If you think it’s very remote that one day you will wake up and decide to book a luxury meal and, perhaps, an overnight stay in Marsa, think again.
Only recently, Prime Minister Robert Abela reaffirmed, during a political event in this south-eastern town, that there are big plans in place and bigger changes to come. He stated that it is his dream for this area to become “a symbol of new age prosperity in the coming decade”.
Starting from the beginning
The Journal spoke to the mayor of Marsa, Josef Azzopardi, to understand how this place, traditionally a hub for working-class people deep inside the Grand Harbour, came to be the busy hub as we know it today.
If we delve into the origins of Marsa, we will find roots in Roman and Punic times. However, in modern history, Marsa truly came to life with the arrival of the British. Known as Porto Novo during the British period, it gained significance due to the opening of the Suez Canal, that boosted Malta’s business potential. Naval work thrived, with many individuals engaged in related activities. Marsa’s shoreline buzzed with bars and a vibrant atmosphere that extended all the way to Valletta.
Numerous families from all around the country, including Gozo, relocated to Marsa, attracted by the maritime activities facilitated by British naval power. It was the Maltese working class that predominantly settled in the area. The mayor draws on his own family history as a classic example: his maternal roots are in Żurrieq and his father hailed from Ħamrun.
The building of the Marsa power station in 1953 played a crucial role and numerous locals found employment there. This industrial growth propelled the population to around 11,000 inhabitants, leading to the establishment of two parishes.
Dom Mintoff’s era saw the transformation of Marsa, with the demolition of older houses and the construction of government residences. Despite controversies, these houses provided a certain level of comfort, and young couples benefitted from Mintoff’s incentives.
When asked why Marsa has never been associated with traditional beauty, the mayor explained that frequently governments viewed Marsa as an industrial zone rather than a destination that is fit for both locals and tourists.
An exodus of locals and an influx of migrants
Even though the transportation of goods became easier and companies didn’t necessarily have to be located by the port, the industry continued to seek Marsa as a location to set up shop.
Additionally, in the early 2000s, the Marsa Open Centre was set up in the area. It quickly became inundated with immigrants, often more than it could accommodate. When they were no longer living in the Open Centre, they sought refuge in the surrounding neighbourhood, and this brought about several changes in the community.
At a time of enhanced mobility, the traditional link between residence and workplace had loosened, prompting many residents to leave Marsa. The mayor recalls people who resided in his street as a child, who had holiday homes in St Paul’s Bay and eventually shifted their home there, leaving their houses in Marsa vacant. Locals started to rent their places to immigrants seeking accommodation, triggering a somewhat lucrative business where individuals bought properties and crammed as many immigrants as they could into them. It’s not uncommon to hear of stories where a bed is rented to more than one person, according to their work hours.
The mayor categorises immigrants in Marsa into two groups: those thriving in the community without issues, having been there for 20 years and integrated into society, and others who may fall into drug abuse or homelessness, often due to exploitation at the hands of drug lords.
The problem intensifies among the Marsa elderly, who struggle to respond when approached for money. It’s not easy to help the drug abusers out either, as they often reject support, creating a challenge even when the authorities intervene.
Change is already underway
Despite this difficult scenario, changes are underway.
One of the most significant changes was the deconstruction and demolition process at the Marsa power station, that involved the gradual removal of its eight heavy fuel oil-fired units and associated structures. This process commenced in October 2014, a few months before the power station’s final shutdown in March of the subsequent year. The on-site dismantling efforts gained momentum in early 2017 when the new Delimara 4 power station became operational, leading to the disconnection of the last remaining Marsa power station units from the national grid.
Another significant decommissioning concerns the Marsa Open Centre, that now has very few residents left – mostly individuals and very few families. Last year, the centre’s dormitory was demolished, and it has since stopped operating as a centre for immigrants.
The Marsa Local Council is trying to promote the notion of using the open centre for various purposes. Recently, for example, it organised a course in crib-making there. This was attended by around a dozen people, and the mayor describes it as a major achievement.
“The attendance of these people was a big challenge that we overcame. It wasn’t easy to get them to come to the open centre,” said mayor Azzopardi, noting that the premises offer all the necessary amenities, such as ample parking space and a well-sized football pitch, which he hopes will be used by various football teams.
