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The politics of lower Manhattan’s privately owned public spaces

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Is a plan to add more retail to publicly owned private spaces a shameless land grab or a good deal for New Yorkers?

The privately owned public space at 200 Water Street is currently bare and awaits its transformation.
Audrey Wachs

For a small island, Manhattan has no shortage of delightful public spaces: the ornate Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library, for example, or the palatial steps at the Met, and the entirety of Central Park, an all-time classic.

Yet everyday, thousands of people—mostly office workers in Midtown and the Financial District, along with neighborhood residents and tourists—eat salads and stare at their phones in an archipelago of diminutive spaces open to the public but owned and managed by private entities. If these spaces were knit together, they would be larger than the floor area in One World Trade Center, a 104-story building.

But unlike tenants or tourists in that structure, visitors do not have to pay to be in a privately-owned public space, or POPS. They arose from an arrangement brokered between the city and property owners in the 1960s that let owners build taller than zoning allowed, in exchange for a public space outside the building, or on a lower floor. With investors fleeing the city in the 1960s and ’70s, POPS seemed like a win-win: Developers beefed up their bottom line with more leasable floor area, and New Yorkers got a nice place to sit.

Within Manhattan’s many broad-shouldered buildings, there are hundreds of plazas and covered walkways that, at their best, are the welcome mat to suave structures like SOM’s Marine Midland Building (with the red Noguchi cube out front), or elegant escapes like the European courtyard at the Villard Houses, and, until 2017, the Sasaki waterfall at the Citigroup Center.

Although some owners topped minimum requirements to deliver designs that dazzle, many of the POPS are not so pleasant. For every palm tree-filled atrium and Crystal Pavilion, there are dozens of bare concrete enclosures and dingy arcades that are mostly used as shortcuts to the next block—if they’re open at all. Others were once-nice spaces that have fallen into serious disrepair. A 2017 report from Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office found that of the city’s 333 buildings with POPS, more than half didn’t offer required amenities or comply with the hours-of-operation on the books.

The city is trying to fix these issues, but between planners, developers, and public space advocates, there’s little agreement on the means to the end. The Department of City Planning (DCP) in 2016 picked Water Street, a major artery that snakes from the Battery to the Brooklyn Bridge one block from the East River, as a testing ground for a redevelopment scheme that encourages owners to fill in their POPS with retail and restaurants to make the spaces more enticing. The rules affect 20 buildings with almost six football field’s worth of public space combined; now, more than half of that space can be converted to storefronts.

The current POPS at 7 Hanover Street is not especially inviting.
Amy Plitt

The city says that retail build-outs are the secret sauce that will revive the area’s withered POPS and positively impact the neighborhood. Others contend the commercial spaces are a bad quid pro quo, especially considering the area’s original owners were able to add 2.5 million square feet to their towers—a whole Empire State Building of extra floor area, and then some—in exchange for providing POPS of a certain size.

So far, GFP Real Estate and Rockrose, the owners of 7 Hanover Square and 200 Water Street, respectively, are the only owners who’ve taken advantage of the new POPS infill rules. Those buildings and their grounds were designed by Emery Roth & Sons, the influential New York firm behind the Metlife Building and dozens of others. Although they were delivered under the supervision of the same architect, the buildings’ pre-renovation POPS—open-air plazas, covered street-level arcades, and tucked-away second-floor roosts—diverge in design intent and quality.

Stakeholders have questions as these projects move down the pipeline: Will new stores on Water Street add life to a business district that’s rapidly transitioning to a 24-hour neighborhood, or are POPS infills a brazen land grab that deprive New Yorkers of much-needed public space?

On a recent weekday during evening rush hour, there were more pigeons than people in the almost 7,500-square-foot through-block arcade at 7 Hanover Square. On Pearl Street, coworkers assembled for a happy hour; across the way on Water, people peered over their phones for their Ubers. A person’s belongings huddled near a bench. The space wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t lively, either.

The about-to-be owners of the space, GFP Real Estate, tapped New York’s S9 Architecture to renovate the nearly one-million-square foot office building. The firm’s preliminary plans will fill in the POPS on all sides and push the building envelope flush against the sidewalk. Most significantly, plans call for the arcade to be filled with storefronts, plus three small cafe kiosks. The on-trend intent is to build a food court with a Chelsea Market vibe that will appeal to commercial tenants and others, too.

“The ground floor of our buildings are amenity spaces for our tenants and the neighborhood at large,” explains Brian Steinwurtzel, GFP Real Estate’s co-chief executive officer. “The more positive it is for the neighborhood, the more positive it will be for the building.”

Others were not so sanguine about the future changes along Water Street. Elizabeth Goldstein, president of nonprofit arts and public space advocacy group the Municipal Art Society (MAS), contends that the whole premise behind the Water Street Upgrades Text Amendment (as the city’s rules are officially known) is rotten.

“[It] sets up the idea that the area’s original POPS were designed incorrectly, and the way to solve that is to create retail,” she says.

