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I approached The Cohen Brothers Park at 135 East 57th Street by walking south on the west side of Lexington Avenue. As I was half a block away, I saw the massive circular sculpture looming over the busy corner of 57th Street and Lexington Avenue. The pillars, made of dark heavy marble, held up a circular structure resembling a huge cement donut. I rounded the corner so as to get a better view of the structure and felt very small. Inside the circular pavilion, benches are carved into structure to provide seating. On each side of the structure, there are several plants, and a small waterfall. There are steps up to the pavilion from the corner of the block, and ramps to enter the plaza from both sides.
135 East 57th Street is a property owned by Cohen Brothers Realty, a global property management company. What is interesting about this property, is that it actually contains two privately owned public spaces. The first is the entrance described above, and the second is a small park, much more secluded, around the corner from the main building. This offers a dramatically different experience than the main plaza area on the corner of 57th and Lexington. As opposed to the grand theatrical experience a visitor feels upon approaching the plaza, the park is deep, narrow, and much more intimate, as it penetrates into the block north of 57th street. Unfortunately this park was closed when I visited on Sunday afternoon, so I was unable to go inside. However, a view through the gate provided me with plenty of information. At the back there is a waterfall, and on the sides of the park there are several benches surrounded by plants, flowers, and trees. In the middle there are tables and chairs for more seating.
The two POPS are interesting in relation to David Harvey’s spatial theory. The two spaces located on the same property lot are, of course, absolute spaces within themselves. They can be considered relative in that they provide platforms on which circulation of energy and people take place at all hours. They are relational in that they were created on the basis of laws which were made to re-define the standards of space in New York City; a change to the history of Manhattan. Furthermore, I found this location similar to the Panopticon in that it is circular in nature, and directly visible by the security desk in the lobby of the main building on the plaza. I stepped inside the building for a brief moment and observed that whoever is standing guard at the desk has a full view of the entire plaza from one end to the other. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an intended design feature for the building and plaza.
Overall, I found this POPS to be very successful according to New York City standards for a POPS. Both areas were ADA accessible, and had plenty of greenery to create a sense of calm to distract from the busy neighborhood. The waterfalls also added to this effect.The circular design of the plaza allowed for functional circulation of pedestrians, as well as lots of visibility to ensure a sense of safety and openness. There were more than enough seating areas to accommodate a large number of people, making this POPS an ideal place for a quick break from the office.
In an interview conducted by Lara Belkind for FunctionLab, the research arm of Farshid Moussavi Architecture (FMA), entitled “Privately Owned Public Space—For Whom, By Whom,” APOPS founder and Harvard Professor Jerold Kayden discusses the functional uses of privately owned public space in New York City, particularly since the publication of his book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience in 2000. Citing Zuccotti Park as a site of political protest during Occupy Wall Street, he describes how the occupation challenged everyone’s conception about how POPS may be used. He notes that the Zoning Resolution is silent with regard to what user conduct POPS owners may prohibit. What’s interesting, Kayden suggests, is that many of the POPS from the 1960s and early 1970s, bereft of public amenities such as seating or landscaping, present an opportunity to be defined by use rather than design. You can read the full interview here.
Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space and The Municipal Art Society of New York believe that a city’s greatness is enhanced by an attractive, usable, and egalitarian public realm. Part of New York City’s public realm includes privately owned public spaces (POPS), spaces that by law must be open to the public for public use. The city has more than 550 of them, in the form of plazas, arcades, and other outdoor and indoor spaces located at street level of many office and residential towers. Together, the spaces total over 80 acres or roughly 10 percent of Central Park. Private real estate developers voluntarily provided POPS after receiving zoning permission to add close to four million square feet of rentable and saleable floor area in their buildings, floor area that they would not have otherwise been able to build.
Now here’s the interesting proposition. Imagine you were able to assume some form of stewardship over these spaces. That’s the imagination underlying a joint venture between Harvard Professor Jerold S. Kayden, his organization Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space, and the Municipal Art Society of New York. The three parties have joined forces to guide public stewardship of POPS by sparking constructive action-producing conversations among residents and employees, POPS owners, public officials, community board members, civic activists, and anyone else hoping to realize the promise of privately owned public spaces. Through creative ideas and hard work, all parties can make POPS contribute to a better city.
The APOPS|MAS work program consists of six elements: (1) Public Information; (2) Programs; (3) Upgrading; (4) Monitoring; (5) Special Projects; and (6) Public Policy. Some activities have commenced, others remain dependent on funding availability. Read more about these six elements here. You are invited to join in this effort by contacting APOPS|MAS through this website.Contact us if you are interested.
David Greenfield, former Chair of New York City Council’s Land Use Committee. Image courtesy of council.nyc.gov.
In 2017, the New York City Council passed a new law about privately owned public space (POPS) requiring (1) annual reporting by the Department of City Planning to the Mayor and Speaker about all POPS, the posting of POPS information on the Department’s website including an interactive map and a mechanism for electronically filing complaints, (2) proactive inspections of all POPS every three years and an annual report to the mayor and speaker about POPS complaints and enforcement actions by a city department (presumably the Department of Buildings), and (3) the posting of signs with information about POPS at every POPS in the city. The City Council passed the bill on June 21, 2017, following a June 29, 2016 public hearing held by the Council’s Land Use Committee, chaired by Council Member David Greenfield, to examine City oversight of POPS. Sixteen members of the Council, including Barron, Chin, Cohen, Dickens, Garodnick, Gentile, Kallos, Koo, Lander, Levin, Mendez, Reynoso, Rose, Torres, and Williams attended the hearing. Witnesses who testified included Edith Hsu-Chen, Director of the Manhattan Office in the Department of City Planning, Anita Laremont, General Counsel of the City Planning Commission, Patrick Wehle, Assistant Commissioner for External Affairs in the Department of Buildings, Joseph Ventour, Chief of Special Operations in the Buildings Department, Harvard professor and Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space founder Jerold S. Kayden, and representatives of various civic groups interested in POPS. Information about the hearing, including a video of the hearing and a transcript, can be found at the City Council’s website here..
After a long absence, the legally required public bench at Trump Tower’s privately owned public space is finally back in place. Together with the previous removal of two sales kiosks that had illegally occupied the POPS for years, this marks a long-sought successful outcome to efforts by the Department of Buildings, APOPS|MAS, and media reporting to secure compliance with the space’s applicable legal requirements.