The mayor notes a decrease in jobseekers at the infamous Marsa roundabout, and less people roaming the streets for prostitution. He attributed this to the collaboration with the community police and strategic investments in public spaces such as public gardens, to make them cleaner, safer, and less accessible for people with criminal intentions.
Big projects are underway for Marsa’s open areas. For example, an investment of €2 million in Spencer Garden was announced in 2021 and is currently being worked on, with the intention to turn it into a sustainable public garden for recreational purposes. Attention is also being given to the upkeep of another garden, located between Stefano Zerafa Street and December 13 Street, known as the Belvedere Garden.
How many of us have actively sought to visit these places? Probably not many, and the mayor is well-aware. He describes how hard it is to attract locals to refurbished areas in Marsa, even though they are being kept in pristine condition.
“It’s now up to us as a Council. We need to organise activities that help people break away from the notion that certain places are no-go areas,” he said with enthusiasm.
An example of how this is being done can be found within the Marsa Scouts, who have a significant presence in Malta and who are holding activities in Marsa’s public spaces, contributing to the area’s regeneration. Another example are the plans for Spencer Gardens to host a space for diverse habitats that should encourage students to visit and learn about flora and fauna.
The mayor stresses the importance of preserving the importance of historical sites in Marsa. A fact that not many people know is the presence of a tram station adjacent to the Open Centre, in front of the notorious Tiger Bar. This is a tram station dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, from which a tram departed from Valletta, made a stop in Marsa, and then proceed to Cottonera. At present, it’s a derelict building and the mayor is advocating for its restoration.
This would align with other restoration projects, such as the Ta’ Ċelju chapel, which dates back to 1870. Previously derelict and damaged by pollution, this small church in baroque style is back to its former glory. The facade of the Maria Regina parish church was also restored over the past two years and, as we speak, works are being carried out on the restoration of the exterior of the other parish in Marsa, decicated to the Holy Trinity.
Changes to the local plan are key
All these changes would mean very little if not supported by a Local Plan.
First of all, the Planning Directorate is responsible to achieve sustainable development throughout the Maltese Islands through the preparation and implementation of development plans and policies A Local Plan serves as a directive for future development proposals, addressing the specific needs and opportunities within a given area. It normally covers aspects such as housing, employment, and commercial establishments, and it delineate zones for development and demarcates areas where development should be limited or restricted.
In 2002, a local plan was established covering the shore of Marsa, the Menqa area, and the area known as Baħar tal-Misħun (where Cassar Ship Repair is located). To this day, this is the plan that is still applicable to the area, and it designates the entire area for port-related use, emphasising the importance of the zone for industrial purposes.
The council aspires to change this local plan, envisioning a more touristic Marsa with hotels and restaurants accompanying industrial elements, and more consideration being given to the infrastructural and social challenges facing the Marsa community. The Council doesn’t just want a specific area to be redesigned, such as what happened to the Valletta Watefront. Rather, it wants a holistic, large-scale plan that encompasses all of Marsa.
Very much in line with the Council’s wishes, the Marsa local plan is being redesigned, and several inter-ministerial meetings were held after the publication of the policy last year, accompanied by an exercise of public consultation. One of the major hurdles is finding alternative solutions for entities that are situated along Marsa’s shore.
Naturally, Marsa residents who sold property along the years may face regrets, but if they retained it, the value is expected to increase. Several restaurant applications have already been submitted, aligning with the goal of transitioning from an industrial focus to a Marsa that emphasises tourism and residential living. This shift is deemed crucial, providing the council with the ability to object to non-compliant developments, bolstered by the local plan.
“While promises has been made over the years, the current commitment reflects a stronger will to transform Marsa into a prominent tourist destination,” says the mayor.
Big businesses know that change is happening soon. In fact, The Journal has independently learnt that it has become virtually impossible to purchase property along Marsa’s shoreline, because it is all being snatched by eager developers.
Soon everyone will realise that Marsa, often overlooked, holds a unique charm that deserves recognition. Certainly, unveiling this town’s hidden gems requires a hint of imagination that will eventually lad to the rediscovery of a hidden beauty that matches the allure of other destinations around the Maltese islands.