Valletta’s development in the last 10 years has seen it win its rightful place on the local market, with the next decade all about taking it to where it should be, on a level with its European and Mediterranean peers.
That’s the vision of Dr Andrei Imbroll, co-founder and chairman of Valletta Boutique Living, or VBL, which is today the largest private owner of real estate in the city designed by Francesco Laparelli, with a diverse property portfolio consisting in the residential, hospitality, office space, and food and beverage markets.
Dr Imbroll was speaking during the latest episode The Boardroom, where he was joined by Malta Hotels and Restaurants President Tony Zahra and Managing Director at Perry Estate Agents Robert Spiteri Paris to explore the importance of Valletta’s continued development to Malta as a whole.
VBL’s investments go beyond property, thanks to its commitment to the city’s social and art culture, which it believes are part and parcel of its attraction.
As Dr Imbroll puts it: “Valletta isn’t only about its architecture; it’s also about the social fabric.”
Responding to a question on the evolution of Valletta, Dr Imbroll expresses his belief that it is the atmosphere of Valletta that has changed, “because the built fabric has remained the same, really, and it’s in the utmost interest of every investor in Valletta, and indeed everyone in Malta, that it remains that way.”
He says the “incredible amount of investment” pouring into Valletta from both the public and private sectors has created a micro market which is unique, both in Malta and to Malta.
“I believe that we were very lucky that Valletta was only shown under a spotlight in the last 10 years, when our sensitivity towards our built heritage was already very high.”
He commended the “spectacular job” done by investors in the Knights’ city, and said he is not worried about anyone not being smart enough to safeguard Valletta’s uniqueness.
He is confident that Valletta will remain protected, and expressed his certainty that in both 10 years and 100 years, the city build by gentlemen for gentlemen will be very similar to what we see today on an aesthetic level.
That static environment, however, should remain on the aesthetic level, with the function developing according to the needs of the people who live, work and visit there.
“When you are restoring and regenerating properties in Valletta,” said Dr Imbroll, “you always need to take into consideration today’s needs. You can’t just restore a building to what it was 400 years ago. You need to adapt to today’s needs while being sensitive to the heritage.”
He believes the COVID-19 pandemic has given public and private investors in the capital the opportunity to slow down a little after 10 years of breath-taking changes.
“It’s given us time to see what was done well and what could be done better.”
He explains that Valletta today has an amazing offering in terms of hospitality and F&B, with three out of four local Michelin star restaurants situated there.
“We’ve made huge steps ahead in terms of quality and in terms of attracting quality.”
These last 10 years, Dr Imbroll says, have gotten Valletta to where it should have been on the local market.
“The next 10 will be about taking it where it should be internationally,” he adds.
Bringing Valletta to compete with its European and Mediterranean peers will not be easy, but its cachet as a brand can still be capitalised on, while it remains hugely underserved from various aspects.
“The sports facilities, childcare, even tourist facilities outside of accommodation – these remain below standard,” he says.
“Museums, for example, need to do a lot of work to compete with the sort of interactive museums we see in European capitals nowadays.”
He therefore believes there are still “huge opportunities” for the private sector to collaborate with the public sector in developing the city.
Valletta’s role in Maltese tourism, Dr Imbroll maintains, cannot be underestimated.
“People come to Malta for many reasons, but of the main ones, Valletta is the only one which is unique to Malta. They expect the sun, sea and sand, but it is Valletta they will particularly remember when they go home.”
“So it serves a significantly important strategic role in Maltese tourism, and indeed to all Maltese tourist products.”
Looking to the future, Dr Imbroll believes a new post-V18, post-COVID vision for Valletta is required, with this most desperately needed in terms of retail.
“Valletta once served as a place where you could find whatever you couldn’t buy in the villages.”
“Today,” he continues, “you find quite a widespread retail offering in all our villages, so Valletta needs to create a Valletta shopping experience.”
He believes this can best be served with a “very high-end product offering”, something he notes has already started, mentioning the two Edwards & Lowell outlets on Republic Street.
However, he believes the private sector needs to unite and push the public sector for this vision to become reality.
“We also need to look a bit further into the past of Valletta to analyse the districts, and recreate or perhaps change them,” he says.
He believes a redefinition of Valletta’s historical districts can make the city more appealing, with particular ones for high-end retail, for nightlife, for offices, and for residences.
Turning to planning, he believes the rest of Malta needs to learn from Valletta’s success, which he puts down to is master planning.
“If we look and learn from the success of the capital, we can move towards the tourism product we want.”
“Valletta can really be a saviour for Malta’s touristic product. It’s unique in Malta – and it’s unique to Malta, too.”