The city will gain what amounts to a permanent, open park in the heart of one of the most densely built-up areas in the world. It is principally because of this public benefit that the commission has viewed this application with favor.
—City Planning application No. 20222, adopted March 20, 1968
Except for the highly intrusive police fencing lining a handful of streets and the occasional thrum of a drum circle, life goes on in Lower Manhattan. Tourists clog the streets in front of Century 21, craning to get a look at World Trade Center construction and the new 9/11 memorial beyond. Analysts and traders puff on cigarettes on the granite plazas outside their towering offices. Strollers abound.
The protests known as #occupywallstreet might better be called #occupyzucottipark. The plaza two blocks from the street of the protestors’ ire is well-known by now, a square to rival Rockefeller Center or the Apple Cube of Fifth Avenue in its current popularity.
Walking through the space, with its granite risers, sunken lights and giant red Mark di Suvero sculpture, the crowd looks like a bizarro street fair. Yet it is surprisingly organized, with a kitchen, media area, information kiosk, a library and the general assembly, where debates, discussions, airings of grievance are held each night—all conveniently mapped inside The Occupied Wall Street Journal. The park has even been rechristened by the protestors as Liberty Plaza, the name it bore before the space was rehabbed in 2006 by next-door landlord Brookfield Properties, which renamed the space for its U.S. chairman.
Not since Bowling Green served as a cattle market for old New Amsterdam has there been this much organization in a city park. Or at least since Streisand had her happening in Central Park.
For at least the past week, Brookfield has been trying to put an end to the occupation. “For more than two weeks, protesters have been squatting in the park,“ declares a company statement, the latest of many, released on Monday. “Brookfield recognizes people’s right to peaceful protest; however, we also have an obligation to ensure that the park remains safe, clean, and accessible to everyone.”
And yet there has been a surprising amount of push back. Not from the protesters but the NYPD. The park, which is a bit under an acre, was built along with neighboring 1 Liberty Plaza, the old U.S. Steel Building, in the early 1970s, and it is not actually city-owned but instead the product of an obscure section of the zoning code known as a privately owned public space, or a POPS. In exchange for the plaza, which was in decline even before it was destroyed on 9/11, the building’s original developer got a whopping 304,000 square feet to add to its project, or what turned out to be a considerable nine floors.
The N.Y.P.D. has so far refused to act, and the reasoning seems clear: by keeping the protestors confined to the park, they are easier to corral and monitor. If they were to be pushed out, they might well end up on the sidewalks or dispersed throughout the neighborhood, making their movements more difficult to track. And because Brookfield is responsible for the property, the department can easily defer. “The owners will have to come in and direct people not to do certain things,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said last Wednesday.
Thanks to the legal gray area created by many of these POPS, the rules and jurisdictions are usually loosely defined. Often times, that is just the way the developers and building managers like it—they can enforce the rules as they see fit. (Brookfield has yet to act on its own to show the so-called squatters off, despite posting new rules to discourage them from staying the night.)
But were it not for this POPS known as Zucotti Park, the occupation of Wall Street may have withered long ago. Would they really be so successful on the Battery, where camping is explicitly forbidden? And the police certainly would not have tolerated them camping out on the sidewalk, or if they were to, as Adbusters initially suggested, “flood the streets.”
As the City Planning Commission made explicitly clear when it approved this POPS in 1968, this was a public space very much in demand, and it remains so to this day.
POPS have had their fair share of critics over the years, almost as many as the Occupy Wall Street protestors have. Aimless as they may be, even if the protesters fail to ignite a national movement that taxes the rich at a higher rate, ends corporate welfare orconverts the country into a legion of vegans, the occupation could well awaken New Yorkers to the tiny public spaces scattered about the city that they often ignore. Occupy Wall Street may finally lead New Yorkers to occupy POPS instead.
The POPS system was inaugurated with the 1961 rewriting of the city zoning code, which overhauled every aspect of what and how the city builds. Among the new provisions was what was known as the public benefit incentive, which encouraged the construction of plazas in front of buildings. This was the codification of a number of practices already much in vogue in the city and contemporary design at large, from the plazas at Rockefeller Center to those in front of the Seagram Building and Lever House. William Paley built one of the very first POPS at 3 East 53rd Street, down the block from CBS headquarters on the site of the old Stork Club. While he did name Paley Park after himself, he did not build it in the first place because there was a development incentive.
