Alexis Taylor, Project Manager, APOPS@MAS
Raju Mann, Director of Policy and Planning, MAS
Jerold S. Kayden, Founder and Chair, APOPS
APOPS@MAS Advisory Committee
Steven Alden, Genie Birch, Vin Cipolla, Jerold S. Kayden (Chair), Brenda Levin, David Levinson, Jonathan Marvel, Carlos Pujol, Rebecca Robertson, Douglas Woodward
Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space at the Municipal Art Society of New York (APOPS@MAS) seeks to enhance the quality of life of New York City residents, employees, and visitors through imaginative “stewardship” of the City’s 525 or so zoning-created plazas, arcades, and other outdoor and indoor privately owned public spaces (POPS). Built and managed by office and residential skyscraper owners in return for valuable floor area bonuses and other zoning concessions, these privately owned spaces are legally required to be open for public use. While some are quite good, others are problematic. APOPS@MAS seeks to sustain and improve all spaces through constructive engagement with owners, public officials, community boards, civic groups, and, most fundamentally, with you.
THE 50-YEAR RECORD OF NEW YORK CITY’S PRIVATELY OWNED PUBLIC SPACES
Under the public policy of incentive zoning, New York City since 1961 has granted more than 20 million square feet of floor area bonuses and other zoning concessions to office and residential building developers in return for over 80 acres of plazas, arcades, and other outdoor and indoor privately owned public spaces. To put this in context, 20 million square feet is the equivalent of roughly seven Empire State Buildings, and 80 acres of public space would cover about 10% of Central Park. Although the zoning rules governing the spaces have changed over the years, one aspect has remained constant. Spaces must be open for public use during legally specified hours, often for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even though they are privately owned and managed. Most spaces are located in Manhattan’s midtown, upper east side, upper west side, and downtown neighborhoods where the highest numbers of employees, residents, and visitors may be found. Several spaces are located in Brooklyn and Queens.
How have the 525 or so spaces performed for the public? Harvard professor and APOPS founder Jerold Kayden, in collaboration with the New York City Department of City Planning and the Municipal Art Society of New York, conducted a research study and wrote the book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience (New York: John Wiley & Sons 2000). Among other things, the book presented the study’s two major conclusions. First, although the zoning deals produced an impressive quantity of public space, they failed to yield a similarly impressive quality of public space. While some spaces have proved to be welcome additions to the public realm, the study concluded that 41% of the spaces were of marginal value, with plazas and arcades constructed in the 1960s and early 1970s worst of all. The 1961 Zoning Resolution, as originally enacted, bears significant responsibility for this outcome in that it granted zoning bonuses without imposing meaningful legal standards governing the design and operation of the plazas and arcades provided in return. For example, zoning’s specifications for plazas said nothing about seating, landscaping, construction materials, or orientation to sunlight. Developers often did little more than put down paving around their buildings, call the resulting spaces plazas, and collect the lucrative floor area bonuses, all in full compliance with the law.
Just as bad law produced bad spaces, better law produced better spaces. Inspired by the work of pioneering urban observer William H. Whyte and his Street Life Project, city officials adopted zoning amendments in the mid-1970s that made greater demands on developers seeking zoning bonuses, including requirements for seating, landscaping, bike racks, drinking fountains, and identification plaques. Not surprisingly, use and enjoyment of spaces produced under these heightened rules increased significantly.
The second conclusion of the Kayden/NYDCP/MAS study was that, in a substantial number of cases, owners reduced or prevented public use through illegal privatization of their public space. Field surveys conducted by the research project in 1998 and 1999 revealed that roughly 50 percent of all buildings with public space had at least one space apparently out-of-compliance with applicable legal requirements that resulted in some degree of privatization. The privatizations organized themselves into three categories: denial of public access, annexation of public space by adjacent private uses, and diminution of required amenities. Locked gates would prevent public access during hours when the space was required to be open. A building representative would incorrectly inform members of the public that the space was for tenant use only. Required public restrooms would be declared off-limits to the public. Unapproved brasserie bulge, café creep, and trattoria trickle from adjacent private food operations would render parts of the public space inaccessible to individuals unwilling to purchase food or drink. Required seating would be absent or disabled by spikes, plant material would be missing or dead, and water fountains would not work.
During the 1970s and 1980s, city officials devoted most of their attention to improving the rules governing the provision of future public space rather than to actions that could improve existing public space. Given the absence of comprehensive, accurate records about each existing space and the specific legal obligations attached to it, this forward-looking focus was understandable. How could government monitor and improve existing public space if no one possessed full and correct records about them? The 2000 Kayden/NYDCP/MAS research study filled this vacuum by comprehensively locating and analyzing the foundational legal and planning documents in order to make judgment calls needed to support monitoring, enforcement, evaluation, and stewardship activities with regard to the existing public space inventory.
