Our Changing Urban Life: The Privatization of Public Spaces

     Zuccotti Park was originally called Liberty Plaza Park. That’s an appropriate anecdote to begin this article for several reasons. First, in the last few months of 2011, Zuccotti Park became synonymous with Occupy Wall Street, the movement focused on income and wealth disparity which settled in the park for several weeks. Second, because the change in name represents a shift that has occurred in the way we perceive and experience public space over the last few decades, but in particular since 9/11. And finally, because Zuccotti Park exists as a little known but increasingly important breed of public space, known as a privately-owned public space. What few outside the sphere of urban planning remember is that Zuccotti Park, because it functioned as a privately-owned public space, was as important to Occupy Wall Street as the activists, journalists, and volunteers who made its cause known.

     Indeed, privately-owned public spaces, or POPS, are an increasingly popular source of the parks, plazas, and arcades that we now move through, representing approximately 80 acres across 550 spaces. To understand how this happened, we can look all the way back to the City’s first Zoning Resolution from 1916. The 1916 Resolution intended to address the trend of tall buildings that were rising up in the beginning of the 20th century. These behemoths were beginning to take up entire city blocks, rising to unforeseen heights and blotting out the sun and air all day long. The infamous Equitable Building (120 Broadway, Ernest Graham of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, 1915),

The Equitable Building

The Equitable Building

with its pompous neoclassical facade and a name so ironic you can only laugh, created an environment on the street below that was so offensive the City had to act. The building took up entire city blocks and cast a permanent shadow on nearby buildings. It is indisputable that a lack of accessibility, air flow, and sunshine make for an unhealthy and disengaged city. (You still can visit the intersections of Broadway/Cedar St. or Broadway/Pine St. and feel the claustrophobia). In the following years, the Equitable Building would be used to vindicate those city planners and activists that were working towards a zoning resolution which, in its final form, would require setbacks and restrict the heights of new buildings.

     In some ways, the 1916 Resolution was successful. It pacified those that imagined a dystopian City where pedestrian life was stifled, where air couldn’t flow through the City’s corridors and sunlight never touched the street. At the same time, it gave us the homogenous stream of setback, “wedding-cake” style, Art Deco skyscrapers that now define the City skyline. Among these are, of course, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, but these were followed by countless indistinguishable imitations. Buildings grew taller through the decades of the 20th century, and the City changed. These changes brought new demands for space, and it soon became time for a revision to the 1916 Resolution.

     As the Equitable Building serves a landmark in the development of the City’s 1916 Zoning Resolution, so might the Seagram Building (375 Park Avenue, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1958) serve as a catalyst for the 1961 Resolution. However, they are important for entirely different reasons. Whereas the Equitable Building represents all the excess and arrogance of the City’s early skyscrapers, the Seagram Building is an architectural masterpiece, redefining what materials are used for tall buildings and how tall buildings engage with the space around them. The remarkable innovations of Mies’ building are numerous, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll focus on his utter rejection of the popular ziggurat style of the time. Instead of building straight up from the street and gradually setting the upper floors back, pursuant to the 1916 Resolution, Mies set the base of his building back and built straight up.

Seagram Plaza

Seagram Plaza

The Seagram Building

The Seagram Building

     It was a reflection of his obsession with perfect geometry, transparency, and simple design - Mies was the third and final director of the Bauhaus, a German art school dedicated to the same principles - but it also represented a refusal to conform to the style of the time. His plan for the Seagram Building created a large plaza in the front of the building. This feature is something we take for granted in front of office buildings today, but the plaza represented an important innovation at a time when every square foot of office space was held sacred. During the day, Mies’ plaza attracts pedestrians, office-workers on lunch breaks, and tourists exploring the City. The minimalism of the glass and steel facade evokes the image of an amber-tinted lantern in nighttime. We’ll touch on why this plaza in particular was so successful later, but suffice it now to say that both a building’s developers, its inhabitants, and a neighborhood can benefit greatly from providing public spaces that are interesting and comfortable.

     The erection of the Seagram Building in 1958 offered a model for building design as well as for the sort of public spaces that can coexist with modern skyscrapers. While city planners had been considering a revision to the 1916 Resolution as early as 1948, it was an appreciation for the Seagram Building, as well as an increasing sense that the City was changing and zoning rules would have to change with it that led to the 1961 Zoning Resolution.

