Part 1: Public Spaces, a Resurgence in Public Appreciation

Is the Public Driving Developers to Think Beyond Zoning Concessions?

A renewed public appreciation for public places, both old, new, and newly imagined, may have spurred building owners and developers to reevaluate the value of public-private partnerships when altering our cityscapes. The proliferation of small public spaces, including open-access lobbies, mini-parks, arcades, canopied spaces, and plazas, is particularly noteworthy.

Reawakening Lost Urban Spaces

The recapture and revitalization of lost urban spaces are part of a larger trend involving the overall enlivening of shared or common spaces. The public’s expectations for public spaces have shifted along with population shifts toward the cities; we had green on the farm or in the suburbs, so we want it in the city, too. In addition, how we work and where we work have significantly changed since the introduction of WiFi and mobile technology into the workplace. This and the tech and creative sectors emphasis on collaboration and social interaction at work have transformed how open spaces look and function. With increased control as a result of our devices, we expect options (enclosed, shaded, and open seating), and moving from destination to destination is itself an integral part of a healthy lifestyle.

The diversification of programming for privately owned public spaces is not only applicable to areas that must comply with regulatory requirements. The private sector is using public-access common spaces to achieve business and leasing objectives. For example, cosmetic improvements, such as replacing paving and adding greenery, are often combined with new, inviting lighting, the removal of barriers, and a diverse array of seating options to support activity based programming. No longer solely amenities for the building’s occupants, these improvements are now about encouraging social interaction between the private entity and the surrounding neighborhood. This trend implies that, in 2015, we are moving outside of our individual workplaces to engage with a larger community.

In recent years, the role of large public works influencing public opinion cannot be underestimated. Numbers for New York City residents and visitors taking advantage of the city’s revitalized waterfront for recreational purposes are at an all-time high. Similarly, we have Manhattan’s High Line Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Hudson River Park as stellar examples of public works yielding dividends on a grand scale. Both the public and local businesses have benefited from these initiatives. Ongoing partnerships between policy makers, the local chamber of commerce and pro-business entities, and advocacy and community groups have helped sustain interest and support for these public spaces.

Paley Park’s Contribution

One of the first “vest pocket parks,” designed by landscape architect Robert Zion in 1967, Paley Park in Midtown Manhattan encompasses a mere 4,000 or so square feet. With its classical proportions and exquisite waterfall backdrop, it is a wonderful example of what is possible for a small, irregularly shaped site adjoining a building. Increasingly, private lobbies and plazas are being considered in the same light, with the same potential for providing employees and the public, alike, with greenery, a place to sit or gather in small groups, and space for activities.

Just Passing Through, the Evolution of Public Egress

The variety, shape, size and number of destination places that makeup our urban centers seem to have exponentially grown. Are the nondescript transitional spaces that compose the urban fabric of our cities gone, or is this primarily a change in public perception about what a lobby, arcade, or vest pocket park is supposed to be? Perhaps, we now just expect more from the spaces we traverse to get from Point A to Point B. For certain, many of the planning considerations around designing a means of egress for the public have evolved from “just passing through” to creating an original place that becomes a destination in itself.

A recent Wall Street Journal article references a Municipal Art Society of New York count of 525 privately owned public spaces in the city. Many of these spaces originated from developer driven programs from the 1970s that benefitted from Floor Area Ratio (FAR) zoning allowances resulting from the inclusion of public space in exchange for additional floors. After several decades of this practice, many of these public spaces are in need of some refurbishment. The well-researched WSJ article by commercial real estate reporter Keiko Morris provides an excellent overview of how some of these spaces are currently being reimagined by building owners, as well as how public policy officials are changing regulations governing the maintenance of these spaces.

Next Installment

In our next installment, we will examine how small public spaces and common areas are being valued and perceived as assets by building owners, tenants, and city planners.