Last Thursday, a wooden formwork, or cast, for a concrete wall inside one of *Manhattan’s many new hotels broke. This sent a cascade of concrete into one of the city’s grand not-quite-new-but-not-old hotels, Le Parker Meridien. The construction accident on West 56th Street put quite a damper on things inside the hotel where, as the Post points out, rooms cost $600 per night and, The Times adds,a hot chocolate is $6 at the Knave cafe, where the foot-thick flood of liquid stone settled, and began to harden.
Fortunately no one was injured in the accident. “One second, I’m sitting there having a cappuccino and the next moment, we are running for our lives,” Bernard Gershon, a West Sider who had met a friend for coffee, told the Post. Had something bad befallen the cafe guests, it would have been tragic not simply for the pain and suffering but because none of them are supposed to be there anyway.
The Knave Cafe, with its red satin drapes, lushly upholstered chairs and “deliciously diabolical drinks,” as the menu declares, has yet to reopen, and hotel staff could not yet say when it would. Perhaps never would be best. The Knave Cafe, it turns out, is kind of illegal.
When construction began in 1979, Le Parker Meridien took advantage of the then-popular POPS provisions in the zoning code, which allowed developers to build larger buildings through zoning bonuses in exchange for public amenities, typically plazas, arcades and other pass-throughs known as privately owned public space, or POPS.
It is a body of land often ignored, at least until the occupation of a particular POPS downtown last fall, and as such, POPS have often been abused and taken advantage of by their owners. According to Jerold Kayden, a Harvard professor who quite literally wrote the book on POPS, 50 percent of all buildings with privately owned public spaces within violate the rules under which they were established.
The Knave Cafe is a prime example. The lobbies of the hotel were billed as public space, though from the looks of them, the feel is much more members, or rather guests, only. An open-to-the-public sign, as required by the zoning code, is tucked away inside, and security officers stand guard, not turning riffraff away, but neither inviting them in. Except when they do give them the boot, with the ejected party none the wiser. Furthermore, commercial activity is forbidden in these spaces without written consent from the city, which the hotel has never sought.
“It becomes difficult for even the public space expert to know there is a public space here,” Mr. Kayden writes.
For those foolish enough to partake of the spaces in which they are not welcome though they have every right to be, the experience can be jarring, as well as uplifting. As in please uplift yourself and vacate the premises. Such was the experience of Brian Nesin, who thought it might be an O.K. idea to bring his own lunch to the (admittedly very nice) Knave Cafe, by all rights a public space he had every right to partake of.
I became interested in Le Parker Meridien space after the hotel began renovating the north section of the lobby, a 20-foot wide passage to 57th Street. They added a coffee bar and decorated it with furniture that looks like it was stolen from The Cloisters. One day I sat down with my lunch in this area and was told that it was for the coffee bar customers only.
After being kicked out, Mr. Nesin did some research to confirm his suspicions that this was a public space to which he was entitled, and armed with this knowledge, he returned.
So I went back to the hotel, and when asked to leave I explained that this is a public space and that I had the right to sit there without buying their $7 coffee. They called the person in charge of security, who was very pleasant. I explained to her about POPS, and what a “through block arcade” is. The next time I went there to brown bag it, they brought me a plate, figuring that they could not kick me out, but did not want to let anyone know that I was not a paying customer.
This situation does not seem very fair to the less-informed public.
It was this experience that led Mr. Nesin to create a public space advocacy group, Friends of POPS, which has been leading an awareness campaign about these hidden spaces for the past three years. It got a boost after POPS came to prominence following the occupation of Zucotti Park, and earlier this year it experienced one of its first great victories. The group had created the idea for Holly Whyte Way, a trail connecting a string of Midtown POPS between Sixth and Seventh avenues. After winning the support of the local community board, the proposal was embraced by the city’s Department of Transportation as 6½th Avenue, which awaits final approval from the board next month.
So things are looking up for POPS, but problems still persist. Before the Knave Cafe reopens, perhaps the city should look into what actually belongs there, and in its 540-odd siblings, and see to it that the proper space is maintained.
For his part, Mr. Nesin may have enjoyed a little schadenfreude over what happened to the cafe, but alas he said he cannot take credit for raining concrete down on his arch-nemesis. “Perhaps it was a radical splinter group associated with other POPS advocates,” he joked.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that 90 percent of buildings with POPS violated their zoning agreements, rather than 50 percent. The Observer regrets the error.