     The 1961 Resolution for the first time included a mechanism called incentive zoning. Incentive zoning allows for building developers to receive zoning concessions if they provide some defined amount of space for public use. Practically this means that developers can offer a plaza in front of their building (like in front of the Seagram Building), or open their lobby to the public (like in Trump Tower or BlackRock’s Park Avenue Plaza), or establish a park adjacent to the property (like Zuccotti Park), and in return they could add rentable space to their building, beyond what the zoning rules normally allowed. This creates a benefit for the average New Yorker: essentially free public space, to be maintained, protected and preserved not with taxpayer dollars but by the private entity that owns the building.

     From 1961 to 2000, this sort of incentive zoning created 3.5 million square feet of public space in exchange for 16 million square feet of private floor space (10% of Central Park versus six Empire State Buildings, for perspective). (1) Despite the discrepancy in what the public received versus what developers were offered in concessions, POPS were still seen as full of potential. As years passed, however, it became clear that building owners were neglecting or closing off these spaces. As Jerold S. Kayden of Harvard University, the leader of this niche field, his Advocates for Privately Owned Public Spaces, and the Municipal Art Society found in their 2000 study, POPS are often of low quality, and a significant number of owners illegally privatize their public spaces.

     The purpose of this article is not to demonize privately-owned spaces that are offered for public use. Without the Bryant Park Corporation, started by the Rockefeller Brothers, and the 34th Street Partnership, Bryant Park would have remained the wasteland of drugs and crime that it was in the 1970s (and it certainly wouldn’t have the budget that it now has under private management, six times what it was when run by the City). (2) Without the Central Park Conservancy, a private, nonprofit institution formed in the 1980s, Central Park would have decayed beyond the dangerous state it was in through the 60s and 70s. As the Conservancy’s website points out, “[they] provide 75% of Central Park's $67 million annual operating budget, and are responsible for all aspects of Park maintenance, as well as capital improvements and restorations.” (3) A final example is the High Line, run jointly by Friends of the High Line, which provides 98% of the park’s annual budget, and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (the High Line was also notably the passion project of City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, a fierce advocate for public spaces who served during Mayor Bloomberg’s administration). (4) It is also worth mentioning that the $100 million of investment which went into building the High Line was met with 30 development projects representing $2 billion in the first 3 years after its opening. (5) One of the more specialized spaces is the David Rubinstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, originally called the Harmony Atrium. When Lincoln Center, just around the corner, realized the Atrium wasn’t living up to its potential, it decided to finance the project and begin offering free weekly jazz performances, food, wifi, seating, restrooms, and a communal garden for the public to enjoy. (6)

     Clearly, private ownership and management of public spaces can yield some of the finest parks that we move through and enjoy. But far too often, building owners receive their zoning concessions, mark off some rectangle of space near their building, and offer little more. One of the first efforts at enhancing the quality of these spaces came from William H. Whyte, a pioneer in the field who used photography to study these spaces in innovative ways. His studies, all part of the Street Life Project, culminated in 1980 in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a documentary film, and a series of recommendations to the City, which sought to improve the quality of New York City’s public spaces. As part of this project, he revisited the Seagram Building’s plaza to better understand why it was so popular. Whyte was dedicated to understanding why good parks are successful and why bad parks fail.

     It is important to remember that we can assess parks in such objective terms. Some are simply neglected, positioned carelessly, and not offered any sort of amenities that might help it thrive. Jane Jacobs made this point using the simplest of terms in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Parks are not automatically anything.” (7) This objectivity is why we are able to say that so many privately-owned public spaces are failures. Whyte discovered that the location of the Seagram Building, its proximity to the street, the availability of seating, the motion picture of street life that it provided and the abundance of sunlight that it received made the building’s plaza a popular space. He summarized these findings by concluding that “[t]he street is the river of life through the city” and that “we come to [such plazas] not to escape [the streets], but to partake in them.” (8)

Paley Park

Paley Park

     Whyte discovered an even more successful space just down the block from Seagram’s, in a true POPS called Paley Park. This vest-pocket park, as such irregular plots of land tucked between buildings are called, is remarkably effective as a public space for several reasons. It is the sort of space that one is reluctant to share with friends out of fear that it might one day be overrun. But it begs to be shared. Paley Park is best enjoyed when stumbled upon, when its four short steps, straddled by wheelchair accessible ramps, are met by exhausted legs that crave one of its simple white chairs, or by a weary office-worker who could not survive the afternoon in their cubicle were it not for this perfect lunchtime refuge. It's important that the chairs are movable because it gives people a sense of control over the space that they’re in. And it matters that the water feature is loud, drowning out the city noise but also offering a blanket of sonic privacy. Spaces like Paley Park, with its concessions stands, its small but sufficient tables, its honey locust trees with fractured foliage that let in softly scattered light, and its transportive water feature, all combine to create the ideal privately owned public space. Features like those seen in Paley Park informed the bulk of Whyte’s 1980 recommendations.

