A Matchmaker for New York's Privately Owned Public Spaces

A year after Occupy Wall Street, Jerold Kayden is on a mission to convince skyscraper owners that their plazas can be better.

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APOPS@MAS

You may not realize it, but Midtown Manhattan is full of public spaces. Every plaza and arcade you see in front of a towering office building? That belongs to you. Sort of.

In 1961, New York City made a deal with skyscraper developers that ushered in an era of sheer-walled buildings. The city agreed to relax a 1916 requirement that buildings of a certain height needed to employ staggered vertical growth (inset) to let light and air into the streets.

In exchange for bonus floor area, the city required builders to convert a portion of building lots into privately-owned public space, a deal whose roots and repercussions we've covered on this site in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement.*

It has not always been clear, over the years, exactly what constitutes privately owned public space (more on this in a minute). But thanks to Advocates for Privately Owned Public Spaces at the Municipal Arts Society (APOPS@MAS), we can see exactly where the city's 500+ privately owned public spaces (POPS) are.

The Advocates' website went live last week, complete with an interactive map that tags POPS by amenity. Each privately owned public space now has its own page, complete with ratings, comments, and a site plan. Are you looking for someplace with seating and artwork? How about food and climate control? APOPS has you covered. Think of it as Yelp for corporate plazas.

Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning at Harvard who founded APOPS in 2002, had worked with the NYC Dept. of City Planning in the '90s on the first comprehensive survey of the several hundred plazas born of the '61 zoning change. Since the results of that work were published in his 2000 book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, Kayden has been trying to put that research into action. 

"The aspiration was to think about these spaces as a decentralized Central Park," Kayden says, "That’s what theses places can be, places of egalitarian interaction, places of passive recreation, places of democratic activism."

According to APOPS, since 1961 New York has traded 20 million square feet of zoning concessions for 80 acres of privately owned public space, or seven Empire State Buildings for one-tenth of Central Park. Not surprisingly, the lion's share of those plazas are in Midtown and on the Upper East Side, two of the city's most densely built neighborhoods. More office space, more public space -- everybody wins, right?

Not exactly. There's a reason that Midtown is not considered a public space mecca. New Yorkers now seem pretty comfortable (though not entirely so) with the idea of private corporations managing public spaces, as in Business Improvement Districts around Grand Central Station, Union Square and Bryant Park. But if corporations are efficient managers of existing public space, they have been lousy at building it. 

The city based the tradeoff program in part on the success of the Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe's glass and steel skyscraper that opened on Park Avenue in 1958, whose plaza has long been held up as an exemplary public space. The sociologist William Whyte, one of the first advocates for improvements in the quality of corporate and residential plazas, praised the Seagram Building in a 1972 New York Times article, "A Tough Town For Schmoozing." "On a pleasant day in spring or summer or fall this austerely elegant place throbs with life and color," Whyte wrote. "You see people reading, talking, writing, picnicking, sunbathing, playing cards, necking."

Seagram Building. Photo: DanDeluca/Flickr.

The Seagram's descendents fell short of that standard. The city's requirements for POPS were routinely ignored by developers and later building managers for various reasons, not the least of which was that skyscraper developers saw no benefit in turning plazas into social spaces that might attract the homeless, skateboarders, or demonstrations.

"Some builders genuinely and sincerely mistrust people -- noncustomer people at least," Whyte wrote, "and are almost obsessive on the threat of hippies... sometimes there is a show of active hostility." (This remark seems dated, but just last year, in response to Occupy Wall Street, Steve Spinola, the president of the New York Real Estate Board, requested the city eliminate the requirement that POPS be open 24 hours.)

Kayden's research with City Planning found that 41 percent of all corporate plazas were of "marginal use." Solidly half of buildings managing POPS seemed to be in non-compliance on at least one issue, having either closed parts of the space, restricted access to bathrooms, turned over footage to encroaching cafes, or some other violation of the zoning agreement.

Zucotti Park, the world's most famous corporate plaza. Photo: Emilydickinsonridesabmx/Flickr.

The design fault lay as much with an uninterested city as with self-interested developers, he found. From the APOPS website:

"...zoning’s specifications for plazas said nothing about seating, landscaping, construction materials, or orientation to sunlight. Developers often did little more than put down paving around their buildings, call the resulting spaces plazas, and collect the lucrative floor area bonuses, all in full compliance with the law."

Zoning laws changed in 1975, and Kayden says the quality has improved since then. But developers haven't always been diligent, and the city hasn't had the resources to see that they are.

After Occupy Wall Street renewed public interest in corporate plazas, APOPS emerged in its current form. Its mission, in part, is to convince owners that their privately owned public spaces can be better. Kayden is happy to consult on in-house operations or to make a match with an organization that is interested in managing the space. "We'd arrange for a happy marriage," says Kayden. He thinks that enthusiasm will snowball. "The more examples there are, the more things will be done."

But he also wants the public to know what's possible. That's what's the map is for -- to imagine the possibility of 500+ vibrant urban spaces.

*This paragraph has been updated for clarity.

Right inset: Commission on Building Districts, New York Zoning Report, 1916, via Wikimedia Commons.

Top image: APOPS@MAS.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.