Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Meet Me in the POPS

 Lara Nahas 

“It’s finally warm out! Let’s meet for a picnic/chat/book-club meeting in the POPS!” Not a phrase that comes readily?! My guess is no. And yet, you could be doing just this. So what is a POPS, other than a great acronym? 

In 1961, the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) started a program that offered private developers more floor area and development rights if they would set back their buildings and create a public space at street level, such as a plaza or arcade. Sometimes referred to as the “plaza bonus,” this led to the creation of hundreds of POPS, or Privately Owned Public Spaces. There are POPS throughout New York City, but most are concentrated in certain Manhattan neighborhoods. 
Community Board 8 is completing a research study, together with Hunter College Urban Planning students, on Upper East Side POPS. Characterized by diversity in the way these spaces have been interpreted and designed, it is likely that you walk by several POPS every day without realizing that these are public spaces. 

 A privately owned public space located at 211 East 70th Street. 
When the POPS program began, few guidelines were issued to regulate the quality of these spaces and the result was often banal design. Zoning amendments in 1975 contained more defined specifications on seating, landscaping, and required signage indicating that the space was open to the public. Following a study of these spaces during the Bloomberg administration, further zoning text amendments were passed in 2007 and 2009 to be applied to new POPS. Today, this incentive bonus is only available to community facilities and commercial structures, not to residential buildings. 

POPS have particular relevance to the Upper East Side. The neighborhood is especially low on open space, and high in its concentration of POPS. According to DCP’s website, there are more than 70 in this neighborhood. Unfortunately, most of them qualify as what DCP terms “bad” plazas: barren; uninviting; inaccessible; hidden; uncomfortable. The large majority of them are classified on the website as “marginal... lacking satisfactory levels of design, amenities, or aesthetic appeal, deterring members of the public from using the space for any purpose.” Martin Pederson, executive editor of Metropolis and former Yorkville resident, points out that while POPS worked pretty well in areas such as Midtown, the bonus exchange on the Upper East Side created bulk and height without providing meaningful amenities, and most of these spaces are simply “grim.” 
The POPS at 353 East 83rd Street consists of a semicircular dropoff driveway and multiple planters which make the plaza unusable for pedestrians. 

Because the POPS in this community were mostly created in the first few decades of the program, the rules governing them were vague. Many property owners are not clear on their responsibilities, and new owners may not be familiar with the program. In certain cases, these spaces were deliberately made uninviting, with s p i k e s i n s t a l l e d o n potential seating, or have become subtly privatized. Resources for monitoring and enforcement are limited, and locals are not aware that these are in fact public spaces. Community Board 8, like CIVITAS, lobbied against the “plaza bonuses” for breaking up the streetwall (see Paul Newman narrate our “No More Tall Stories” video on In some cases, the interpretation of the POPS resulted in “V.I.P. driveways,” which CIVITAS also consistently advocated against as being at odds with the spirit of a program that was supposed to increase open space for public use. 

Renewed attention is now being paid to POPS. There is a broader public conversation about open spaces and urban quality of life. Ideas around “placemaking” and what contributes to creating healthy, animated places are more widely discussed. This is part of a debate about the kind of city we want to live in, and the tricky balance between beneficial growth and preserving what is valuable. When the Occupy Wall Street movement chose the POPS Zuccotti Park for its encampment it took advantage of the fact that unlike public parks, that POPS was not closed at night. This focused attention on the murkiness of the rules governing these spaces. 

The POPS at 301 East 87th Street is classified by DCP as a “marginal space.” It lacks satisfactory levels of design, amenities, or aesthetic appeal and deters people from using it. 
Like many quirks of the city we live in and live with, the POPS in our community are a legacy from a former era characterized by a different approach to the quality of neighborhoods. We badly need more open space, even if just a spot to rest and watch the world go by. So how can our area’s POPS be improved? CB8’s Zoning Committee Chairs, Teri Slater and Elaine Walsh, explained that the goals of the forthcoming report included examining and cataloguing each of the POPS, seeing how much was known about them in the community, and ultimately educating both property owners and the neighborhood public. Most of the Upper East Side POPS are connected to residential buildings, which means that security and sensitivity with respect to building tenants are of greater concern than in Midtown POPS. Another goal of the CB8 study is to clarify the rules governing POPS, the responsibilities of building owners, and to place the Community Board in a position to assist communication between owners and city agencies. Improved design can make individual POPS more inviting. Community members can also start using the good POPS, which will attract other people to them. 

There are better resources now for identifying POPS. The Municipal Art Society (MAS) has a new initiative together with the expert on the subject, Harvard professor Jerold S. Kayden. The MAS website lists POPS by neighborhood, with photographs and a catalogue of amenities. The site also provides for public posting of comments and rating of specific POPS—hopefully assisting with better community stewardship of these spaces. The DCP website also has information on its site. 

Do you visit any of the POPS near you? Let us know if you have a favorite – or a least favorite! 