Preliminary rendering of 7 Hanover Street’s proposed food hall entrance on Water Street.

Although the stores at 7 Hanover would shrink the building’s all-around truly public space from 12,800 square feet to less than 6,500, Steinwurtzel says that what’s left will be better and more lively. Renovations will, for example, bring heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, which will make the to-be-enclosed POPS comfortable year-round. Climate control is not mandatory, but by law, each POPS has to have something—seats, plants—to enhance people’s enjoyment of the area (the exact amenities are determined by the size and design of the POPS, among other characteristics). Within this arcade, City Planning mandates an awkward 212.48 linear feet of seating, which translates to about 106 chairs (S9 blocked out 167 spots for benches and chairs, more than the required minimum). In preliminary plans, the public seating roughly clusters around kiosks that float in the middle of the arcade.

At a Manhattan Community Board 1 (CB1) subcommittee hearing in June, S9’s Emily Kirwan said the plans incorporated previous feedback from the board to signal that the space in and around the building, which dates to 1983, is public and open to all. Renderings also included future street trees that will be planted by the NYC Department of Transportation and the Downtown Alliance, the group that manages the area’s business improvement district.

But not all board members were having it. Vicky Cameron, an architect who serves on CB1, called the current arcade “dark and dingy,” but questioned whether retail infill was the right approach to enliven the space, given that the original builder (and GFC, once the deal is inked) gets to profit on the more than 38,000-square-foot office space bonus that topped off the original building.

“You got additional ZFA (floor area) in exchange for providing a public area on the ground floor,” she said. “So now you’re taking that back.”

“Yes,” Kirwin replied.

In a later conversation, Steinwurtzel maintained the $12 million retail project will not be a significant source of profit for GFC, which will close on the building in September. In anticipation, the developers have already rebranded the space as 100 Pearl Street, though it’s unclear when the renovations will break ground.

While 7 Hanover Square started with a more-or-less mediocre POPS, the owners of 200 Water Street—the only other building to take advantage of the infill rules so far—had a great public space that was whacked to possibly enlarge a Duane Reade, the building’s ground floor tenant.

A 10-minute walk from 7 Hanover, 200 Water Street commands frontage on Fulton Street at the gateway to the South Street Seaport. Original owner-developer Melvyn Kaufman dressed up an otherwise unremarkable 32-story glass box (also by Emery Roth & Sons) with a giant light-up digital clock (still there) and a scalable white scaffold structure that opened into the building’s second-floor public area. A small fountain bubbled alongside primary colored metal chairs; at one point, Kaufman installed a likeness of himself on the seating (it was later removed because visitors found it unsettling). The building and its POPS date to 1971, a few years before the city required the spaces to be furnished with seating, fountains, and other amenities. The year it opened, 200 Water Street’s inventive public spaces landed it on the covers of at least one magazine. For all this, the builders got to add almost 34,000 square feet of floor area to their project.

The light-up clock that occupies part of the privately owned public space at 200 Water Street.
Amy Plitt

In the 1990s, Rockrose bought the quirky building from the Kaufman Organization and converted it to residential. Fast forward to today: The Fulton Street-facing sculpture is gone and the soon-to-be-renovated arcade is naked. Rockrose claimed that the elements were too damaged to repair, while advocacy groups like the City Club of New York contend demolition-by-neglect. Regardless, the developer has approval from the city to enlarge existing apartments into the almost 1,800-square-foot second-story POPS and fill in almost all of the 3,000-square-foot public arcade below to augment the store of the main ground floor tenant (currently Duane Reade), and provide one new storefront for a future retail tenant.

Rockrose’s Paul Januszewski, the point person for the POPS conversion, stayed tight-lipped through a dozen attempts at contact. A spokesperson from Rockrose also declined to comment on the project. A representative from MdeAS, the New York firm Rockrose hired to expand the building into the POPS and add amenities near a Starbucks, refused to provide details on the design and their involvement in the project.

Before any groundbreaking, all POPS changes require approval from DCP, specifically the City Planning Commission. 200 Water Street earned DCP certification already, but plans that correspond with the POPS renovation have yet to be filed with the Buildings department.

A DCP spokesperson offered the following statement on the future project: “200 Water Street exemplifies the benefits of the Water Street POPS text amendment, which will facilitate the creation of newly-designed, high-quality public space with seating, trees, and artwork as well as new ground floor retail and dining opportunities for the residents and workers of the Financial District.”

While the Water Street rules are a done deal, Goldstein maintained that there are better ways to enrich POPS without slashing the public’s share of plazas and arcades. She suggested that one-off concerts, attractive seating, nice lights, and good maintenance could enliven POPS without claiming major square footage for commercial use. Even one small cafe—like the one at 590 Madison Avenue, for example—may activate a space without sending mixed signals about its public-ness in the same way a row of enclosed stores might.

As it stands, owners on Water Street already get to profit off of the bonus floor area created by POPS; they will now collect rents on the new storefronts, too.

For that, Goldstein said, “The developer is getting a lot and the public is getting less.”