Valletta has never felt so vibrant. On the eve of 2018, the year the city holds the European Capital of Culture title, people crowd into its bars and restaurants which spill onto the street; music is heard on every corner; and its baroque facades have been given a facelift. Investment in Valletta has taken an artistic turn, with rental apartments, boutique hotels, as well as retail outlets and watering holes busy preparing themselves for the opportunities the year will present.
The Capital of Culture is also encouraging a spurt of public restoration and embellishment works in and around the city, much of which is being implemented by the Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation (GHRC). “During the past years, Government has embarked on an investment programme to upgrade the general ambience of Valletta,” the chairman of GHRC, Dr Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, states. Indeed, the entity, which was instrumental in the completion of the Renzo Piano project at City Gate, as well as the restoration of Upper Fort St Elmo, has also been entrusted with the embellishment of Castille Square, and the restoration of the timber balconies along Ordinance Street. Now, they are in the final stages of completing the embellishment of Triton Square and the Valletta Land Front Ditch: “crucial for the official opening of the Valletta 2018 events that are scheduled to be held at this square,” Dr Zrinzo Azzopardi states.
“The objective of the projects was to consolidate Valletta’s world heritage status and they have all led to an enhanced environment and a better use of the open spaces,” he claims. Hence, this will allow “more artistic and cultural events to be held for the general public and tourists to enjoy,” Dr Zrinzo Azzopardi continues.
Yet, Valletta’s status as a world heritage site meant that these projects were not without their challenges, though these were solved in collaboration with other public authorities. This concerted effort created opportunities, as was the case with the recent work at Triton square. “Following communication with the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability, we have included slabs possessing markings which will assist the visually impaired in the design of Triton square. This will be the first square in Malta and Gozo with such directional paving,” Dr Zrinzo Azzopardi describes.
This, together with more recent projects such as the €24 million ERDF Regeneration programme for Marsamxett Harbour, will set the foundation for the capital’s legacy in the future. “Valletta will not only be thriving during 2018, but also beyond that, as the projects taking place are enhancing its accessibility and revival,” he emphasizes.
The city’s regeneration has also been felt by Palazzo Ferreira, situated within City Gate square and opposite the open-air theatre. The building houses Gio Batta Delia, one of Malta’s oldest and most renowned retailers. From its early beginnings creating and selling furniture, to its evolution into Malta’s premier chinaware and glass stockist in the 1970s and ‘80s, the business stood its ground, despite the flow of changes impacting Valletta.
“For many years, Valletta was losing its importance in business and the number of its inhabitants was reducing rapidly,” Patrick Delia, whose great grandfather Giovanni Battista Delia opened the business, states. But, “remaining in the city was an obvious choice as Valletta was always going to remain attractive and the building we are in was, and still is, quite unique,” he explains.
Mr Delia, who today runs the iconic retailer, says that Government’s investment in Valletta, propelled by the City Gate project, and the upcoming Valletta Capital of Culture 2018, have resulted in a vibrant atmosphere in which business can thrive. “The façade of Palazzo Ferreria has recently been given a fresh clean look, a job well done by the Restoration Directorate and in a few months’ time the whole Palace would be like new,” he states.
In the wake of these changes, Gio Batta Delia, through their close collaboration with Trilogy Ltd, opened their doors to Tommy Hilfiger and are now preparing themselves for the year ahead. “We are envisaging a greater number of visitors and locals to be coming to Valletta and we are more than prepared,” Mr Delia continues.
However, he sounds a word of caution. “But, this all comes with great responsibility: to curtail over-development and to ensure the enforcement of basic rules. We must not let this success be the ruin of this great city,” he stresses. He sees collaboration between the authorities and the business community as being essential to Valletta’s continued progress. “These very rare and special occasions don’t happen very often, and I sincerely hope that in years to come we will look back at 2018 with great pride,” he says.
“You can’t separate Valletta from art and culture. The soul of this city, its energy and the energy of its people, feed from it,” Dr Andrei Imbroll, Valletta Boutique Living (VBL) managing director, explained. “In everything we do, we have to collaborate with artists and designers who love the city, and with tourists looking for authentic experiences,” he continued.
VBL have put their money where their mouth is by pouring cash, time and effort into the creation of a Valletta-based company focused on invigorating the city’s real estate market. “Back in 2011, my business partner and I felt that Valletta’s property market was greatly undervalued, mainly due to the complicated ownership structures and the image it had with locals, especially the lower part of the city. But, we believed that we could overcome these issues if the size of the investment made it worthwhile,” he stated.
And it paid off. “We strongly believe that the shock we gave the Valletta market in the early days of the VBL Group pushed a few others to enter this market. This quickly built awareness among the small local business community with another three or four investors making substantial investments in Valletta. The spark was ignited and the rest is history. Fast forward to 2017 and VBL Group today is the largest owner of real estate in the city,” Dr Imbroll says.
Now, the group are focused on launching their biggest venture yet: The Gut, a gastro-retail project in Strait Street which will see the previous red-light district given a facelift. The nipping and tucking will transform the area, giving it a youthful appearance, while respecting the character of its past. “The Gut will push boundaries in Malta and strive to fuse art and culture along with nightlife, good food and entertainment. It will be a venue aimed at a slightly more mature crowd looking for laid-back quality entertainment,” Dr Imbroll asserts.
Another business which has invested in the capital is AX group. The well-established company has renovated an old palazzo in Merchant’s street and reopened it as The St John Boutique Accommodation. It has also purchased Palazzo Merkanti, and is in the process of transforming it into a five-star luxury hotel due to open in 2018.
“These are wonderful buildings that have found new use, and which have a strong focus on art. AX Group has been a strong advocator of the unique character of our capital city, and we had been looking for a suitable property to open a hotel there for many years, because we believe that it was best to revive it by finding new use for the palaces and homes within,” Michael Warrington, Chief Executive Officer of AX Holdings explains. Indeed, the company invested over €11 million into these projects in 2016 and 2017, and plans to further invest another €7 million in 2018. “We believe in developing functional but beautiful buildings that will withstand the test of time,” he emphasises.
The advantages of investing in the capital are multiple, according to Mr Warrington. “As more and more businesses return to the capital, it has come alive and it is a vibrant place. This is good for business. We also expect that tourists visiting Valletta in 2018 will be more focused on Malta’s culture and heritage, and many buildings in Valletta have rich architectural features. We therefore expect demand for people to stay in Valletta to be strong,” he explains.
Meanwhile, the early opening of The Saint John Boutique Accommodation was planned to coincide with the preparations for Valletta 2018 despite the hurdles encountered, Mr Warrington continues. “We opened The Saint John in time to be operating before 2018 and this was no easy feat. The main challenges to starting operations in Valletta are to identify the right property, obtain the necessary planning permits and finally the logistics of finalising the development within a reasonable time frame,” he explains.
Indeed, he believes that Valletta 2018 will mark a milestone in the revival of the capital, which will be felt for years to come. “We believe that the effects of V18 will be felt not only in 2018 but for some time after. V18 will leave a picture in the minds of travellers, particularly those seeking cultural holidays,” he concludes.