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UES 'Open Spaces' Often Shut Out Public, Study Finds

By DNAinfo Staff on February 5, 2013 8:25am

UPPER EAST SIDE — As one of the city's most densely populated neighborhoods gasps for green breathing room, new research claims many of the area's open spaces aren't being fully utilized.

A study by Hunter College Urban Planning graduate students found that most of the neighborhood's 76 privately owned public spaces (POPS) are hostile to public use.

The findings come after a luxe high-rise on the Upper East Side was cited in March 2012 for locking the community out of a public plaza and amid continued public outcry over open-space concerns.

At least half of the area's POPS had explicit or implicit barriers deterring their use, and many of them had doormen who "attempted to usher [students]" out of these areas, Paul Lozito, a graduate student participating in the research, recently told CB8's Zoning and Development Committee. Few had seating areas, and many property owners didn't even know their property was considered a public space, he added.

In addition, 65 lacked explanatory signs telling the public about their right to use the space.

"Virtually all the POPS had signage indicating no skateboarding and no dog-walking, but no signage indicating that they're public space," Lozito told the committee.

POPS — a hybrid that falls somewhere between city-owned passive parks and privately owned plazas and courtyards — are the result of a zoning program that began in the 1960s. It essentially allowed participating developers to erect taller buildings than normally allowed, as long as the new building provided open space on the property, Lozito said.

The most famous example of a POPS may be Zuccotti Park, where the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampment grew while the city and the private landowner discussed who was responsible for the property and whether it could exclude people from entry. The city ultimately decided it could enforce closing times at the park —  first built under POPS allowances in 1968 that were later renewed in 2005 — and kicked out the Occupiers as per the management company's request for assistance.

According to the city, POPS created from 1961 to 1975 do not need to have a sign making clear that they're public space. POPS created from 1975 to 2000 — when the zoning scheme ended — must be more amenable to public use.

What that entails, however, is unclear, Lozito said.

Residential POPS created in the 1980s do require signage, the city said in an e-mail to DNAinfo.com New York.

And the city is doing all it can to make POPS more user-friendly, a Department of City Planning spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail.

"POPS have been a priority and there are now revised standards for all outdoor POPS that ensure going forward the creation of high-quality public plazas on privately owned sites that are inviting, open ... accessible and safe," the spokeswoman wrote.

The department did not, however, respond specifically to the Hunter College study.

The research team, which was supervised by professor and Community Board 8 member Elaine Walsh, ultimately concluded that because of the enforcement of gray areas and changing laws, the best way to promote POPS right now would be to educate building owners and the public.

Teri Slater, the zoning committee co-chairwoman, said CB8 had to do as much as it could for education efforts.

"The community board is not the police. We're not an enforcement agency," she said. "We have to work constructively and proactively and cooperatively with the owners."

Slater also reiterated demands that new developments, such as planned medical facilities, do their fair share in fostering an airier atmosphere — even if it's not part of a zoning program or required by law.

"They have the ability to do that," she said. "To be really compatible, if you are building tall buildings, you should put some open space somewhere so that the public benefits in some way."