The Seduction of “Privately Owned Public Space”

In its quest to promote economic development through urban planning and design, the City of New York struck a dubious bargain in 1961. The city passed a zoning resolution authorizing “privately own public spaces.” This meant that private developers could built taller buildings than the zoning rules allowed if they built courtyards, arcades, atriums or plazas that are legally open to the public.

This is what is typically called a “win-win.” Private landlords would own the spaces, but the public would be able to sit there, mingle, eat, walk and talk, and in theory create a vibrant urban scene. More than 500 buildings in New York City took advantage of this deal in order to gain “zoning floor area bonuses” that would generate huge sums of revenue over the life of the building.

Too bad the idea of “privately owned public spaces” turned out to be such a dud. In a way, it was predictable. In a great many cases, architects and developers didn't really want to have the unwashed public mixing with the elite tenants of their buildigs – investment bankers, lawyers and other white-collar professionals. They just wanted to maximize rental revenue. And so many nominal public spaces were deliberately designed to be unattractive. They were dark spaces with inadequate seating, inconvenient walks, no greenery, and a menacing private-security presence.

This is typical of so many “public/private partnerships” – they amount to backdoor subsidies for private commercial interests while the public side of the bargain gets lost in the shuffle.  The public space is really private space subsidized by the public (via zoning exemptions).

As urban planner Jerold S. Kayden documented in his 2000 book, Privately Owned Public Spaces: The New York City Experience (John Wiley & Sons), New York City has scores of ostensibly public spaces that are “barren, unusable surfaces or privatized-by-management spaces that diminish the spirit underlying the laws that created them.”

Perhaps the most famous privately owned public space is Zucotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street encampment for two months. The fact that the park was in fact privately owned certainly made the encampment more precarious; the landlord, Brookfield Properties, was only too eager to oust the citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.

In light of this history, it was terrific to read Michael Kimmelman's piece in the New York Times yesterday. He noted that a new attitude is emerging about public spaces. He cited Chirstopher B. Leinberger, a professor of urban planning, who declares that there has been “a profound structural shift” in urban design over the past decade. He notes that more people want to live in “a walkable urban downtown,” and that the more expensive urban spaces are those that are “high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.”

Architects and urban planners are coming to realize that public spaces must be designed in advance as the primary object, and not treated as an afterthought or add-on to private development. The best urban spaces, says Kimmelman, arise when the public can undertake all sorts of different activities in the space – strolling, browsing, eating, reading, chatting, chess-playing, demonstrations, and so on. But this requires deliberate, advance planning that make public life a priority. Kimmelman writes:

The Dutch today put together what they call “structure plans”when they undertake big new public projects like their high-speed rail station in Rotterdam: before celebrity architects show up, urban designers are called in to work out how best to organize the sites for the public good. It's a formalized, fine-grained approach to the public realm. By contrast big urban projects on the drawing boards in New York still tend to be the products of negotiations between government agencies anxious for economic improvement and private developers angling for zoning exemptions.

This is precisely why so many public spaces end up as uninviting, poorly designed, security-obsessed spaces that no one really wants to linger in. The point of the zoning bonuses, after all, are the additional revenue to landlords. It's no surprise that they didn't spend much time or money in designing the public space in the first place.

Here's the counter-intuitive surprise: treating public spaces as vital infrastructure and therefore designing it well is not only great for the public. It's great for economic development. When Broadway in Times Square was made into a pedestrian mall in 2009, it boosted retail sales in the area. The same has happened when streets are made more pedestrian-friendly and new parks are opened.

Kimmelman's piece focused on architect Alexander Galvin, an urban planner who worked in five city administrations going back to Mayor John Lindsay in 1966. As Kimmelman notes, “Galvin argues that the city should reverse its approach, zoning neighborhoods like Midtown, Lower Manhattan and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by thinking first about the shape fo public space instead of private development.” As evidence, he cited the dismal space at Citicorp Plaza. “If from the beginning,” Mr. Garvin said, the city had organized all the subway entrances, stairways, corridors, shops and plazas through which pedestrians flow and into which sunlight should penetrate, this space might have been a great public space.”

But such a decision would have required subordinating the narrow self-interest of the Citicorp building developer to that of the public, as managed by the city government. Such violations of free-market orthodoxy are not to be entertained!

It was refreshing to hear Galvin state a truth that has been stifled for decades: “The public realm is what we own and control.... the streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community – the framework around which everything else grows.” 

Thank you, Mr. Galvin, for reminding us of this elemental truth.