Looking at New Designs for Portobello Plaza, Skateboarders Wonder Whether They Will Have a Place

Skateboarders in past times felt such a draw towards Portobello Plaza, says Michael McMaster.

So much so that they’d call it The Vortex, he says. “Because you’d want to go skate somewhere else, but you’d be having so much fun that you’d never leave.”

It was one of the few spots where he could go to skate, and no matter the day, would be guaranteed to meet someone he knew.

“You’d get sucked in and I loved it,” he says. “I loved having a little vortex, a nice little community.”

Those gatherings have petered out since December 2021, when the council gave permission for hoardings to go up around most of the public plaza.

Now, most of the area is a closed-off site until construction work on a nearby hotel is complete.

On a scorching Wednesday afternoon, just a single skateboarder hung out at the square’s edge, sat on a ledge with a female friend.

He sported a red Mohican haircut, a chain padlocked around his neck and a sleeveless leather jacket reading “Live Fast Die Young”.

He wasn’t skating though. There is little space to try much of anything. The pair simply sat with the board to one side, and as the heat intensified, they vanished.

Many others don’t even bother to pay the square a visit any more. They are not sure if skateboarders have a future in Portobello, they say.

Once the hoardings were erected, the council promised that in exchange, the plaza would be redeveloped.

Two preliminary designs for what the new refurbished plaza would look like were released by the council on 21 July after two workshops with locals.

One, proposing that the limestone hardscape be turned into a grassy park has left skateboarders worried that their presence, often greeted with ambivalence by city officials, may be erased by design.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said: “Opportunities for skateboarding are being included in the design of the space at Portobello Harbour which when re-developed will be managed as a public park.”

A Relative Peace

Portobello Plaza had never, since its opening in 2004, warmly welcomed skateboarders.

Council signs, on display for at least six years, state that the sport is verboten in the area.

According to the council, it discouraged skating for safety reasons, due to the plaza’s proximity to the canal, and because of the damage it caused to the stonework.

As a deterrent, subtle pieces of hostile architecture were included in the design.

Around the square ledges, small metal knobs resembling ball bearings were installed to prevent skaters from pulling off tricks such as “grinding” – or sliding – along their edges.

Still, hindrances of this kind never proved much of a deterrent.

“Even with the ledges being ‘knobbed’, you can still skate around them,” McMasters says.

A no-skateboarding sign at Portobello Square. Photo by Michael Lanigan.

For the first decade of the plaza’s existence, there was no major effort to clamp down on its use as a skateboarding site, says Dion McGarrity of Killing:Time, a local skateboard and apparel brand.

“It was a good landmark place for people to meet up from different counties, because you’d never get kicked out,” McGarrity says. “There was never any hassle.”

Philip Halton, founder of the Irish skate magazine Goblin had used the plaza since he first took the sport up around 2005.

Occasionally, a resident might make a complaint via their local councillor, he says. “We had a pretty good relationship with a lot of the residents.”

A New Development

The first indicator that the skating community might not be long for the plaza came when, in December 2017, proposals were submitted by MNK Property Group and Tifco Limited to build a 178-bedroom hotel at 17 Portobello Harbour.

Locals responded by drawing up a petition, Save Portobello Harbour, which gathered 7,769 signatures.

Halton says the skating community helped locals to collect signatures. “So there has been a lot of goodwill leftover from that.”

The proposed six-storey development was submitted to Dublin City Council on 3 May 2018, with permission granted on 30 May.

Both local objectors to the original proposal and the developer – who wanted to challenge one of the conditions knocking off a floor – brought an appeal to An Bord Pleanála.

An inspector from An Bord Pleanála recommended against allowing the development, arguing that because of its height, scale and nature, it “would seriously injure the amenities of the area and or property in the vicinity”.

An Bord Pleanáladidn’t accept the inspector’s recommendation, and granted permission with conditions on 21 January 2019. The extra floor was reinstated and three bedrooms were to be omitted.

