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.

Exercising some first amendment rights. (Getty)

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.”

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

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