Don’t Tread on Me: Could Occupy Wall Street Save New York’s Neglected Privately Owned Public Spaces?

It's Public. It's Private. It's Complicated.

Ah, the good old days. (Getty Images)

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.

Don’t Tread on Me: Could Occupy Wall Street Save New York’s Neglected Privately Owned Public Spaces?