Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Zuccotti Park is a Public Space

While many reports suggest the Zuccotti Park , known as Liberty Plaza, is a private space, this is a deceptive description of the space. It is in fact a bonus plaza. Place Matters explains: “Zuccotti Park is a bonus plaza for 1 Liberty Plaza, which means that the public green space is a zoning requirement for the real estate corporation.

“There are 503 such privately-owned "public spaces" in 320 buildings in New York, all but a few in Manhattan, and they are coming under increasing scrutiny,” notes Anne Schwartz.

“They owe their existence to zoning laws, passed in 1961 and amended numerous times since, that allowed developers to build taller structures in exchange for creating and maintaining plazas, atriums, passageways, and other spaces, all supposedly open to the public. Together, they amount to 82 acres, one-tenth the size of Central Park. In exchange, developers were permitted to add on an extra 16 million square feet of floor space.”

“The space was given to them for a concession,” notes Brooklyn College sociologist Greg Smithsimon, the author of September 12 and co-author of The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York’s City’s Public Spaces. “It should be treated as a public space. It is not the same as private space. They gave it to the public in exchange for very profitable zoning concessions, explicitly space, square footage. The building is taller and more profitable because they gave the people that public space. It’s a trade and the trade should be maintained.”

In The Beach Beneath the Streets, Smithsimon describes the program.

The zoning regulation further specifies that plazas are meant to be public spaces: “Public plazas are . . . intended for public use and enjoyment. The standards . . . are intended to serve the following specific purposes: (a) to serve a variety of users of the public plaza area; (b) to provide spaces for solitary users while at the same time providing opportunities for social interaction for small groups; and (c) to provide safe spaces, with maximum visibility from the street and adjacent buildings” Thus, the spaces are supposed to be publicly accessible, but critically, most building owners have never treated them that way.

From this perspective, the Occupy Wall Street movement is using this space as it was intended by New York City Zoning Laws. The problem is few but those sociologists who have taken the time to study them have ever pushed to see how open these spaces really are. In a 2001 report entitled Public Owned Private Spaces, the Municipal Arts Society took the city to task for not making the spaces more accessible. When public space group Times Up! tested the accessibility of the plazas, members of the group were routinely told to leave. “These are private spaces” security guards note. If one tells them, these are spaces designed for the public, they say, “Come on man I’m only doing my job” followed by the caveat, “If you do not leave I am calling the police.” Much of the debate about bonus plazas hinges on the definition of accessibility.

As William Whyte said, “What does ‘accessible’ mean? A commonsense interpretation would be that the public could use the space in the same manner it uses any public space, with the same freedoms and the same constraints. Many buildings managements have been operating with a much narrower concept of access. They shoo away entertainers and people who distribute leaflets or give speeches. Apartment buildings managements often shoo away everybody except residents. This is a flagrant violation of the zoning intent, but to date no one has gone to court on it. The public’s right in urban plazas would seem clear. Not only are plazas used as public spaces; in most cases the owner has been specifically, and richly, rewarded for providing them. He has not been given license to allow only those public activities he happens to approve of. He may assume that he has license, and some owners have been operating on this basis with impunity. But that is because nobody has challenged them. A stiff, clarifying test is in order,” (quoted in the Beach Beneath the Streets).

The fight over Zuccotti Park may offer just such a test. If the city chooses to push occupants out of the space on the grounds that it is privately owned, they will not be steady ground. Zuccotti Park was created in exchange for increased height for 1 Liberty Plaza the building just to the north of the Park. Of course, the tenants of 1 Liberty Plaza do not want us to know the public helped pay for their digs. They include Goldman Sachs, Royal Bank of Canada, as well as NASDQ Headquarters, among others. There is a reason Occupy Wall Street chose this location. Few of these corporations are interested in an extended discussion of democracy in New York City, such as those taking shape in the public space known as Zuccotti Park.  But it is just what they will have if they work with the NYPD to evict the members of Occupy Wall Street from the bonus plaza known as Zuccotti Park.

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