort Manoel will no longer be converted into a hotel, but rather a “mixed cultural and retail venue”.
Yet the reality is that Manoel Island as we know it will soon be no more. Luxury apartments and retail outlets will be built, Fort Lazzaretto will be converted into a hotel, and a large family park will be built for the public.
To keep the developers in check and ensure the public’s interests are preserved, a foundation has been formed – composed of Gzira mayor Conrad Borg Manche, deputy mayor Ralph Mangion, environmental lawyer and activist Claire Bonello, and MIDI CEO Mark Portelli.
“This is a historic day for Gzira residents and I am extremely satisfied that we have reached this guardianship agreement, that will ensure the Manoel Island project is a balanced one and the rights of the Maltese public safeguarded,” Borg Manche said.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat hailed this guardianship deal as one that should serve as a model for relationships between investors and communities.
“People, most of whom were genuine, had taken part in weekly protests out of concern that an important part of their lives would suddenly be shut out with an iron gate,” Muscat said. “On the other hand, the investors had long ago been granted the right to build this project. The government could have wiped its hands clean and blamed previous PN administrations for this concession, but instead opted for the path of compromise and sought a balance between the interests of the developer and those of the Gzira community.”