By Julie Shapiro and Jill Colvin
LOWER MANHATTAN — Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said cops are preparing for the Occupy Wall Street protest to last indefinitely.
“People are going to be here for an extended period of time. We’re going to accommodate them as long as they do it peacefully and in accordance with the laws and regulations," Kelly told reporters following a City Council hearing Thursday.
But he said that neither police nor executives from Brookfield Properties, which owns Zuccotti Park, have the authority to kick the protesters out at this point.
The park, where demonstrators have been encamped for three weeks, is privately owned but operates as a public space that must be open 24-hours-a-day under an agreement with the city.
"Right now, they are there and the owners of that plaza don’t have the legal right to eject them,” Kelly said.
The commissioner explained that Zuccotti Park was built by Brookfield in exchange for zoning variances, and that as part of the developer's contract, the public is entitled to round-the-clock access.
Brookfield recently posted a list of regulations at the park — including bans on sleeping bags and tarps as well as a prohibition against lying down on benches, sitting areas and walkways — but Kelly said that police could not intervene.
“You would need a legal basis to do that. And what I’m saying is the public has a right to access that piece of land. So this has to be worked out legally," he said.
Brookfield spokeswoman Melissa Coley declined to discuss the original agreement for the plaza, the conditions for modifying the the terms of that agreement, or comment on whether the rules have any legal standing.
But in a statement, she criticized the protesters for failing to heed the rules, which were recently posted on signs.
"Unfortunately, many of the individuals currently occupying the grounds are ignoring these basic yet necessary requirements, which interferes with the use of the park by others, including local residents, office workers and visitors," she said.
Coley declined to say whether Brookfield has asked police to intervene.
"We continue to work with the City of New York to address these conditions and restore the park to its intended purpose," she said.
Raju Mann, a director of planning at the Municipal Art Society of New York, who was formerly with the Department of City Planning, said that in order to close the plaza, Brookfield would need approval from the Department of City Planning — a process that typically takes several weeks or months.
Mann said whether police can intervene to enforce other rules is less clear.
“There is lot of gray area about what activities are permitted in a privately owned public space," he said.
The Department of City Planning did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether any applications for modifications of the agreement have been filed.
Kelly's comments Thursday came after an NYPD detective addressed Community Board 1's Financial District Committee about the issue Wednesday night — as thousands of protesters flooded lower Manhattan's streets in the largest demonstration yet.
Det. Rick Lee, a community affairs officer at lower Manhattan's First Precinct, told community members that Brookfield is responsible for creating the rules that park visitors must follow, and suggested the NYPD would be able to remove people from the park at Brookfield's request if protesters broke those rules.
"A representative for Brookfield would go into the park and say, 'You're in violation of the rules of the park. You have to leave,'" Lee told the committee Wednesday night.
"If they don't leave, they're trespassing. Then the police would get involved… When that button is going to be pushed…I couldn't tell you."
A metal sign in Zuccotti Park outlining Brookfield's rules for the space was mostly torn down as of Thursday morning.
Downtown residents at the meeting reiterated their complaints about the impact Occupy Wall Street is having on their lives.
"You supposedly work for the people, but you don't care about these people who live in the neighborhood who are under a tremendous amount of stress," said Ro Sheffe, chair of CB1's Financial District Committee, whose apartment overlooks Zuccotti Park.
"You guys need to be in Greenwich, Connecticut, where the rich people live. The people you're disturbing are middle-class people just like you."
The neighbors' chief complaints include protesters' late-night shouting and drumming, the police barriers that have crippled Downtown's streets and the diversion of police resources to the protest, rather than neighborhood quality-of-life issues.
Justin Wedes, a representative of Occupy Wall Street who attended the meeting, said the protesters agreed to start their quiet hours at 10 p.m. on weeknights in deference to community concerns.
He also promised to take additional community requests back to Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly, including no marching on Yom Kippur, no marching in the street and creating official march routes so police and residents are not caught off guard.
Wedes admitted that the protesters initially thought lower Manhattan was "a rich neighborhood with hedge funders and bankers," and did not realize that many members of the so-called 99 percent lived there, too.
He said the protesters hope to be good neighbors during the rest of their stay, which does not have an end date.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents lower Manhattan, said Wednesday that the protesters have worn out their welcome and should take their demonstrations elsewhere.
On Wednesday night, CB1's Financial District Committee decided not to pass a resolution condemning the protest but rather to hold weekly meetings with all the involved parties, in an attempt to negotiate a solution.
Kelly said that police are doing their best to work with protesters, despite a confrontation Wednesday night.
“This is our job to accommodate demonstrations,” he said.
For upcoming meetings, visit Community Board 1's website.