Privately owned public space

by Anne Schwartz, Feb 5, 2001

A passerby would never guess that the empty space on three sides of a highrise on Third Avenue is an officially designated public plaza. Part of it is a block-long staircase. The rest consists of two small vacant slabs, one sunken and one raised. Everything about them screams "keep out," from the lack of seating to a forlorn row of discarded furniture and appliances.

Nearby, at the entrance to a residential building called the Future, is another official public plaza. This one is strikingly different. There are granite benches, planters filled with trees and shrubs and flowers, a drinking fountain, trash receptacles, even a sign that welcomes the public to the space.

These two places, across the street from each other in the East Thirties, illustrate the problems and potential of a special type of open space in the city. There are 503 such privately-owned "public spaces" in 320 buildings in New York, all but a few in Manhattan, and they are coming under increasing scrutiny. They owe their existence to zoning laws, passed in 1961 and amended numerous times since, that allowed developers to build taller structures in exchange for creating and maintaining plazas, atriums, passageways, and other spaces, all supposedly open to the public. Together, they amount to 82 acres, one-tenth the size of Central Park. In exchange, developers were permitted to add on an extra 16 million square feet of floor space.

Until recently, there has been no comprehensive inventory of these public spaces, and no way of telling how many were successful -- or indeed, how many were even open to the public. "It is slowly entering the zeitgeist as something that really has to be looked at," said Jerold Kayden, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, who conducted an in-depth study of the city's so-called bonus plazas together with the Department of City Planning and the Municipal Art Society. The study, Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, looked at each and every one of the spaces (the list available online, listed by neighborhood). It concluded that 41 percent of these spaces were of marginal value, particularly those created before zoning law amendments in the mid-1970s. Moreover, it found that almost half of the buildings were not in compliance with legal requirements meant to make the spaces accessible and attractive to the public.

Critics of the current zoning resolution say that the plaza bonus, along with loopholes in the law like the one that allows the transfer of air rights from existing buildings, has encouraged the proliferation of apartment towers that have ruined the charm and continuity of many low-rise neighborhoods.

Last year, City Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose proposed a complete overhaul of the zoning code, a plan known as the Unified Bulk Program. Among many other things (such as setting the height of a building in keeping with the character of the neighborhood that surrounds it), the reforms would eliminate the plaza bonus for residential, but not commercial, districts.

Whether the zoning reform will succeed is, like so much of the city, up in the air. Many are predicting its demise because of lukewarm support from elected officials, and outright opposition from the real estate industry, although it is still moving ahead through the approval process; the City Planning Commission held a hearing last week. If the zoning reforms are approved, however, the city will be left without a mechanism for creating new open space in residential neighborhoods.


The idea of creating small urban spaces in exchange for building rights was viewed as an innovation when it was first incorporated into the New York City zoning law passed in 1961. Since then, cities all over the world have seen the benefit of this trade-off.

Urban designers see these small spaces as providing something different than the larger parks, whose missions include recreation and an experience of nature. They are, first and foremost, places for people to gather and relax. William H. Whyte, in his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, observed, "The best-used places are sociable places, with a higher proportion of couples than you find in less used places, more people in groups, more people meeting people, or exchanging goodbyes."

The most valuable public spaces create an atmosphere that invites people in, providing them, as Whyte wrote, with "people to watch, sun to bask in, trees to sit under, water to splash and listen to." Successful spaces often have food, drinking fountains, bathrooms, proximity to shops, as well as outdoor sculpture. Some of the best spaces are indoor atriums, usable year-round.

These bits and pieces of open space provide much-needed oases from the densely built Manhattan streetscape. They are places for office workers to eat their lunch and get a breath of air; for senior citizens to sit and socialize; for shoppers to take a break; and even for busy pedestrians to stop and talk on their cell phones. They make a city more livable.


But how successful have the New York City public spaces been? The record is mixed, according to Privately Owned Public Space, which was the result of three and half years of researching dusty city files and visiting every single space. The project generated a database that will be kept up to date, and will eventually be available on the city planning department's web site.

