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Parks

Parks

Privately Owned Public Space


 

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 VALUE OF SMALL URBAN SPACES

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.

AN ACCOUNTING OF PUBLIC SPACE

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.

WITH ENFORCEMENT

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

ZONING REFORM

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): http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/dcp/pdf/poptab.pdf

 

In the News: Playing hardball in Bloomingdale Woods. Also, Parks embattled by accusations


In the News: Playing hardball in Bloomingdale Woods. Also, Parks embattled by accusations of prejudice and arbitrary fees; court victory over a water filtration plant underneath Van Cortlandt Park.

(Feb '01) A plan to put ball fields in Bloomingdale Woods Park is rolling ahead, in spite of opposition by Staten Island's leading environmental group, Protectors of Pine Oak Woods. The project raises the question of whether it is acceptable to build recreational fields in a city park set aside for its natural values.

Many people see the dizzying pace of development in south Staten Island as the underlying problem. So much new housing has been built and continues to be built without any planning for recreation or other community needs. Staten Island is actually one of the most biological diverse areas in the state, and environmentalists are trying to preserve some of the last unprotected scraps. Yet there is such an acute shortage of playing fields that kids are on waiting lists for sports, and sports groups are clamoring for the use of existing open space.

The project's supporters say that only the park's eastern section would be affected -- just 38 of a total of 138 acres, with actual construction on 11.8 acres. Baseball and soccer fields, as well as tennis and basketball courts, would be fitted in among the hills, to use the most level spots, save 70 percent of the mature trees, and avoid the officially mapped wetlands scattered about, although significant earth-moving would also be required.

The environmentalists say that they want ball fields, too, but argue that other potential sites would be more appropriate and cost-effective. They say that the wetlands in this section of the park are actually much more extensive than the official maps show, and that the project will fragment a rare native-species forest, allowing invasive species to come in. They note that the City Department of Environmental Protection originally designated this section of the park for its Bluebelt stormwater management plan. They also insist that it doesn't make sense to put ball fields in a hilly, wet site with poorly draining clay soils, predicting problems with muddy and eroded fields. A feasibility study done for the Parks Department in 1999 determined that creating sports fields in Bloomingdale Park would cost four times more than putting those fields at several other sites, with higher maintenance costs as well.

The political pressure to build is huge: Borough President Guy Molinari, Councilman Stephen Fiala, and Mayor Guiliani are all lined up behind the $5.8 million project, along with many other local officials. The Staten Island Advance editorialized against Protectors, saying the group was unreasonable in its opposition to altering even a fraction of the park. The Parks department resisted the idea at first, but has kept its silence since. The city transferred the project to the Department of Design and Construction, which intends to finish the required Environmental Impact Study by March. The department is accepting written comments on the issue until February 21.

Embattled at Parks

Parks Commissioner Henry Stern has been under siege recently, criticized for setting arbitrary fees for events in the parks and for discriminatory promotional practices within the department. Many of the criticisms focus on free-market strategies he has used to compensate for budget cuts by the city. The parks chief, who has a reputation for politically incorrect comments, eccentric behavior, and an abrasive management style, has also been called one of the best parks commissioners the city has ever had. Most recently, City Council members attacked his policy of charging high fees to homeowners who want to cut down established street trees.

In the discrimination case, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that there was "reasonable cause" to believe that the department had discriminated on the basis of race and national origins in the promotion and assignment of employees. The commission also said that the department had retaliated against three workers who complained of discrimination. Twenty black and Hispanic current and former "parkies" filed complaints with the commission, saying they were passed over, some of them numerous times, for promotions that were given to younger, less experienced white colleagues. They also charge that job locations were assigned along racial lines.

A lot of the resentment focuses on a program (called the "Class of" program) instituted by Stern in 1994 to recruit top college graduates the way businesses do. Participants don't follow union rules and typically work long hours for little pay, but are given a lot of responsibility and have access to top department officials. About 80 percent of the young people who have signed on have been white. Although most program participants leave after two years, some have stayed and been promoted to permanent senior jobs - some of which were never formally posted -- ahead of career employees.

The day after the discrimination finding was released, Commissioner Stern appeared before the City Council with 46 boxes of financial data subpoenaed in an inquiry into the way the parks department set fees for companies and charities to stage events in the parks. This long-standing parks practice came under fire last fall when the Catholic Museum balked at paying $20,000 to stage a fundraiser in a Harlem park.

