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Last week, builders erected wooden hoarding closing off most of Portobello Square.
It’s part of an agreement with a private developer MKN Property Group.
In January 2019, An Bord Pleanála granted MKN planning permission to build a six-storey hotel with 178 bedrooms at Portobello Harbour, going against its inspector’s recommendation to refuse.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council says it has given the developer permission to use “a portion of the square” to store materials for the duration of the construction project, which should take 18 months to two years.
While the square is closed, the council plans to carry out a public consultation process on how to redevelop it, says the spokesperson.
Funding for the redevelopment appears to be connected to its closure. “The Developer has also indicated that they will part-fund the construction of the new square,” the spokesperson says.
Responses from a council spokesperson suggest that the closure of the square and plans to refurbish it may be linked to past complaints around disruptive crowds and anti-social behaviour.
Now isn’t the time to close a public plaza, given that there’s a pandemic and this is a part of the city with few outside spaces, said Ciarán Ferrie, a member of the Rathmines Initiative.
“The removal of public space impacts most severely on those living in lower standards of accommodation and compounds existing inequalities in the city,” wrote Ferrie in an email to TDs and councillors on Monday.
Does It Need a Revamp?
There are few other open public spaces in the area near Portobello Square. The strip of park along the canal is the main one.
Nearby, in Rathmines, a group of residents from the Rathmines Initiative, a local group trying to enhance quality of life in the neighbourhood, say that the area needs more open space, not less.
“Essentially the council are closing public space,” said Ferrie, a member of the Rathmines Initiative, by phone on Tuesday.
There are approximately 23,000 people living within a 1km radius of Portobello Harbour and many of them have limited private outdoor space, he says.
He can’t understand the decision while the pandemic is ongoing and indoor gatherings are restricted, he says.
Last summer the council also briefly fenced off Portobello Square.
The prompt appeared to be some residents’ complaints about large crowds gathering to drink, with people then urinating publicly, selling drugs openly and starting fights, according to the Irish Times.
Says independent Councillor Mannix Flynn: “Most of these places, like Smithfield Square and like the Boardwalk, if they are not managed they become no-go areas.”
A council spokesperson connected this to the need to redevelop the square.
“Local residents and Councillors have sought improvements and changes to this civic space and this has only been further highlighted by recent and ongoing antisocial behaviour during the summer,” said the spokesperson.
So Dublin City Council’s parks department plans to run a public consultation on the redesign of the Portobello Harbour square starting by April 2022, they said.
Following the public consultation, the council will decide on the design and get planning permission for it through an internal council process known as “Part VIII”, so the councillors will get to vote on the plans.
Portobello Square will benefit from being re-designed to better suit the needs of local residents, says Flynn, the independent councillor.
The agreement to allow the builder to use space on the square was settled a couple of years ago, he says.
Flynn hopes the new design will include more greenery and seating and that it will do more to connect the square to the harbour, he says.
“You don’t want to lose the historical significance of it – it is Portobello Harbour,” says Flynn.
“The harbour has never really worked” as a public space, says Labour Party Councillor Dermot Lacey, who represents the neighbouring area. “In my view, it has always been a bit sterile.”
He would like to see a much greener square, he says with a playground for children.
Lacey says the council could try to reach a compromise by asking the builders to free up some more space on the square while the building works are underway.
In recent years the square has been used by families to hang out and play and by young people to sit and have a coffee or beer. It is popular with skateboarders, who said in 2016 that they wanted to be accepted as users of the square.
The majority of the square has been fenced off to create the builders’ compound. A small bit of space surrounding the DublinBikes stand remains open to the public.
Ferrie, of the Rathmines Initiative, says that around 75 percent of the square is being used by the builders.
The builders’ compound isn’t included in the planning documents for the hotel, he says.
“The agreement to hand over the space was made in private between the council and the developer without the public having the opportunity to make observations,” he says.
What Is the Deal?
Dublin City Council didn’t respond in time for publication to queries sent Tuesday about the exact nature of the deal with the developer MKN Property Group, including whether it had a legally binding agreement that the developer would help fund the plaza’s revamp.
It did say that the council would run the plaza redesign and the consultation not the developer. “Local residents and businesses can have their say as part of the consultation, including the hotel developer,” they said.
Labour Councillor Lacey says this isn’t the ideal way to develop the public realm, but cash-strapped councils don’t have much choice, he says.
“If I was inventing a local government system I wouldn’t be inventing the one we have,” says Lacey.
Councils need more income if they are to do the things that residents of the city want and need them to, he says. “There are loads of things I’d like to do better.”
If this was in his area he would have sought guarantees before now about what exactly the developer is going to provide, he says.
“The question is what can we get out of it,” says Lacey. “I presume what the council will get out of it is a better public space.”
He hopes that the developer is paying for the redevelopment in full, he says.
The council spokesperson said the council had regular contact with local residents and their public representatives.
“All parties were aware that a section of the square would be licensed to the developer during the build and that there would be a concurrent consultation process around redesigning the square so that it better meet the needs of the community,” says the spokesperson.
But Sinn Féin Councillor Daniel Céitinn says the local councillors didn’t agree to the closure of the square. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
They were told that “a portion” of the square was going to be used by the builders as a compound, he says. “A portion sounds fair enough.”
(Statements through the council press office also repeat that it has licensed “a portion”.)
Céitinn was very surprised to see that almost all of Portobello Square was taken over for the compound. “The space is essentially gone,” he says.
“It has been a bit underhanded in how it has been handled,” says Céitinn. “We are always requesting information and we are never quite given the full picture.”