“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 www.civitasnyc.org). 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.
Find a local POPS:
- NYC Department of City Planning : http://bit.ly/popsnyc Choose “Inventory” and “Upper East Side”
- Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space at the Municipal Art Society www.apops.mas.org 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.