A few days later, Stern was back before the council testifying against a bill that would substantially lower what the department could charge homeowners who cut down trees on their sidewalks. Homeowners must pay the cost of planting a certain number of saplings, depending on the size of the original tree. This issue comes up mostly when a tree needs to be removed for a construction project -- a homeowner can't cut down a healthy street tree just because he or she doesn't like it. The parks department has collected $1.5 million in replacement tree costs in the last seven years, with the money going into a special tree trust. Council Speaker Peter Vallone said the fees "appear to be another set of arbitrary charges imposed by the Parks department." At the hearing, Deputy Parks Commissioner Alan Moss said that the number of replacement saplings was calculated from an accepted forestry standard based on the diameter of the tree.

Filtration plant blocked at Van Cortlandt Park

A decision by the state's highest court has essentially killed the city's plan to build a water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park. The plant was the city's solution to a federal order to filter the part of the city's water supply that comes from the Croton watershed. The court affirmed that state law requires permission from the legislature to use a park for another purpose, which is unlikely given the wide opposition to the plant by Bronx legislators, including Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and State Senator Guy Velella, who represent the district the park is in.

There has been speculation that the new administration might allow the city to avoid filtration through new measures to protect the already heavily developed Croton watershed. The New York Times reported that Charles Sturcken, chief of staff of the city's Department of Environmental Protection, said that the agency would pursue every avenue with the federal government. But Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Mary Mears was quick to squelch that notion. "Our bottom line is that the Croton watershed must be filtered in order to protect public health," she was quoted as saying. "That bottom line isn't one that comes from any particular administration." If the filtration plant is not built soon, the city faces millions of dollars in fines.

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.

Parks and Parking Along the Hudson


If anyplace is a paradise paved over into a parking lot, it is the Hudson shore of Manhattan. For two generations, parking apparently was the best and highest riverside use from the Battery to 59th Street, followed by homeless encampments and dumps.

Green is returning to the Hudson shore through efforts of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, its successor, the Hudson River Park Trust, and the community. By late 2001, recreation paths will connect Battery Park to Riverside Park. In Greenwich Village, the park has trees and a grassy lawn heavily used by sunbathers. Pier 40 houses a soccer field, batting cages and a cafe. On Piers 25/26, there is a day camp, a river research facility and a boathouse for human-powered craft. In season, the Trust sponsors movies and concerts.

Still, most of the plan for the Hudson River Park remains on paper. The existing park is far more asphalt gray than it is green. And residents fear delay, or worse, a sellout.

At the heart of the debate is the plan for capacious Pier 40. Proponents of P3 the Pier, Park & Playground Plan seek to convert the 1.2 million square foot site to open space and neighborhood recreation. The Pier now houses freight transshipment, police barricade storage, and over two thousand cars. P3 hopes to build 20.8 acres of ball fields, running paths, and sunbathing areas intermingled with artistsÅó» studios, limited concessions and parking. The $120 million plan is financed by parking revenue and an assumed $30 million contribution from the Trust. Parking revenues would also pay operating costs. Tobi Bergman, P3's President, extols the "self-sufficient" plan as "the best opportunity to provide Lower Manhattan with open space and recreation". Community Boards 1 and 2 have endorsed the plan.

The Trust, the entity in charge, has no comment on P3. It plans to broadly seek proposals for pier development and operation. According to Noreen Doyle, Trust spokesperson, the proposal process will seek "compatible uses, open space and revenue consistent with the Hudson River Park Act of 1998".

Arthur Schwartz, Chairman of both the Hudson River Park Advisory Council and CB2's Waterfront Committee knows how important this site is to the locals. Residents of Chelsea and the Village have surprisingly little parkland. For decades, residents have seen waterfront plans come and go. Schwartz senses the time is now. "If we get the ball rolling this year, there will be a Pier 40 park by 2005-6".

Reaching goals and getting balls rolling differ. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick is concerned about the eventual magnitude of commercial space and the allocation process for using park space. Schwartz carefully defined his goals emphasizing his hope for "the greatest amount" of park, the "least noxious" commercial uses and the "minimal necessary" revenue. It is these "details" that will define how green (or gray) the park will be and how much revenue Pier 40 will contribute to the Hudson River Park. Glick argues that Pier 40 and its local users should not have to make up park-wide shortfalls at the expense of local green.

