A new report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer finds that of 51 “privately owned public spaces” (POPS) located in Lower Manhattan, only eight are 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 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 construct towers that were taller and denser than otherwise would have been permissible.
POPS are spaces (either indoor or outdoor) that are built for public use and for the taxpayers’ benefit, by the developers of private buildings. In exchange for creating such public amenities, developers are permitted to construct tens of thousands of square feet of extra private space within their buildings, which can yield millions of dollars per year in additional rent each year, and a windfall of tens of millions of extra dollars if the building is ever sold. For the City as a whole, property owners have benefited from approximately 23 million square feet of “bonus” floor area in their buildings.
The Comptroller’s report looked at more than 300 POPS in all five boroughs. Among these were more than four dozen scattered throughout the Downtown area, where fewer than 15 percent were in compliance with agreements made by developers when they received zoning benefits. The same report also found that the City’s Department of Buildings (DOB) has not inspected more than two-thirds of all POPS in at least four years, and often fails to inspect even when a complaint is received alleging violation of the agreement that governs the space. In other cases, the Comptroller found, the DOB fails to cite the building owner for applicable violations even when it does follow up on a complaint by inspecting the site.
Two examples among the 51 sites reviewed by Mr. Stringer in Lower Manhattan are particularly egregious. At 101 Barclay Street, according to the report, “the owner… received a permit allowing modification of height and setback regulations in exchange for providing a public lobby.”
But 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.”
At Two Gold Street, a large public plaza that was created in exchange for allowing the residential tower to build higher has been taken over by two restaurants, which use the space to offer outdoor seating. This POPS is also in violation of a requirement for signage identifying the plaza as public space, and posting hours of availability. The Comptroller’s report also notes that people who have tried to use the space have been ordered to leave by managers from the restaurants that have taken it over.
“What’s happening is simply unbelievable,” Mr. Stringer said. “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.”