For a brief look at the issue of privatized public space along Boston's waterfront, click here.

(c) New York Times, September 28, 2000

In City Canyons, Slivers of Public Space Erode


Most privately owned public spaces in New York City, created in a tradeoff that was meant to give pedestrians a little extra breathing room as developers got extra-large buildings, have failed in some way, large or small, a new study has found.

Some spaces were uninviting from the start. Others have lost their allure. Gates that should be open are padlocked. Ledges that should be welcoming are lined with spikes. Plazas are filled with Dumpsters. Drinking fountains are dry. And chairs and tables meant for the public are taken over by restaurants.

"At their worst, by design and operation, the spaces have been hostile to public use," wrote Jerold S. Kayden, an associate professor in the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, who directed the study. "Brasseries bulge, cafes creep and trattorias trickle into adjacent public space, confusing users who think that they must pay the price of a meal or drink to sit at a table and enjoy the space."

Since 1961, zoning rules have allowed developers to put up bigger buildings -- in essence, adding valuable floors at the top -- if they provide the public with plazas, atriums, arcades and walkways down below.

While several hundred spaces have been created, some quite successfully, the city has had no meaningful way to assess the policy because there was no systematic accounting. Officials did not know exactly how many spaces had been created or where they all were.

Now, the first comprehensive survey and analysis, undertaken by Mr. Kayden, the New York City Planning Department and the Municipal Art Society, has found 503 spaces at 320 buildings. All but 22 of the buildings received a zoning bonus.

Based on site visits in 1998 and 1999, the study concludes that nearly half of the buildings' public spaces do not comply with city rules, and that 41 percent of the spaces are of only marginal value even if they do meet the design requirements.

Armed with the findings, the Giuliani administration sued the owners of three buildings this month and issued notices of violations against the owners of eight others. The owners could be fined if they do not comply.

Planning officials say that the enforcement effort could involve many more buildings, but that they hope first to gain voluntary compliance from owners.

The buildings that are subject to the lawsuits -- 40 Broad Street, Parc East Tower and Worldwide Plaza --were chosen as representative of the three major categories of violation: lack of amenities, reduced access and annexation by commercial tenants.

At 40 Broad Street, an office building near Exchange Place, there are supposed to be planters, benches and trees in a 1,498-square-foot plaza along the building's New Street facade. And there once were. But they are all gone now, leaving a barren, wide sidewalk.

Telephone calls Monday and Tuesday to the management office were not returned.

Parc East Tower, an apartment building at 240 East 27th Street, at Second Avenue, is supposed to provide midblock access from 27th Street to an attractive minipark and waterfall on 26th Street, designed by Lawrence Halprin, who was also responsible for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington.

The problem, said Philip Schneider of the planning department, is that the midblock passageway is often locked and used to park cars and store debris, an assertion borne out by a visit Monday afternoon.

JoAnn Sher, a principal in the Merit Operating Corporation, which manages the building, said she could not comment on a matter in litigation. But the building's owners, she said, want the minipark "to be a wonderful amenity for the community and expect to do everything we can to make it such."

Worldwide Plaza on Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets, earns overall praise in the survey. But David Karnovsky, counsel to the planning department, said the movable chairs and tables that are required as a public amenity had become the "exclusive province" of the restaurants on either side of the space.

On Monday, all the furniture was arranged within low walls enclosing outdoor space in front of the restaurants, clearly conveying the impression that it was private, although a visitor was allowed to sit at both places without ordering.

A spokeswoman for the owner of Worldwide Plaza, Equity Office Properties Trust, said that as a matter of policy, the company could not comment on a pending lawsuit.

To be sure, not every public space is restricted, ambiguous or disagreeable. The survey found that 16 percent of the spaces were so well designed and maintained that they drew visitors from throughout the neighborhood and the city.

Among those favorably noted were 30 Lincoln Plaza, with a meandering waterfall and pool set in a grove of trees off Broadway, between 62nd and 63rd Streets, designed by M. Paul Friedberg; and One East River Place, a park at 72nd Street near the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive by Zion & Breen, architects of the famous Paley Park at 3 East 53rd Street.

All told, there is a total of 3.58 million square feet, or 82.28 acres, of privately owned public space in the city -- roughly equal to the section of Central Park below 64th Street.

On the other side of the equation, the developers of 298 office, apartment and hotel towers have been allowed to build an extra 16 million square feet of floor area, about the equivalent of seven Empire State Buildings.

"Did we get what we bargained for?" asked Kent L. Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society. "The answer is overwhelmingly no."

For their part, owners have had to cope with encampments of homeless people, drug trafficking and vandalism in their spaces. But they have also benefited from the extra floor area, even when the rules are broken. And enforcement of the requirements has been hampered by the lack of reliable information.

"Having this inventory can assist us in identifying enforcement and compliance issues as they arise," said Joseph B. Rose, director of the planning department and chairman of the City Planning Commission. "Where there has been a deal and the public is entitled to an amenity," he said, "we want to make sure we get that amenity."

Mr. Rose said the survey was part of the administration's focus on neighborhood quality of life. It also comes as city planners have proposed eliminating the automatic development bonus for public spaces in high-density residential districts.

The results of the three-and-a-half- year survey will be published on Oct. 20, in "Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience" (John Wiley & Sons). An accompanying database is to be posted on the planning agency's Web site.

Mr. Rose said the survey would provide landlords as well as block associations with a guide to the required features. "We expect that getting some attention paid to these spaces will in most cases yield voluntary compliance," he said. "The idea isn't to have a witch hunt. Owners may not have known just what their obligations were."

Under a new three-level enforcement program by the city's planning, buildings and law departments, letters will be sent to owners pointing out potential violations, in the hope of enlisting their cooperation.

More serious problems will be turned over to the Environmental Control Board for enforcement, Mr. Karnovsky said. And the most serious could result in more lawsuits.

The Municipal Art Society will examine the best and worst plazas and atriums in an exhibition, "The World's Most Expensive Public Space," from tomorrow through Nov. 18 at the Urban Center, 457 Madison Avenue, between 50th and 51st Streets.

On Oct. 28, the society will send out volunteers to record conditions at public spaces to supplement the field surveys conducted in 1998 and 1999. The canvassing is envisioned as an annual event.

"The beauty of the book and database," said Ellen Ryan, director of planning issues at the Municipal Art Society, "is that it creates a whole cadre of civilian enforcement officers."

In compiling the survey, Mr. Kayden has occasionally played the role of enforcement officer himself. For instance, the public atrium just inside the front entrance of the Henri Bendel store, on Fifth Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets, is supposed to be unobstructed and not used for retail activity.

On finding the space filled with merchandise during one of his site visits, Mr. Kayden raised his camera. "You're not allowed to take pictures here," he said a Bendel employee told him.

"You're not allowed to have a department store in here," Mr. Kayden replied.

Speaking about the New York Tower, 330 East 39th Street, where ornamental gates are padlocked -- despite a sign reading "Courtyard open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily" -- Mr. Kayden said: "It's a slap in the face."

In the plaza of the Highgate apartment tower, 182 East 95th Street, Mr. Kayden found recycling Dumpsters chained to spiked rails on ledges that were supposed to be used for seating. "There's no surface that's sittable anywhere," he noted, acknowledging one exception: a lamppost nearby where a pigeon was perched.

Your comments as a visitor to the SAND website would be appreciated and forwarded for discussion.