The City Council recently enacted a new law that strengthens enforcement over “privately owned public spaces” (POPS), in response to an April report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer, which found that of 51 POPS located in Lower Manhattan, only eight were meeting legally required standards for public access, hours, or the availability of amenities such as artwork, lighting, furniture, plantings, drinking fountains, and bike racks. (This determination was part of a larger analysis by Mr. Stringer’s office of more than 300 POPS in all five boroughs.) Both in Lower Manhattan and the City as a whole, this represents a significant loss of value to the public, because these POPS were created in exchange for generous zoning variances that allowed the building owners to construct towers that were taller and denser than otherwise would have been permissible. But the problem seems particularly acute Downtown: the Comptroller’s audit found a compliance rate of less than 50 percent for the City as a whole, but less than 15 percent in Lower Manhattan.
The new law, which went into effect on October 21, provides for fines of up to $10,000 when building owners fail to meet their obligations related to POPS. But it seems to have had little effect this far, at least in Lower Manhattan. A central case in point cited by Mr. Stringer was the Bank of New York Melon building at 101 Barclay Street, a 25-story, 1.2 million-square-foot behemoth that occupies a square block in Tribeca. When developers wanted to create this structure in the early 1980s, they persuaded the City to “de-map” a block-long segment of Washington Street, between Barclay and Murray Streets, which was absorbed into the building’s interior.
The soaring lobby of 101 Barclay reaches 300 feet into the sky, and follows the path of a now enclosed stretch of Washington Street — which was “de-mapped” and absorbed into the building’s interior, in exchange for a promise that the spectacular space would become a public amenity.
In exchange, the building’s owner promised that 101 Barclay’s towering atrium lobby (which follows the former path of Washington Street, and soars more than 300 feet to a glass skylight) would become a public amenity. The developer was also required to build a second-floor elevated walkway running through the building, between Barclay to Murray Streets, but this plan was abandoned.
Both the lost stretch of Washington Street and the promise of the elevated walkway permitted the developer permission to erect a taller, bulkier structure. As Mr. Stringer’s report noted in April, “the owner… received a permit allowing modification of height and setback regulations in exchange for providing a public lobby.” That additional space is now likely worth tens of millions of dollars, but the amenities that were to be delivered to the public in this margin appear to have been forgotten.
When Mr. Stringer’s auditors attempted to inspect the facility, they found the lobby closed to the public with a sign posted outside that reads, “this lobby is the private property of BNY Mellon and is intended for use by BNY Mellon’s employees and invited guests. All other person are not permitted and must leave upon request.”
When the Comptroller’s staff attempted to enter the space, “building security informed the auditors that this lobby has been closed to the public for at least 15 years and is only open to Bank of New York staff,” according to the report, which also notes that, “the property owner has not received approval for this closure.”
“Auditors who attempted to inspect the site were stopped, an attempt was made to prevent photographs, the auditors were escorted to the security office and questioned, and were informed that they were prohibited from further entry into the building’s lobby, notwithstanding the fact that it is a POPS location and so a public space,” the report continues, adding that, “auditors were not allowed to take any further pictures of the lobby and were asked to leave this POPS location.”
The Broadsheet visited this building on Monday morning, and found that the same sign still adorns every entrance. When a reporter attempted to enter the lobby, he was stopped by a security guard.
“What’s happening is simply unbelievable,” Mr. Stringer said in April. “New Yorkers are literally getting cheated out of tens of millions of dollars in public space — and the City is willfully choosing to do nothing about it. Public resources are effectively being given away at the expense of all of us.”
“New Yorkers are getting cheated out of public resources — and the City is letting it happen,” he added. “We must proactively enforce agreements so we aren’t leaving money on the table and failing to protect the public’s interest. We’ve seen willful neglect that defies common sense. That’s why this legislation is so important.”
Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York, said of the new law that aims to protect public access to POPS like the lobby at 101 Barclay Street, “the public has long deserved the stronger monitoring and enforcement mechanism that this legislation will help deliver. Scattered across some of the City’s darkest and most congested neighborhoods, this network of POPS provides 80 acres of open space for New Yorkers to step out of the hustle and bustle, and appreciate the city around them.”