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NYC's privately-owned public spaces need more oversight, says comptroller

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It’s not just Trump Tower

Nick Solares

The contested black marble bench that launched a 30-year scandal in Trump Tower’s atrium, a privately-owned public space (POPS), may have been returned to its rightful spot after a New York Times investigation, but the saga of Trump Tower’s disappearing public seating continues as part of a larger investigation into the state of New York City’s POPS.

According to a new audit from the office of New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, Trump Tower is still violating the terms of its agreement with the city, the New York Times reports. The atrium was dedicated as a POPS upon the tower’s completion in 1983, and an agreement with the city allowed Donald Trump to add an additional 20 stories to the building in exchange for including that public space.

Whether developers like Trump actually maintain the POPS to the city’s standards once they receive the okay to build larger is another story. The audit found that, $14,000 in fines later, Trump Tower still doesn’t have many of the tables it’s supposed to be providing to the public. And Trump Tower is hardly alone: The audit found 180 properties where public spaces didn’t comply with city rules—and according to the Times, more than half of those are POPS.

In some ways, the missing tables were the least of it. According to the Times, at 175 East 96th Street, auditors “discovered signs that incorrectly informed people that the public spaces were for ‘members only.’” At 101 Barclay Street, they found a sign announcing the public space was “private property.” At 410 East 58th Street, they found a POPS had been eliminated altogether when “a building was constructed over it.”

So whose fault is it? Developers are part of the problem, Stringer said, noting in a statement that some “are gaining benefits worth tens of millions of dollars, but it’s coming at the expense of the rest of us.” But the city’s Department of Buildings, which is supposed to be regulating the spaces, is also to blame. “There are many good actors who are meeting their requirements,” he said. “But where agreements are being violated, the Department of Buildings is refusing to do enforcement.”

According to the audit, the vast majority of POPS hadn’t been inspected in four years—and if they had been, those inspections were regularly “late, incomplete, or ineffective.” In the last four years, only 58 locations had been inspected in total. Of those, 41 were found to be noncompliant. Of those, only 10 were issued violations.

But enforcement may be about to get a whole lot more stringent. In addition to the report’s recommendations—proactively investigate POPS, maintain a better database of them, install more and better signs around the plazas—three new bills were introduced in City Council last month. The bills, introduced by Council members Ben Kallos and Daniel Garodnick, are designed to protect POPS through steeper fines, annual inspections, increased signage, and a new website where people could register complaints.