Sounding Off

The Trust's proposal process may yield concepts that kick off revenues to sustain the three-mile park while kicking out neighborhood uses and green. It's about balance -- political balance between Mayoral and Gubernatorial appointees, financial balance between revenue needs and open space for park uses and a balance among users - local, visitors, passive, and active.

Achieving balance depends on two key steps. These are the words the Trust puts into its proposal documents and the guidelines the Trust adopts for evaluating the completed proposals. The choice of words and criteria will likely color all that follows.

Glick's concerns are about values, community values. When the trust talks revenues, they also talk values, many fear -- financial values. Green is a color of many shades. To some it is the color of money, to others it is the color of paradise.

The question remains whose values will choose the words and criteria that create a park.

(Feb '01) If anyplace is a paradise paved over into a parking lot, it is the Hudson shore of Manhattan. For two generations, parking apparently was the best and highest riverside use from the Battery to 59th Street, followed by homeless encampments and dumps.

Green is returning to the Hudson shore through efforts of the Hudson River Park Conservancy, its successor, the Hudson River Park Trust, and the community. By late 2001, recreation paths will connect Battery Park to Riverside Park. In Greenwich Village, the park has trees and a grassy lawn heavily used by sunbathers. Pier 40 houses a soccer field, batting cages and a cafe. On Piers 25/26, there is a day camp, a river research facility and a boathouse for human-powered craft. In season, the Trust sponsors movies and concerts.

Still, most of the plan for the Hudson River Park remains on paper. The existing park is far more asphalt gray than it is green. And residents fear delay, or worse, a sellout.

At the heart of the debate is the plan for capacious Pier 40. Proponents of P3 the Pier, Park & Playground Plan seek to convert the 1.2 million square foot site to open space and neighborhood recreation. The Pier now houses freight transshipment, police barricade storage, and over two thousand cars. P3 hopes to build 20.8 acres of ball fields, running paths, and sunbathing areas intermingled with artistsÅó» studios, limited concessions and parking. The $120 million plan is financed by parking revenue and an assumed $30 million contribution from the Trust. Parking revenues would also pay operating costs. Tobi Bergman, P3's President, extols the "self-sufficient" plan as "the best opportunity to provide Lower Manhattan with open space and recreation". Community Boards 1 and 2 have endorsed the plan.

The Trust, the entity in charge, has no comment on P3. It plans to broadly seek proposals for pier development and operation. According to Noreen Doyle, Trust spokesperson, the proposal process will seek "compatible uses, open space and revenue consistent with the Hudson River Park Act of 1998".

Arthur Schwartz, Chairman of both the Hudson River Park Advisory Council and CB2's Waterfront Committee knows how important this site is to the locals. Residents of Chelsea and the Village have surprisingly little parkland. For decades, residents have seen waterfront plans come and go. Schwartz senses the time is now. "If we get the ball rolling this year, there will be a Pier 40 park by 2005-6".

Reaching goals and getting balls rolling differ. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick is concerned about the eventual magnitude of commercial space and the allocation process for using park space. Schwartz carefully defined his goals emphasizing his hope for "the greatest amount" of park, the "least noxious" commercial uses and the "minimal necessary" revenue. It is these "details" that will define how green (or gray) the park will be and how much revenue Pier 40 will contribute to the Hudson River Park. Glick argues that Pier 40 and its local users should not have to make up park-wide shortfalls at the expense of local green.

Sounding Off

The Trust's proposal process may yield concepts that kick off revenues to sustain the three-mile park while kicking out neighborhood uses and green. It's about balance -- political balance between Mayoral and Gubernatorial appointees, financial balance between revenue needs and open space for park uses and a balance among users - local, visitors, passive, and active.

Achieving balance depends on two key steps. These are the words the Trust puts into its proposal documents and the guidelines the Trust adopts for evaluating the completed proposals. The choice of words and criteria will likely color all that follows.

Glick's concerns are about values, community values. When the trust talks revenues, they also talk values, many fear -- financial values. Green is a color of many shades. To some it is the color of money, to others it is the color of paradise.

The question remains whose values will choose the words and criteria that create a park.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.



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