Find a local POPS: 
  • NYC Department of City Planning : Choose “Inventory” and “Upper East Side” 
  • Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space at the Municipal Art Society Choose “Find a POPS”, “Neighborhood” and “Upper East Side”  This site has more extensive “Space Details” for each space, including in many cases a “Site Plan” which clearly depicts which part of the site is public and which is private.

To read the complete spring 2013 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

NYC Benches on the Rise

Roberta Hodgson 

The elevated subway grates on East 116th Street are designed to prevent flooding and also serve as public art and a bench. 

“I came down the front steps of my house into a world that was sunny, warm and clean….
with benches, where mothers sat with their carriaged babies,” novelist E.L. Doctorow wrote recently in New York magazine, describing his Depression-era childhood in New York City.

Seventy five years later, benches still provide comfort and convenience in what serves as our common outdoor living room: the sidewalks of New York. The problem is that there are not enough benches to accommodate seniors, shoppers, and families looking for a spot to sit. Seniors often find it difficult to walk several blocks without a place to rest. And New Yorkers of any age appreciate a bench to sit on, chat with a friend or share an ice cream with a child. Interrupting the relentless pace of the city by stopping to sit and smell chestnuts roasting or to notice pear trees in bloom can only be good for everyone’s peace of mind.

Now a solution to the problem of too few benches is at hand–a new program from the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) known as CityBench. In order to increase the amount of public seating on our streets, DOT is now installing attractive and durable benches around the city, particularly at bus stops, retail corridors, and in areas with a high concentration of senior citizens. As DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan explained in a recent interview, “New York has it all but it also needs places to take it all in.”

For Sandra Talavera, a social worker, resident of East Harlem and wife of CIVITAS President Felipe Ventegeat, this is not a new story. Over the past few years she worked with the city’s Department for the Aging, and has found that a major concern is the lack of seating in public areas. “The seniors,” she said, “actually just wanted a place they could sit down and rest close to their supermarkets and bus stops."  Working with the New York Academy of Medicine at 103rd Street, Community Board 11 and Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, Sandra helped draw up a strategic plan to place more than 300 benches for seniors throughout the city. 

A DOT CityBench installed outside the Leonard Covello Senior Center. 

Stressing the importance of these plans, Ruth Finkelstein, senior vice president for policy and planning at the Academy explained, “For older adults, benches are exercise to get to, and they are social engagement and anti-depressants.” East Harlem was one of the first areas with a CityBench. Located outside the Leonard Covello Senior Center on 109th Street between First and Second Avenues, it is a comfortable open-sided, slatted bench with sturdy end bars in a sleek silver metal.Convinced that durable benches make streets more welcoming for everyone, encourage walking, and are a civic amenity, DOT has made CityBench available to the entire city.  

“One of the complaints about public seating was that it was too narrow,” says Ignacio Ciocchini, a bench designer with Chelsea Improvement Company. His designs for DOT have wide seats allowing for more personal space and room for a bag or pet. DOT welcomes experimentation with location and design. For example, a simple backless model bench relates well to other street furniture and costs about $1,800 to fabricate. Benches with armrests are useful both to help people to get out of the seat and to divide a bench so that more people can fit on it. Many benches are made of domestic carbon steel similar to that used on cars. This anti-rust design requires very little maintenance.

Anyone can request a bench by contacting and filling out a form or by phoning (212) 839-6569. Priority bench locations include bus stops without shelters, senior centers, libraries, hospitals, and high-density shopping areas. Located online are detailed requirements about where benches may go for safety and engineering reasons. This program is funded by a $2.4 million grant from the federal government with the last 10 percent funded by the city. 

Private initiative can also give birth to a bench. Food Passion, Peter Walter’s store on Lexington Avenue, has a welcoming white slated bench on the sidewalk near the front door. Asked who paid for it, he replied, “we did because we enjoy seeing our customers, and for that matter anyone, enjoying the bench as they do everyday.” Asked about vandalism, he replied, “Not a problem.” DOT also states vandalism is rare and that the key to prevention is locating benches where adjacent shop owners and neighbors will assume some responsibility for their use and maintenance.  

Community Board 8’s office says that any store owner can put a bench on the sidewalk in front of their store as long as it is flush to the building, does not interfere with pedestrian traffic, and is removable. Eli’s Manhattan and other stores on Third Avenue have seen the benefit of sidewalk benches, and recently placed them in front of their shops. 

In the big picture, benches—both publicly and privately financed—fulfill some of the Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 goals to prepare the city for additional walkers on the streets and a more carbon-free environment.

To learn more, visit the Department of Transportation website:

To read the complete spring 2013 issue of CIVITAS News, visit


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Healthy and Local at NYC Greenmarkets

Willa Hutner 
St. Stephen's Greenmarket on a Saturday in May.

Too many people miss one of the finest things Manhattan has to offer—its farmers’ markets. These take place in schoolyards, parks, and parking lots, where local farmers rent stands to sell the food they have grown. Merchandise is not limited to fruits and vegetables. There are also the freshest meats, poultry, cheeses, just-laid eggs with bright-orange yolks, milk with cream on top, seafood, handmade baked goods, flowers, and artisanal goods. Some markets have other features, as shown in the chart below.  