     Paley Park would be nothing, though, without its attentive caretakers. The building owner adjacent to the property maintains it diligently, making rules and providing amenities not necessary but important and appreciated. The Park is a fascinating place to experience. On some days, you’ll begin to catch the scent of cigar smoke. Indeed, smoking is allowed in Paley Park, unlike in City parks. At the same time, if you put your feet up on the chair next to you (as I did one day), the maintenance worker will promptly request that you remove them. The relationship between park and park-owner creates idiosyncratic public spaces. However, the dependence of POPS on their private owners also makes them vulnerable. They often provide little more than a space which may be called public in the most forgivable sense of the word, sufficient to justify the zoning concession that was granted in exchange. This highlights one of the inherent problems of POPS: the incentive for property owners to maintain and improve the spaces is not obvious.

     Incentive mismatches like these are the source of many of the problems that Jerold Kayden identifies in his 2000 study of POPS. Among them are that POPS are difficult to identify, which is what made Kayden’s comprehensive study so difficult. Now, there are unique signs marking POPS, standardized by the City.

The sign at West Plaza at 8 Spruce Street

The sign at West Plaza at 8 Spruce Street

1 Pace Plaza

1 Pace Plaza

     At the time, however, there was no database of these spaces, and intensive field study was required to map them. Additionally, there is little monitoring or enforcement of the guidelines under which POPS are established (before Whyte’s study there were virtually no requirements other than being open 24 hours; after Whyte, certain amenities became required). When Kayden investigated these spaces, it became very clear that New Yorkers were not getting their end of the bargain.

     These efforts, by Jacobs, Whyte, Kayden, Burden, and so many others have gotten us to the 2000s. Still, there remains tremendous room for improvement. The City needs to define its relationship to POPS. In 2011, all the challenges and ambiguities related to POPS came rushing to the surface. Protestors and activists from Occupy Wall Street were camping out in a space that looked like a public park, Zuccotti Park, but was really a POPS.

Zuccotti Park

Zuccotti Park

    No one is allowed to sleep overnight in City parks, but POPS occupy a legal gray area. While the New York Police Department surrounded the perimeter of the park, they lacked the legal authority to forcefully remove its occupants. The property owner eventually ordered NYPD to remove the protestors so the park could be cleaned, arguing that conditions had become unsanitary and its obligation to maintain the park superseded its obligation to keep it open 24 hours a day. Additionally, it was later argued in court that Occupy Wall Street had made it so that no other members of the public could use the park for anything else, monopolizing the space and diminishing its public value. Such arguments were the basis for the removal of protestors, but the incident more generally prompted the City to clarify what POPS are and how we may enjoy them.

     And then we also must be mindful of those instances where the public is getting swindled. In perhaps the least covered scandal of this election, New York City recently imposed (and an administrative law judge upheld (9) ) a $10,000 fine on the Trump Organization for replacing a public bench in a POPS with a kiosk selling Trump products (bear in mind that it was a 22-foot long bench and that kiosk was selling campaign merchandise for a presidential candidate - guess which one). This sort of privatization, whereby amenities are removed or never provided, is one of the most common infringements on the underlying promise of each POPS. Building owners are neglecting or deliberately ignoring their responsibilities to the public all over the City.

     Matt Chaban at The New York Times visited a POPS at the Knave, a cafe inside Manhattan’s Le Parker Meridien hotel. He found that the hotel prohibited outside food and drinks - the City forbids such a practice. (10) BlackRock’s Park Avenue Plaza is slightly more welcoming, offering a public atrium with a Starbucks.

The Starbucks at Park Avenue Plaza

The Starbucks at Park Avenue Plaza

Another view of Park Avenue Plaza

Another view of Park Avenue Plaza

     It is required to be open to the public, but would you feel comfortable bringing a pizza inside and sitting down to eat with the countless guards looming nearby? Far more POPS are set up like these than like Paley Park.

     The area around Zuccotti Park offers an opportunity to experience every problem with these spaces that you can imagine. In fact, the Equitable Building that spurred planners and activists in 1916 is diagonal Zuccotti Park. Across the street from the Park and adjacent to the Equitable Building is the Marine Midland Building (140 Broadway, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1967)

Midland Plaza

Midland Plaza

featuring a public plaza that is host to Isamu Noguchi's Red Cube. This plaza is, quite simply, a sad space. There is no seating or amenities whatsoever. Noguchi’s Cube is the only redeeming feature, but it’s hard to imagine the building owners intended it to be an attraction. If they wanted people to enjoy the space, would they have included a placard on the ground stating “Property of 140 Broadway - Crossing Permission is Revocable at Will”?