Most New Yorkers would be surprised at some of the spaces included. How many people know that the landscaped semicircular driveways leading to East Side residential towers are bonus plazas? Extra-wide sidewalks and arcades at the edges of buildings also qualify. Certain gated plazas are supposed to be open to the public. The book has already begun to make people aware of the open space they are entitled to use.

The plaza incentive has been responsible for some of our best-used public spaces, like the Citigroup (formerly Citicorp) Building atrium and 590 Madison Avenue at 59th Street (still thought of as the IBM building). It has also produced some wonderful plazas, mini-parks really, in increasingly built-up residential neighborhoods.

The study found, however, that most of the privately owned public spaces were deficient in some way, especially those created from 1961 to 1975, before zoning amendments set higher standards. Some are forbidding open-air stretches of concrete, with no seating or other inviting amenities. These early plazas went hand in hand with the much-criticized "tower in the park" style of building. While it increased light and air, as it was intended to do, this style, exemplified by the succession of vast plazas along Sixth Avenue from 47th to 50th streets, ended up eliminating the "streetwall" and its storefronts that urban observers like William H. Whyte believed essential to a lively downtown.

But the study turned up numerous problems even with more recent plazas. Owners have removed chairs, plants and other amenities, locked gates to keep out the public, or turned plazas into parking areas or construction sites. A typical situation is "cafe creep," where restaurants appropriate public tables and chairs, making people who are not customers feel unwelcome. Very often, there are no signs informing the public that this is public space, though such signs are legally required.


Many of the problems are the result of poor compliance with the law by building owners and lack of enforcement by the city. Already, now that information is available about places open to the public and the amenities legally specified for each, efforts at enforcement have increased.

At present there are almost 50 enforcement actions in various stages, including three lawsuits filed by the city. The lawsuits target three typical types of violations. At 40 Broad Street, a downtown office building, benches, planters, and trees were removed. One Worldwide Plaza, at 825 Eighth Avenue, is charged with letting restaurants take over public chairs and tables. A residential building, Parc East Tower at 240 East 27th Street, has locked a passageway leading through the middle of the block to a mini-park and waterfall.

There has been a marked increase in the number of calls reporting violations. "We think of it as an empowerment document," says Ellen Ryan of the Municipal Art Society, who directed the research project. Members of the public with complaints about specific spaces can contact the Department of Buildings, or the Department of City Planning.

The Municipal Art Society recently organized volunteers to visit 200 of the public spaces, to update the study. The society called it the "Holly Watch" in honor of William H. Whyte, who was known as Holly, and plans to do it every year


The Unified Bulk Program proposed by Planning Commissioner Joseph Rose would eliminate the "as of right" plaza incentives in residential areas, so that developers would no longer automatically get to build extra floors in exchange for providing public space. The bonus plaza provision would be retained for residential buildings in commercial areas, by special permit, and for commercial and community buildings.

In a speech on zoning reform, Rose said, ". . . the concept of providing incentives to real estate developers to provide public open space on private properties produces largely unsatisfactory results. This is especially true in residential neighborhoods, despite repeated attempts at reform."

Many civic organizations and community boards are in favor of the reforms proposed by the Unified Bulk Program, including scrapping the residential plaza bonus. But some people argue that this is a drastic solution. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, landscape architect Thomas Balsley wrote, "if the problem is poorly designed or maintained open space, surely the solution isn't to have no open space at all." Balsley, who designed a number of public plazas, says that with better design and enforcement, poorly functioning spaces "can be pulled from the ashes and turned into spectacular public amenities."

Dave Lutz of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, an advocate for open space, says "there should be public space tucked around" to make a city more livable and more aesthetically interesting. He says, "We're about to say than an experiment that has provided Manhattan with more public space since perhaps Central Park is a failure because some owners and the buildings department failed to meet their obligations." The spaces can always be improved, he says. "But if you don't have the space, you can't go back and do it right."

List and assessment of the privately owned public spaces, neighborhood by neighborhood (in pdf format):