Speed Up the Redesign and Modernization of Privately-Owned Public Spaces

Over half the existing plazas and other public spaces located on private property lack the benches, vegetation, artwork, lighting and other amenities required by the City’s zoning code or promised by the developers in return for permission to build taller and larger buildings, as reported by Comptroller Scott Stringer in an April 18, 2017 audit. Stringer recommended more inspections by the Department of Buildings to bring these privately-owned public spaces (so-called “POPS”) into compliance. But there are two problems with Stringer’s recommendation: Buildings disagreed with the recommendation and does not plan more inspections; and the Department of City Planning, the agency that approves changes in the public spaces, lacks clear standards and takes too long to issue approvals.

Buildings did make one concession; it would compile an internal database of privately-owned public spaces, including required features and amenities, and identify the public spaces on the Building Information System. Better and available information will to lead to increased public awareness, a greater volume of complaints, and more inspections by Buildings in response to complaints.

Many of the older privately-owned public spaces, which date back to the 1960’s, would benefit from upgrading and redesign to provide better landscaping, artwork, access for people with disabilities, seating, signage, lighting, etc.  Upgrading these spaces would benefit both the public and, by enhancing property values, the owners.

Unfortunately, the difficulty in obtaining approval of design changes can frustrate the achievement of these benefits. The Department of City Planning is deeply committed to protecting the public’s interest in privately-owned public spaces, but the process by which proposed changes are reviewed is lengthy, hyper-technical, unpredictable and daunting to many owners.  It is not uncommon for design, review and reconstruction of privately-owned public spaces to take more than two years.  This is a powerful deterrent to owners.

A specific problem lies in Section 37-625 of the Zoning Resolution, which governs design changes to plazas developed prior to October 17, 2007, the date on which the current design standards were adopted. The section provides that “design changes to existing plazas…may be made only upon certification of the Chairperson of the City Planning Commission that such changes would result in a plaza…that is in greater accordance” with the newer 2007 standards.

What does “in greater accordance” mean? Does it mean that every aspect of an older plaza must be upgraded to meet current design standards, regardless of the time, cost and inconvenience involved?  Or should this provision be read more flexibly, permitting a more limited degree of “accordance” that balances the benefits to the public with the legitimate concerns of property owners?

Currently, every application to redesign an older plaza is subject to a case-by-case review by the Department of City Planning. This review ranges from the overall site plan to the types of furniture and species of plants in the plaza.  A Chairperson’s certification is a ministerial approval, not involving the exercise of discretion. Plaza design changes, nevertheless, involve seemingly unlimited discretion by City Planning.

Both the public and property owners would both benefit from a more streamlined and predictable process that encourages, not discourages, positive design changes to older plazas. An important first step would be greater dialogue between the City and the owners of privately-owned public spaces in order for owners to better understand the City’s position with respect to bonusable public space and for the City to better understand ownership’s concerns with time, costs and economics.

By: Howard Goldman and Caroline G. Harris (founding partners of GoldmanHarris LLC).

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