Why should you bother, when the supermarket sells everything you need, year-round, including sodas and Swiffers? There are several reasons. The foods you buy from the source taste like what they are. In-season is not an advertising gimmick; it’s real. There is nothing like asparagus in the spring; freshly dug little fingerling potatoes in late summer; tiny, sweet carrots with the soil still clinging to the roots, sugars and minerals intact; heirloom tomatoes in September; or parsnips in winter after the cold weather has chilled the soil and sweetened the roots by converting starch to sugar. The only place you can find a tomato ripened in the field, not by gas, is at a farmers’ market. Supermarket fruits and vegetables are bred to survive global shipping; farmers grow what tastes good. The food you buy from growers is healthier, so you eat better, and you know where the food is coming from, how it has been treated, wrapped and stored. Shoppers buy 75% more fruit and vegetables at greenmarkets. Supermarkets display processed foods prominently, drawing customers to junk food. 

Shopping at a farmers’ market supports small-farm agriculture, an important and growing part of our food production system. Initially, it helps keep the farms, and basic home economy, alive. But there is a bigger picture. Farmers’ markets could be the first step in a larger program in which local produce fuels a neighborhood’s economy by drawing other businesses. These businesses, in turn, support other local purveyors. The Bi-Rite in San Francisco is a typical example of a Community Food Enterprise. It uses local printers, designers, and signmakers. 90% of its employees live within walking distance, thereby generating local jobs. It promotes interaction among locals: if a jam maker buys in volume from a farmer, the farmer has a guaranteed sale, and the transaction generates higher profits for both parties because there is no distributor. The federal government stands ready to help. Last year, Congress mandated that 5% of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Business and Industry Loan Guarantee Program go to farmers who sell their products regionally. There’s no reason it couldn’t happen here, with La Marqueta at Park Avenue and 115th Street, already in place, as an anchor. Lastly, your being part of this movement reshapes the urban area as more of a family space. You are shopping from your regional neighbors in a local urban setting. Instead of cars in a paved lot, you walk to their market, see friends, and buy delicious, healthy food. As greenmarkets proliferate, so does the opportunity to maintain a distinct boundary between country and city, with a ring of green farmland surrounding the city. 

The Greenmarket movement is fairly new. In 1976, Barry Benepe and Bob Lewis saw a huge disconnect between living in the city and having access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Barry had spent summers on his father’s farm, growing, packing, shipping, and dealing with a canning facility. In New York, supermarkets offered poor quality produce. Farmland was being lost, as farms were bought up for development. Inspired by models in Europe’s cities, Barry and Bob obtained an $800 grant from the Council on the Environment to create such a market and then set up shop with about 12 farmers. This was a small beginning to what is now a wide-spread amenity for city dwellers. 

To read the complete spring 2013 issue of CIVITAS News, visit

Markets on the Upper East Side and East Harlem: 

The initials stand for: A- Antiques, B- Recycling of rechargable batteries & cellphones, C-Cooking demonstrations, F- Flea Market, N- Nutrition education, R- Free recipes, S- Accepts food scraps for composting, T-Textiles recycling. 

East 67th Street Market at P.S. 183 
East 67th Street (between First & York Avenues) 
Open year round 
Saturdays, 6 am - 5pm A, F 

East 82nd Street, St. Stephen’s 
East 82nd Street (between First & York Avenues) 
Open year round
Saturdays, T, B, S, R, C
Winter Schedule: 9 am - 2 pm 
Summer Schedule: 9 am - 3 pm
EBT/WIC Accepted
In addition to batteries and cellphones, this market also also recycles cords, Britta filters, wine bottle corks, CD/DVDs, jewel cases and eye glasses. Summer events includes weekly cooking demos led by the market manager and occasional area chefs, and live music with the Opera Collective and Mariachi Flor from July to Labor Day.

East 92nd Street Market 
First Avenue (between 92nd & 93rd Streets) 
Open June 23 - December 24 
Sundays, 9 am to 5 pm C, N, S, R
Recyclables collected are batteries, cellphones, cords, Britta filters, wine bottle corks, CD/DVDs, jewel cases and eye glasses. Summer events include cooking demos by the market manager, and from July 8th to Thanksgiving this year the Health Department Stellar Cooks will combine nutrition education with cooking demos. Compost and clothing/fabrics/hats/shoes/belts are collected 9am-1pm.

Mt. Sinai Greenmarket 
99th Street (between Madison & Park Avenues) 
Open June 26 - November 27 
Wednesdays, 8 am - 4 pm C, R 
EBT/WIC Accepted

Harvest Home East Harlem Market 
East 104th Street at Third Avenue 
Open July 11 - November 14 
Thursdays, 8 am - 4 pm C, N 

Harvest Home Metropolitan Market 
99th Street at Third Avenue 
July 5 - November 15 
Fridays, 8 am - 4pm C, N 
* Many of the markets offer merchandise and services beyond farm-grown food.