Talking POPS

Make text smaller Make text larger

Urban planner Raquel Ramati on Manhattan’s open spaces


  • A POPS at the Kimpton Hotel Eventi, near 29th Street and Sixth Avenue. Photo: Michael Garofalo

Privately owned public spaces, or POPS, have been a feature of Manhattan zoning for decades. The basic concept is simple: private developers create public plazas and other open spaces in or around their buildings; in exchange, the city permits the developers to build additional floor area, which generally translates into more high-value stories at the tops of buildings. POPS haven’t always lived up to their goals — more than half of the spaces included in a recent city comptroller’s audit were found to have failed to provide the required public amenities. And the legislation has been periodically revisited by the city council, most recently last week, when the council passed a bill mandating a comprehensive database of all POPS locations and regular compliance inspections.

Few people know more about POPS and incentive zoning than Raquel Ramati. As director of the Department of City Planning’s Urban Design Group and Chief Architect of Manhattan, Ramati had a close hand in drafting and improving open-space zoning legislation and worked throughout her career to improve the city’s streetscapes. Today, she continues to advocate for public urban space as a professor at Columbia and NYU and as a private consultant through her firm, Raquel Ramati Associates. Ramati joined Straus News for a conversation on open space in Manhattan.

How have POPS changed since they were first introduced?

The first incentive zoning was in 1961. There was no real definition of a POPS, and as a result, there were many POPS or plazas that were sunken. Developers, because retail underground does not count towards Floor Area Ratio [FAR], sunk the plazas down. They got incentives and created retail. The plaza where the Apple Store is now used to be a sunken plaza. Nobody ever used it. So the first legislation in 1961 created open space, a lot of which was influenced by the Seagram Building plaza.

But in the late sixties, the city realized that the plazas had not really met the goals, and since then, in different iterations, some of which I was part of, we tried to create plazas that are an extension to the street. We created the requirements that plazas would be at street level, that they had to have a certain size. We introduced covered pedestrian spaces and arcades.

In general, do you feel that POPS achieve the goals that they are intended to achieve?

In general, I think the idea is an excellent idea, because the city will never be able to purchase open space that is as expensive as in Midtown Manhattan. We have over 500 plazas now. I think some of them are very successful. If you look at the old IBM building, which I take my students to each semester and is now owned by Ed Minskoff, it has a covered pedestrian space that is very successful. And why is it successful? It’s large enough, it’s well-maintained, it has a small commercial area where you can buy a cup of coffee (but you don’t have to), it connects two streets, 57th and 56th, and it’s transparent so from the street you can see it.

In many areas between 7th and 8th Avenues, where the block is very wide, the idea of having another way for pedestrians to cut through the block is also very successful.

Several of the plazas are not very successful. For instance, on Third Avenue there are several plazas that ... don’t have seating; they don’t have all the requirements that POPS have now. They were built after 1970, but they don’t meet today’s requirements.

What aspects of POPS deserve more attention?

The security issues of today create a new reality, which really, really worries me. And the question is how do you address it? You see these truck attacks all over the world — what do we do? Are we putting back the bollards that we used to be against? That, to me, is a major issue that nobody has addressed yet. I’m very interested in it and I was thinking about doing some research about that.

How could POPS be further improved?

The question is: is there any thing that you can replace the plaza with if it doesn’t work? The city hasn’t addressed that. I think it’s a mistake, because many developers are very frustrated because they want to improve the public spaces and they find it extremely difficult. The process has been too lengthy, in my opinion, too demanding, while the developer has been willing to invest a lot of money.

City planning has been spending so much time on every detail, every tree, every seat, and I think after 30 years, these spaces need renovation. It’s become extremely difficult. There has to be a way to encourage developers to renovate their spaces rather than discourage them by creating such a long process.

How can the city work to ensure good outcomes in projects like these, which involve multiple stakeholders — planners, developers, architects, the public — with interest that don’t always perfectly align?

I am teaching a course at NYU that I call “Good Design is Good Business.” I am a great believer that the developer eventually benefits out of these public spaces, and the city benefits as well. The dynamic between the developer and the architect and the developer and the community is often not as smooth as it should be, because the developer is not as familiar with the process of what architecture is, and the architect or the community is not very interested in the financial pro forma of the developer. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship, and in many places it works really well. If you look at the plazas or the entrance to the subway at the Bloomberg building, for example, because the site is big enough, the subway entrance does not impede the value of either the residential or the commercial space.

On big sites, there’s a lot that you can do with mixed use. It’s more difficult at smaller sites — and Manhattan is made up of a lot of small sites. I think that the developers in Manhattan are pretty sophisticated today, much more than they were 20 or 30 years ago or when the plaza legislation was written. When I came to the city, when you had a new building you never knew who the architect was, because it wasn’t an important part. Today, architecture and amenities are part of the branding of buildings. The developer gets an advantage, often, off the amenities that he provides, and part of it is the public space.

What other lessons about open space can you share?

We have to create real plans for the linkage of buildings to each other. The incentive now to developers is site by site. We have to think about the street as an urban room, as an important place. I think those linkages between buildings is really what creates a street.

In New York, we have such small apartments. The public space is even more important here than in other places. The parks and streets are our public spaces.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters