POPS Quiz: Evaluating NYC’s “Public” Spaces

180 Fifth Avenue

By Minna Ninova

An urban area as densely built and crowded as Manhattan can be an exhausting place to live or work. Finding a place to rest, relax and catch your breath is essential for staying sane, which is one reason the borough’s public spaces are so highly valued. It’s also one of the reasons the city’s zoning code allows for the creation of so-called Privately Owned Public Spaces or POPS – plazas, arcades, sidewalk widenings, open air concourses, covered pedestrian spaces, and through block arcades – that are provided and maintained by a developer for public use, in exchange for additional floor area. Since their introduction in 1961, the standards governing the city’s POPS have evolved to require a variety of amenities, from simple seating to lighting, accessibility and aesthetic value.

With an inventory of over 500 POPS, the Department of City Planning has had a difficult time monitoring property owner compliance and enforcing its evolving standards. However, with the help of Harvard professor Jarold Kayden and New York City’s Municipal Art Society, monitoring efforts are up and gaining visibility with the APOPS@MAS initiative, including a thoroughly interactive website that allows visitors to find POPS by location, type and amenities offered. It also encourages users to rate their experience at various POPS throughout the city.

On a recent afternoon, I answered the call of civic duty and surveyed a handful of POPS on my way from work to an evening appointment in Midtown Manhattan, an area rich with skyscrapers whose owners have taken advantage of POPS zoning allowance over the years.

The first space I visited was a small residential plaza at 180 Fifth Avenue near Union Square, a condominium building with units going for around 1.5 million U.S. dollars. A commenter on the APOPS@MAS website was right — the public seating required of public plazas was absent and no signage alerted passers by of their right to public use. Yet people lingered in the plaza, pausing to talk on the phone or leaning against the planter fencing.

120 Park Avenue

Next up was 120 Park Avenue, a generously sized interior public space across the street from Grand Central Station that was particularly welcoming as the skies darkened and a spring storm began to form. A collaboration with the Whitney Museum of Art decorates the space with rotating pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, though the real enjoyment seemed to lie in the public restroom, plenty of available seating and unexpected quiet just steps away from one of the most riotously busy spots in the whole city.

245 Park Avenue

The third space I visited was the intimidating 245 Park Avenue, a modernist tower with a sprawling plaza facing Park Avenue and a plaque suggesting that pitching a tent on the premises is prohibited because it interferes with the safety and enjoyment of everyone, though something told me the proprietors were chiefly concerned with keeping the area free of homeless visitors and not urban wildlife and/or camping enthusiasts.

245 Park Avenue

Disappointed by the lack of seating, I circled the perimeter until I spotted a terraced outdoor area with tables and chairs that looked suspiciously cafe-like, though another plaque assured me I didn’t need to buy an expensive coffee drink to enjoy a seat. I sat down for a few minutes triumphantly not drinking anything and planned my next stop.

803 Third Avenue

Following that was a short-lived introduction to the three-tiered interior space at 805 Third Avenue, beguilingly called the Crystal Pavilion. Potential visitors should note that there is no visible explanation for the atrium’s name. Potential visitors should also note that the space closes to the public at 7 pm and that arriving at 6:45 pm means that you will be asked to leave.

My fifth and final stop at 875 3rd Avenue was the least visually attractive of the bunch and yet the most crowded. Several fast food restaurants gave the three-story space a mall food court vibe, and a door leading to the nearby subway tunnel made me feel like I should be on my way to somewhere else which I suppose I was, as are most people who pause at a POPS.

And even though my short survey uncovered discrepancies in upkeep, accessibility and degree of welcome, I was encouraged by my discoveries and — well rested by lots of free sitting — inspired to keep exploring.

Minna Ninova is a designer, urbanist and public space enthusiast originally from Sofia, Bulgaria now living happily in Brooklyn, New York City. In her spare time she makes maps and writes…or is that takes naps and fights? She’s not sure and will have to get back to you. While figuring things out, Minna tries to always look on the bright side of life as suggested by Monty Python’s Life of Brian. 

All photos by the author.

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