Less and Less Welcome

It was during the summer of 2018, Halton says, that the skateboarding community was made to feel less welcome in the area as the harbour became a popular spot for drinking.

Residents complained to local councillors of littering, public urination and anti-social behaviour, and Halton says, “we would get lumped into the same crowd as the drinkers”.

The following year, in May 2019, the site at 17 Portobello Harbour was purchased by Leonardo Hotels and Jury’s Inn Group, announcing that it would be opened as a Nyx hotel.

Mid-December in 2021, wooden hoardings were erected, closing off a majority of the public square.

A Dublin City Council spokesperson said at the time that this action was part of an agreement with developer MKN Property Group.

MKN Property was permitted to use “a portion of the square” to store materials for the duration of construction, estimated between 18 months and two years and it may part fund the square’s redevelopment, they said.

Though the loss of the public space is temporary, Halton says it has left a real impact on the skateboarding community. “There’s nowhere to rely upon to run into a few friends and skate in the evening. It’s ruined Dublin in lots of ways.”

McGarrity says the hoardings have just made the plaza a place that isn’t enjoyable to be around.

“I went down to film my friend doing a trick at the ledges,” he says. “But it’s just not very nice being there. It was just a tight walkthrough, and it’s annoying for everyone. I pretty much haven’t gone since, and I used to go every day.”

One Last Chance

With Portobello Square closed off, Dublin City Council has been running a public consultation for how it should look in the future after a rebuild.

In June, the council held two workshops with some locals, funnelling what they were told into a pair of designs for the refurbished harbour.

Sketches of ideas for Portobello Square. Source: Ait Urbanism + Landscape.

One possible design shows two sunken lawns replacing most of today’s paving stones, with a play element, an event or sculptural space and terrace seating.

The second would keep a more significant portion of the plaza’s open space with a water feature towards its centre, while combining this with two lawn areas, terraced seating, and a micro-woodland.

On 22 July, the council shared the two designs and has invited people to say which they prefer, before 19 August.

Halton favours the latter as the more skater-friendly of the pair. “There’s elements that could actually work for us,” he says.

But, he adds that the skating community was not afforded a chance to feed in at the consultation workshops.

“With the consultation, a lot of residents would have been given an early heads up and we weren’t,” he says “It was closed-off in the sense that there was only a handful of spots available. We were trying to get in the door and have these conversations.”

To ensure that their voices were heard, he says, “once the options for a sketch went online, we blasted them all over the internet”.

After that, the deadline for the public to select their preferred plaza design was extended from the original of 5 August to 19 August.

Dublin City Council did not confirm whether this was a direct response to the spate of interest. But, Áit-Place, the urban design practice involved in the consultation, tagged in skateboarders in a tweet announcing the extension.

Staying Positive

Hoarding blocks off Portobello Square. Photo by Michael Lanigan.

“I want to be optimistic and say, it’s up in the air,” says McMasters. “It’s the most optimistic thing I can say for the moment.”

McMasters was born in Long Beach in California. He took up skating 20 years ago, at the age of 11.

In 2014, he moved to Dublin, quickly settling into the local skateboarding community.

He wishes he could have experienced Portobello Harbour in its absolute heyday as a skate spot, he says. “It’s just mad that you would have a space, which became a hangout spot, like this and just get rid of it.”

He knows, however, that the nature of the sport means that, beyond skate parks, few spots last. Which ones stay and which ones go seems to be almost arbitrary.

“You could have a spot that’s been around for 20 years, and then eventually it is capped,” he says. “You just gotta enjoy everything while it lasts.”

Halton says skateboarders brought out the best in the plaza. “The times when Portobello hasn’t been used for skateboarding are the times when drinking and drug taking were most prevalent.”

“We did respect that spot,” he says. “That was our home for more than a decade.”

CORRECTION: This article was amended at 09.52 on 20 September 2022 to remove the word “boutique” from the description of the planned hotel, as it is not planned to be small.

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Michael Lanigan: Michael Lanigan is a Dublin-based freelance journalist. His work appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, TheJournal.ie and the Business Post.

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