When the book was published in 2000, the City filed eight administrative and three judicial actions against public space owners operating legally non-compliant spaces. That proved to be the high water mark for enforcement, however, as structural, institutional, and resource constraints subsequently rendered robust, ongoing, proactive government monitoring and stewardship difficult to achieve. The Department of City Planning is legally not charged with enforcing the Zoning Resolution. The Department of Buildings is, but it is also responsible for assuring that elevators work and facades stay in place. Thus, it is not surprising that the Department would place a higher priority on safety issues than on public space legal compliance. The Buildings Department has never conducted systematic, periodic, comprehensive inspections of public spaces to secure consistent, ongoing legal compliance. Inspections are complaint-driven, occurring when members of the public or concerned Department of City Planning staff bring complaints. This ad hoc approach fails to catch, let alone prevent ongoing violations that prevail to this day.
Under the dedicated leadership of Director Amanda Burden, the Department of City Planning introduced new zoning rules in 2007 and 2009 to improve the design of newly provided spaces as well as existing ones in cases where owners have sought to modify them. Recently, the Department has sought to introduce monitoring of some spaces, but it remains, understandably, outside the responsibility and staffing of the Department to oversee the full inventory of existing spaces. Although civic organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, the Design Trust for Public Space, Project for Public Spaces, and New Yorkers for Parks have shown serious concern about this issue, they too have had trouble dealing comprehensively with the opportunity the spaces present.
Professor Kayden founded Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space in 2002 and began working cooperatively with the Municipal Art Society and the Department of City Planning. An APOPS-MAS collaboration began to imagine projects for improving spaces and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the City Planning Department to address monitoring and other aspects of public space. APOPS-MAS hired a part-time senior public space specialist to help with monitoring activities. In 2005, APOPS became a New York State not-for-profit corporation with a small board of directors. Kayden and APOPS subsequently collaborated with Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and its president, Reyn Levy, on the Harmony Atrium public space project that resulted in upgrading the rundown indoor space into what is now widely celebrated as the David Rubenstein Atrium, a rejuvenated space designed by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams.
APOPS@MAS is committed to publicizing public spaces, disseminating information, and programming them. To that end, the following activities will be pursued:
- creation and maintenance of a multiple platform web page providing public information about POPS and allowing members of the public to post comments, photographs, and ideas
- maintenance and updating of all public space records created by Kayden, DCP, and MAS
- artistic, educational, and recreational programs mounted in cooperation with owners
- publication of an annual “State of Privately Owned Public Space Report”
- presentation of an annual “Best of Privately Owned Public Spaces” award
- staging an annual public event about privately owned public space
- holding a design competition for chairs and other amenities designed specifically for privately owned public space
- conducting tours
- working with community boards, business improvement districts, and not-for-profit institutions on public space issues
- collaborating with educational institutions at all levels
APOPS@MAS will work with owners of existing private owned public spaces to encourage physical upgrades and new programming. To that end, the following activities will be pursued:
- identification of private institutions with potential interest in “adopting” and upgrading existing privately owned public spaces
- arrangement of design competitions and consultations for interested owners
- assistance to owners in securing, where appropriate, regulatory permission for improvements to spaces
- assistance to owners interested in collective arrangements for the maintenance of public space, including clean-up, food service, landscaping, security, and nighttime/weekend openings and closings
APOPS@MAS will administer a monitoring program though which every privately owned public space in the City is periodically visited to determine whether it is in compliance with applicable legal requirements and whether any noteworthy changes have occurred. This effort will be conducted in accordance with the “Memorandum of Understanding” between APOPS, MAS, and the Department of City Planning that set forth a protocol for transmitting monitoring information to the City. In cases where a privately owned public space is apparently out-of-compliance with legal requirements, APOPS@MAS will inform the owner of the alleged violation. If the owner is unwilling to cure the alleged illegality, APOPS@MAS will prepare a monitoring report for the Department describing its findings and correlating them with the specific legal requirements governing the space. The Department may then choose to prepare its own report for the Department of Buildings. APOPS@MAS reserves the ultimate ability to file complaints directly with the DOB or otherwise initiate administrative or other legal actions. APOPS@MAS will also work with community boards, business improvement districts, and other interested groups on monitoring.
APOPS@MAS will pursue special projects related to privately owned public space. For example, it has already convened a small group of individuals to brainstorm about what rules owners should be able to post for public use of privately owned public space. After Occupy Wall Street and its utilization of Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, real estate owners, city officials, civil libertarians, and public space users have wondered about the nature of rules governing public space use. Owners have enacted new and sometimes conflicting rules for their spaces. Some public space users have challenged such rules, even bringing lawsuits against them. A thoughtful conversation about the rights and responsibilities of public users and owners may help inform discussions. Another APOPS@MAS project, entitled “CrossPOPS,” has involved a review of all through-block arcade networks in the City. Future special projects include sponsorship of graduate-level studios at several universities and a study about de-accessioning irredeemable privately owned public spaces from the city inventory.
APOPS@MAS will participate in public policy discussions with City departments, private and public civic groups, and interested members of the public about privately owned public spaces.