More than 82 acres of prime New York City park spaces are tucked between high rises and lost in building lobbies; easy to access from the sidewalk or hidden behind tinted glass. They range from lively lunch nooks to quiet art galleries to forlorn plazas. They are our Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS). Concentrated in the densest parts of the city, POPS are a fundamental pedestrian amenity, as valuable for the office crowd as playgrounds are for kids and parents. They represent a vital resource for everyone who gets around on foot and anybody who has ever felt the city’s claustrophobic pinch.
Recently, the Department of Transportation proposed a series of mid-block crosswalks to connect a string of through-block POPS that run from 51st Street to 57th Street. Dubbed Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue, the agency’s plan is the realization of ideas that Friends of Privately Owned Public Space developed with Manhattan Community Board 5 over the past two years. We were delighted when the DOT announced it, and pleased by a press invitation for an on-camera interview.
We arrived at the AXA POPS on 51st between Sixth and Seventh Avenue shortly before the interview was scheduled to start. A large outdoor space, it had been the starting point of our Arcade Parade a few months earlier, an event in which we marched a crowd of pedestrians down the route that will become Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue. But as the reporter got her cameraman in place, it happened: A security guard appeared and told us, “No photography! You have to leave!”
The eviction notice was a good reminder. As wonderful as Sixth-and-a-Half Avenue might be—and the DOT is to be commended for embracing it—the crosswalks are just connectors. For this pedestrian-based idea to truly function, the POPS must live up to their end of the bargain.
Bargain is a precise word too. In each case, the developers of these buildings promised to provide public spaces in exchange for the right to make their buildings larger than ordinarily permitted, netting them higher returns than their non-POPS peers.
It is a public/private relationship not unlike the tax breaks given to corporations for providing local jobs. Likewise, when space that is supposed to be public is commandeered by a private owner, it’s the equivalent of a tax benefit corporation turning around and shipping its jobs overseas.
But it happens everyday: hours reduced from posted requirements; restaurant chairs taking over public space in a process known as ‘cafe creep’; closures for ‘maintenance’ that last indefinitely; or security guards using canards such as ‘no photography’ to approach individuals and establish an atmosphere of private control.
We protested our eviction, explaining to the security guard that the space was public, not private, and that it afforded citizens the same general rights they have in a park. First the guard, then his supervisor, then that guy’s superior crackled on the radio. Each explained they were evicting us for trying to talk in front of a camera before resorting to that old classic: “I’m just doing my job.”
Just so we’re clear: a private owner’s job, with respect to POPS, is to educate their staff about the public nature of these spaces and to steward these spaces in a manner that fulfills their public responsibility to the letter of the law, in deed and in spirit. The City has a job too, and must enforce existing POPS regulations to protect public rights, create a level playing field that private owners will respect and, should existing penalties be insufficient, consider additional measures to compel cheating owners to live up to their obligation to the public.
Finally, we the people must take to the POPS, to exercise our rights to use these spaces, herald the ones we love, and vociferously demand improvements from our public servants for the ones that aren’t fulfilling their obligations to us.
Our POPS are precious. In total, they inhabit more acreage than Astoria Park, three times as much as Battery Park, eight times the area of Washington Square. If they’re well managed and well maintained, we all win. If they’re ignored, we lose public space that’s rightfully ours. Give POPS the public use they were intended to have—you might even take some pictures.
Friends of Privately Owned Public Space (F-POPS) is a collaborative organization of architects, artists and community leaders dedicated to the celebration and improvement of New York City’s 82 acres of POPS.
Brian Nesin is Director of F-POPS and an Associate at Dattner Architects.
David Grider is Chairman of F-POPS and Principal of David Grider Architect