The history of privately owned public spaces (POPS) in the United States starts in 1961 and the adoption of a new zoning resolution in New York City. The City introduced a zoning trade of private space for public space. Under what came to be known as incentive zoning, private office and residential developers between 1961 and 2000 built an extra 16 million square feet of private space above what they otherwise would have been allowed to build under applicable zoning rules in return for their provision of over 500 plazas, arcades, and other outdoor and indoor POPS constituting 80 acres of space. To put this trade in context, 16 million square feet of private floor area is the equivalent of roughly six Empire State Buildings, while 80 acres of privately owned public space equals 10% of Central Park. Most POPS are located in Manhattan’s midtown, upper east side, upper west side, and downtown districts. A few spaces exist in Brooklyn and Queens, none in the Bronx or Staten Island. Although the zoning rules governing POPS have changed for the better since 1961, one aspect has remained constant: even though they are privately owned and managed, POPS must be open for use by the public, many for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
How have the 525 or so spaces performed since 1961? Harvard University professor and Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space founder Jerold S. 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). The book contained 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. Second, a significant number of owners illegally privatized their public spaces.
As to the first conclusion, the study found that, while some spaces proved to be welcome additions to the public realm, 41% of them were of marginal quality, 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 The 1961 Zoning Resolution, as originally enacted, bears significant responsibility for this outcome in that it granted valuable floor area bonuses to developers without imposing in return meaningful legal standards governing the design and operation of the provided POPS. The zoning rules for plazas and arcades said nothing, for example, about seating, landscaping, construction materials, or orientation to sunlight. Developers often did little more than install 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, however, better law introduced in the 1970s and beyond produced better spaces. Inspired by the work of pioneering urban observer William H. Whyte and his Street Life Project, City officials adopted zoning amendments that placed greater demands on POPS, 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 enhancement of standards continued through the administration of Amanda Burden in the Department of City Planning, with new rules introduced for public plazas in 2007 and 2009.
The study’s second conclusion was that many owners reduced or prevented public use of their POPS through illegal privatization actions. Field surveys conducted by the research team in 1998 and 1999 revealed that roughly 50 percent of all buildings with POPS had at least one apparently out-of-compliance with applicable legal requirements that resulted in privatization. Privatization actions 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 the public that the space was for tenant use only. Required public restrooms would be declared off-limits to all but tenants. Brasserie bulge, café creep, and trattoria trickle would render parts of the POPS inaccessible to individuals unable or unwilling to purchase food or drink without the building owned having secured necessary City approvals. Required seating would be absent or disabled by spikes, plant material would be missing or dead, and water fountains would not work.
When the book was published in 2000, the City filed eight administrative and three judicial actions against POPS owners alleged to be operating legally non-compliant spaces. That proved to be the high water mark for enforcement, however, as institutional and resource constraints subsequently rendered proactive government monitoring and enforcement difficult to achieve. The Department of City Planning is not legally charged with enforcing the Zoning Resolution, even as it has asked staff members from time to time to monitor some of the POPS. The Department of Buildings is, but its plate is full. Is it a surprise that the Buildings Department would place a higher priority on safety issues, such as the functioning of elevators, than on POPS legal compliance. The Buildings Department has never conducted periodic and comprehensive inspections of POPS, responding instead to complaints from APOPS, community boards, members of the public, or City Planning staff about specific spaces.
The next chapter of POPS history is waiting to be written.