The property line at Midland Plaza

The property line at Midland Plaza

     If you go around the corner from the Marine Midland Building to the plaza surrounding 28 Liberty Plaza, fka One Chase Manhattan Plaza (28 Liberty Plaza, Gordon Bunshaft, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1961) you’ll find a plaza that has the potential to be successful because of the ample amenities it provides, but one that is elevated so high above the street and is so girded by the rules of the building owner that it can hardly be enjoyed. This fundamental separation between the building’s inhabitants and the life of the street will make it challenging for the renovation of the plaza to accomplish its goal of “reinvigorating the 2.5-acre plaza and supporting the site’s transformation into a vibrant community space.” (11)

28 Liberty Plaza

28 Liberty Plaza

     Similarly, walk by 100 William Street

100 William Street

100 William Street

and take a look at Marvel Architects’s public lobby space. The design firm’s website proudly declares it “[t]he transformation of this dated, dark and uninviting lobby and walkthrough atrium at 100 William Street,” (12) but you’d be hard pressed to have any fun there if you catch a glimpse of the list of rules as you enter from the street. The list notes that, among other things, “lying down, or sitting anywhere other than benches, is prohibited.” Also, my favorite: “No noise.”

The rules and regulations at 100 William Street

The rules and regulations at 100 William Street

     What happens when our experience of public spaces becomes limited to sitting in an upright posture on one or two of the “55 linear feet of seating” that a private building developer provides?

     One City Councilman, Dan Darodnick, chairman of the land use committee, is working to improve the situation concerning POPS. (13) While acknowledging the challenges and costs that enforcement by the City, Councilman Garodnick is pursuing legislation that would increase transparency and other lawmakers are working to expand reporting requirements for these areas. It shouldn’t be the burden of organizations like Kayden’s Advocates for Privately Owned Public Spaces to do all the grunt work. New York City should follow the lead of San Francisco, which in 2012 mapped, photographed, and began offering clear information on what each building owner has agreed to provide the public in exchange for the zoning concession they received. And building owners should be forced to comply with reporting requirements to ensure spaces are maintained and providing the requisite amenities. Our City’s spaces are changing in important ways. Urban planners are employing innovative tools like zoning concessions to make sure that as buildings get taller and profits get larger, the public gets something in return.

     We must ask ourselves how we want to enjoy and share in public spaces, and how much liberty we are willing to sacrifice in the name of security. We increasingly find streets and walkways blocked off by bollards, those large, often steel or concrete, posts that prevent vehicles from driving too close to buildings. Large bags are subject to inspections. In New York City, unlike many cities abroad, you cannot drink alcoholic beverages in public parks. Often you cannot skateboard or play loud music. At the same time, designers often lay spiked strips down on brick or stone walls to prevent people from sitting or homeless people from sleeping there.

Spikes on one such wall

Spikes on one such wall

Benches designed to prevent sleeping

Benches designed to prevent sleeping

The armrests you see on many benches are not at all for resting your arms. They are to keep people from laying down. Not even mentioning the sad effect such a design has on our public spaces, is making homeless people uncomfortable the best way to solve the City’s homeless problem?

     We must be thoughtful about the effects that these regulations have on urban life. POPS are just another manifestation of this trend toward privatization, security, and neglect for the public. The privatization of public spaces poses a serious threat to the way we experience the world around us. We, the public, although we should not necessarily have to, play an important role in holding building owners accountable and making sure the City remains ours. If increased regulations or heavily guarded public spaces make you feel safe or comfortable, that’s fine, but when we acquiesce to the temptations of the safest or most economic life possible, we must not forget the beauty of the prior freedoms that once colored our City and the lives of everyone in it.

Notes 

1 http://apops.mas.org/about/history/

2 http://www.bryantpark.org/about-us/management.html

3 http://www.centralparknyc.org/about/

4 http://www.thehighline.org/about

5 http://www.fahrenheit-212.com/amanda-burden-the-high-line-project/

6 http://atrium.lincolncenter.org/index.php/about-the-atrium

7 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books, 1961. pg. 89.

8 https://vimeo.com/111488563

9 http://nypost.com/2016/08/17/trump-fined-10k-for-removing-bench-in-front-of-trump-tower/

10 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/08/nyregion/unwelcome-mat-is-out-at-some-of-new-yorks-privately-owned-public-spaces.html

11 http://www.som.com/projects/28_liberty_formerly_one_chase_manhattan_plaza

12 http://marvelarchitects.com/project/100-william-street/

13 http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2016/06/privately-owned-public-spaces-scrutinized-at-council-hearing-103403