However not all builders were as magnanimous as Rockefeller and Paley, and as the set-back, wedding cake buildings of the Art Deco era segued to the flat-faced sleekness of modernism, the encroachment of these blank slabs of buildings onto the sidewalks and public byways led to city to seek a respite. Since its inception, 526 plazas at 372 buildings have been built in the five boroughs, according to the Department of City Planning.
From the start, developers sought to undermine the program. “The city continues to face challenges with the zoning law’s oxymoronic invention. The challenge is posed by the very contradiction of having private interests responsible for the public trust,” said Harvard professor Jerold Kayden, who performed a study for the city in 2000.
As of last count, 10 Bryant Parks’ worth of new public space was created in exchange for developers building the equivalent of seven Empire State Buildings. Whether or not that is a fair trade-off is a question many POPS advocates often ask, whether these are truly public amenities or merely developer giveaways. Equally troubling to them is what they see as spaces that are either poorly designed or have been quietly taken over by their private stewards.
The city is rife with both: the 2000 survey found that at least half the city’s POPS were underutilized, a story that appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Greg Smithsimon, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and co-author of The Beach Beneath the Streets: Exclusion, Control, and Play in Public Space, said that he spoke to a number of architects who were explicitly told to dampen their POPS, sinking them below grade or behind fences, anything to make them uninviting. Granted, it was also a very different New York, one on the decline, so anything that invited strangers to linger was not viewed in a positive light.
What resulted was “an arms race,” as Mr. Smithsimon called it, where by the Department of City Planning, which creates the rules for each POPS, would fine tune the rules each time a developer seemed to find a work-around. Fences were restricted, so pits became the norm. Developers lobbied for inside spaces, protected from the elements, but then they tried to shut them down. In 1975, new rules were established requiring a minimum of eight chairs, eight trees, and one sign outlining the rules, often limited, of these POPS. They were revised again by City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, a great champion of POPS in 2007 and again two years later, with specific guidelines about the types of chairs plants, fences, and so forth. “Great public space is why you stay in the city,” she said at the time.
The challenge is improving upon the hundreds of POPS that remain inferior and underutilized today while also keeping an eye on encroachment from building owners. This is something Mr. Kayden calls “café creep, bistro bulge,” whereby adjacent eateries set up tables, often barricaded from the public and set up without approval. POPS advocates are not necessarily opposed to such spaces, agreeing that they can vitalize a space, but the feeling still is that the developers are double-dipping—they made thousands, if not millions, off their taller buildings, and now they are cashing in on the public space that enabled those profits, as well.
Part of the problem is that the rules and enforcement regarding POPS are loosely defined and split roughly among the departments of City Planning, Parks, Buildings and Police, which are often too busy to inspect and enforce POPS rules. Some watchdog groups have stepped up as a result, such as Friends of POPS. Brian Nesin, an architect in the city who studied under Mr. Kayden, started the group and now hosts pot lucks and other activities to exercise a right to these places. A parade is planned through a series of POPS in midtown later this month.
More than the encroachment of private enterprise, Mr. Nesin sees a threat from private enforcement. He was twice kicked out of the Parker Meridien, which has annexed its POPS as a sort of lobby, and because of the cloudiness of the rules, there was no way to protest. “When the guards show up, what can you do but argue,” Mr. Nesin said. And he has it easy. “I could probably go sit in most of these places, but if I was 16 and black, it would be a different story.”
Even landlords, with all the benefits they reap, express some ambivalence over POPS. “It’s much more challenging, when it’s open for everybody, how do you ensure there aren’t people interfering with other people’s enjoyment of the plaza,” said Maryanne Gilmartin, executive vice president at Forest City Ratner. She oversees one of the largest POPS in the city at the MetroTech Center, and while it has had its difficulties with loiterers and litter, overall, the project would be a failure without it, she said.
Mr. Nesin sees hope for POPS popularity in the current protests on Wall Street. With awareness growing of these spaces, and aided by tools like Facebook, his group hopes to catalogue the city’s POPS. That way, users can post comments about their state and the problems with them. “We need to be able to build a constituency that cares about these spaces,” he said. “Just imagine if every POPS was as busy as Bryant Park.”
That idea might not thrill developers, but it is what makes the city thrive. “To the extent that the life blood of a protest is a physical, livable space, it’s obviously a great boon to the people who are trying to deliver a message that these spaces exist throughout the city,” Mr. Kayden said. “These spaces contribute to the betterment of society.”