When public spaces go private sector
It was a beautiful day in San Francisco and my girlfriend and I took advantage of the weather to check out the city’s fine collection of POPOS. What the heck is a POPOS? It stands for Privately Owned Public Open Spaces. Why the heck are there POPOS? Well, faced with a dwindling amount of public open spaces per capita, cities such as New York and San Francisco enacted policies in the 1960’s and 1970’s that offered incentives to developers to create publicly accessible spaces in new developments. So, it was a win-win for developers and the public, right?
Yes and No. While the POPOS incentive resulted in hundreds of new spaces (about 500 in NY, about 55 in SF) the quality and accessibility of these places raise the question of just how public these public places are and whether developers and building owners are holding up their end of the bargain by adhering to design and accessibility standards.
Beautiful, hidden, and barren
In my own experience, perhaps the most salient issue regarding POPOS is that many of them, especially those on top of buildings, are in effect hidden. For example, many of those eating lunch in the Crocker Galleria would probably enjoy eating in a lovely public plaza just 20 feet away if only they knew this lovely plaza existed. This problem may be inherent to out-of-sight POPOS as the two POPOS in the Crocker Galleria are both labeled on their stairwell doorways (See the second image on right). I’d love to see large signs posted around the Crocker Galleria with photos of the Spaces and maps, saying “have lunch on the beautiful rooftops spaces open to the public.” A real disincentive for building owners to do so is that they are responsible for all maintenance of POPOS. More activity in POPOS means more maintenance costs.
Another issue with POPOS is that many of them are devoid of amenities. In the case of One Front/444 Market st (1980), the POPOS is nothing more than a barren setback fronting Mechanics Plaza without any seating whatsoever unless you want to sit on an awkward planter (See the third image). In other cases, the POPOS were taken over by restaurants, used as working space by the building for trucks to park or to keep supplies, or were just plain unusable such as the POPOS pedestrian bridge at Golden Gate University. In the case of 55 Market, a beautiful garden is entirely off limits to the public as the accessible part of the POPOS is merely the elevated walkway over the garden, however tenants of the building do have access which seems to not be in the spirit of the POPOS regulations.
However many of the POPOS were beautiful public spaces full of people and amenities: leafy redwood park next to the Transamerica building, the back alleys turned into European style pedestrian streets with café seating such as Trinity and Liedesdorff, older buildings retrofitted to be incredible public spaces such as the City Group Center and the steps in front of the old Federal Reserve building, and the great modern plazas such as the ones at 560 Mission and across the street at 555 Mission. Even the sun decks at 343 Sansome and 150 California were lovely places albeit likely unknown to anyone besides the building’s office workers and curious urbanists. The POPOS policy is certainly working in many cases.
The standard Kecak monkey chanting litmus test
The part of this story that I love is that in 2007/2008 an art/public space group called Rebar decided to test just how public these spaces were through a program called Commonspace that included public tours, rooftop kite flying, impromptu napping events called nappenings, a game of “Assassin,” and classes on Kecak monkey chanting. Although they were frequently confronted by security and unhappy business managers, it was one class on Balinese monkey chanting that had them threatened with arrest. With the ACLU on their side, the group encouraged security to call the SFPD and the SFPD sided with the artists. In many cases they found that private security in the POPOS was simply unaware of POPOS, adding to the feel that these are de facto private spaces.
Let’s get quantitative
Reports analyzing the quality of POPOS by SPUR in SF and the NYC planning department arrived at similar results: Too many POPOS are failing to play the role of quality public space. In NYC, the planning department found “Approximately 16 percent of the spaces are actively used as regional destinations or neighborhood gathering spaces, 21 percent are usable as brief resting places, 18 percent are circulation-related, four percent are being renovated or constructed, and 41 percent are of marginal utility.” Spur found that about half of the spaces were either to the 1985 Downtown Plan’s POPOS standards or were very close. The other half have flaws such as no amenities or having been taken over by restaurants that make them, in the NYC Planning department’s terms, of marginal utility.
Looking at how the POPOS programs in NYC and SF evolved offers an opportunity to evaluate policy effectiveness. In both cases, there was an initial POPOS policy that, after increasing concerns from planners and the public regarding the number of spaces (SF) or quality of spaces (NYC), spurred a policy change. In the case of San Francisco, this change came in 1985 when the new downtown plan instated requirements for all new office buildings to have POPOS (one sqft for 50 sqft of offices). Before 1985, POPOS were included either voluntarily, for density bonuses, or as conditions for approval. The 1985 policy also instated types of POPOS (Plazas, parks, atriums, etc.) and design standards (adequate size, lighting, accessibility, etc.)
SPUR’s 2008 report included in addition to individual details such as location, a ranking of quality of the space, with spaces either ranking as excellent, good, fair, or poor. To analyze whether the 1985 policy was effective, I tallied the number of POPOS that fell into each ranking and split them according to whether they were before or after the 1985 Downtown Plan. I found that the percentages of excellent and fair POPOS before and after 1985 were the same and that the percentage good POPOS was twice as high after 1985 and that the percentage poor half the percentage before 1985. In sum, the policy of requiring POPOS and instating design standards seems to have improved overall POPOS quality, however other factors that may have played a role such as the health of the economy are not included in this analysis. In addition, there have been about twice as many POPOS before 1985 than after (45 vs 23) and it’s not clear whether this trend in improvement will be sustained for future POPOS.
In sum, POPOS seem to be working at least half the time in San Francisco. With a few modifications to policy such as requiring better signage, being open more hours, and enacting stricter design standards, the city could increase the quality of its public space easily. I’d be interested in how a payment-in-lieu of POPOS program would work because it could potentially allow for truly phenomenal large public spaces by allowing potentially many small POPOS to be replaced by one or a few larger, off site ones. In addition I think creating a system like car share programs that let the spaces be rented regularly by community groups would capture the potential these spaces have.
Spur has great resources for touring the POPOS. First is the document in 2008 that maps and summarizes each POPOS. They also have mapped them on google for you (you can download this map then open it on your smartphone’s google maps).
Joe Bonk is a recent graduate of Cornell University's City and Regional Planning Masters Program where he focused on growth management policies and served as project manager and administrator for DesignConnect. He currently resides in Berkeley California. Joe can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This blog also appears on Joe's website, Shapingcities.com.