Ah, privately owned public spaces. Where better to scarf down a falafel plate, be chased by security guards for skateboarding, or set up a tent city to protest our financial and political system being rigged to benefit only the very rich? The spaces—which take the form of plazas, atria, indoor walkways, and even hotel lobbies—grant the developers who build them lucrative zoning bonuses that allow them to build bigger than they otherwise could. And in case there was any question, the New York Times has come through with a reminder that privately owned public space often isn't very public at all.
For example, columnist Matt Chaban writes, the string of plazas and lobbies that used to offer off-street passage from 44th Street to 49th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was closed to all but keycard holders after September 11th.
At nearby Trump Tower, where the 20 added floors made possible by the addition of a pedestrian walkway are worth around $500 million, a marble bench has been replaced with a kiosk selling "Trump books, ties, cologne, chocolate ingots and "Make America Great Again" baseball caps. The Trump Organization is facing a $2,500 fine for the infraction.
At the hotel Le Parker Meridien, on West 56th Street, the lobby is supposed to be public, but a cafe called the Knave enforces an illegal no-outside-food-and-drink policy. Chaban tested the policy by visiting with members of the watchdog Municipal Art Society in tow, and a large pizza.
"You can't eat that here; no outside food," a bartender told the group as they prepared to dig in. "It's illegal. You can't do that here. You have to leave."
Downtown, outside the office tower at 40 Broad St., a plaza's bench planters have been taken out and the space is being used for staff parking. Morgan Stanley said the plaza was closed for security purposes, and a spokesman said city permission was given, but that the permission came from the Department of Buildings, which doesn't regulate privately owned public space.
Starting back in 2012, activist lawyer Paula Segal battled to reopen Chase Manhattan Plaza, a block-long public space in the Financial District that closed the day before the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. Chase claimed to be waterproofing the space, but no work was visible, and the NYPD and Buildings Department blocked release of the construction plan on grounds that the plaza and the tower beside it are terror targets. The plaza stayed closed for more than a year.
According to the Department of City Planning, overall the public is not getting bang for developers' bucks when it comes to so-called privately owned public space. A survey of 503 such spaces found that:
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.