by Rebecca Faller
What do you think of when you picture Gibraltar’s upper town? Picturesque alleyways? Entrance doors with archways and keystones? Shutters? A landscape of higgledy piggledy roof-tops worthy of a Mario Finlayson painting?
Most of us have some sort of historic connection with our old town, we may have grown in the area or we may have visited family who lived there and nearly all of us at some time in our lives have been to the old St. Bernard’s Hospital. It is an area we all know and love and although it has been somewhat neglected over the years it has never quite lost its charm: It certainly has potential and is one of Gibraltar’s hidden assets.
Recently the creation of the Mid-Harbours Estate saw many families vacate the old tenement blocks and these properties are now being put out for tender by Government. If you walk up the Calle Comedia today you will notice that many buildings which were once almost slums have now been lovingly restored; roofs repaired, shutters painted, stonework cleaned. The creation of the escalator and the Engineer Lane car park have made upper town access and living far easier and as a result people are starting to move back. Soon a new hotel and café/bar will be opened in Ansaldo’s Passage, a building that has been carefully and thoughtfully renovated with all the original features brought back to life. In the same street a large old block has been converted into flats which all sold off-plan within weeks of being on the market. The same goes for the Police Barracks project, which although in part was sadly lost, the bulk of it is presently being transformed into new homes. The former hospital has been beautifully and painstakingly regenerated into two new schools and in turn pavements and roads have been repaired.
When a property comes out for tender applicants have to submit rough plans and an outline of what they propose to do with the building. Tenders do not have to be awarded to the highest bidder but if the person who offers the highest sum also plans something in-keeping with the overall Town Plan then logic dictates that the highest offer should win. Once the property ownership has been transferred then the plans will need to gain permission from the DPC, but it is assumed that if the plans were good enough to win the tender then the DPC would also have no issue with giving the project the go-ahead.
2 Hospital Ramp is an interesting property which has recently gone to tender. Situated along the lane from St. Bernard’s School and tucked right in the heart of a busy residential area. At the moment it is a row of four small 1-storey houses, set on a large patio complete with shutters and a long pitched roof. Underneath these is a vast air-raid shelter which was used by nurses and patients from the old Colonial Hospital, its cavernous interior still has all the muster points and original signage on the walls. At the entrance to this plot there stand the two famous walls with the historical Winston Churchill graffiti from the 1967 referendum, over the years the letters have been repainted and kept as a wonderful reminder of that era. These walls alone are a tourist attraction and indeed many people stop there to photograph them. The tender documents clearly stated that any new proposals should be sympathetic and in-keeping with the area and the underground shelters must also be retained.
This property generated a lot of interest and the winning design has now been made public much to the horror of many people in Gibraltar, at the time of writing over 400 people have signed a petition to have the proposed plans scrapped completely. The submission sees the total demolition of the four houses (recently lived-in homes that were in a fit state to be easily restored), destruction of the old ‘Churchill Walls’ and in their place a huge, 4-storey concrete block. The design is bland, has no original features, no shutters, no ironwork, and sticks out like a great throbbing sore thumb right in the centre of heritage Gibraltar. If that was not enough it completely blocks the light and views of all the other houses around it. It would be interesting to know if this horrid edifice did form part of the tender submission or not as I know of at least two other proposals that kept to the original heights and also retained the famous graffitied walls.
The block will comprise of nine flats and also provide ground floor parking for nine cars. This will mean that these extra vehicles will have to drive down the tiny road that snakes in front of and behind the school. At the moment hardly any cars pass down there, rendering it an almost quiet pedestrianised area. The old town should be free of cars where possible, residents are used to having to park elsewhere and walk. All the other recent restoration projects have understood that parking is not easy but have chosen to build in the knowledge that people can access this area on foot or by using the bus service. The proposal states that the air-raid shelter will be used as private stores for the nine flats and will not be restored and opened for the public unlike some of the other tender proposals.
Many developers in the past have argued that the only financially viable way to deal with old buildings is to knock them down and build something new in their place; this was the case with the old Risso Bakery. Times have moved on and we are all fully aware of the value and therefore the need to preserve our unique heritage and it has been proved as can be easily seen by the examples I mentioned earlier. Restoration can be expensive and time-consuming and may not have the massive financial returns that some developers crave but it is far from impossible and in our old town it should be a pre-requisite of anybody who chooses to buy there. If we allow this project to go ahead it will set a precedent for any future developers and gradually we will see tall concrete blocks springing up all over the upper town.