The plaza at 325 Fifth Avenue is just one example of a privately owned public space, commonly known as a POPS, that has not been maintained according to the developer’s agreement with the city. These agreements allow developers to build larger towers and earn more revenue in exchange for providing public spaces.

In December, the Department of Buildings completed its three-year inspection cycle and found that about one in five of the properties violated the terms of their agreements.

The lack of compliance with the law has been a problem for years. The city’s inspectors have issued violations to half of the 392 buildings with such spaces since 2011, according to a Department of Buildings dataset.

The standard penalty for a violation is $5,000, which is a fraction of the value of the bonus space developers receive from the agreements. For example, the owners of 325 Fifth Avenue have been assessed a total of $54,000 in penalties since 2015. By contrast, the bonus floor area that the developers gained could be worth approximately $80 million if used for residential space, based on 2022 sales prices provided by Jonathan J. Miller, a New York City real estate appraiser.

Based on average prices of transactions from 2002 to 2020, the total bonus space that developers have gained has an estimated value of about $10 billion, said Richard J. Roddewig, who specializes in appraisals and real estate consulting and is a managing director at JLL Valuation & Advisory Services.

But in the past 12 years, building owners have cumulatively paid just over $1.4 million in penalties.

“Developers received something that was disproportionately valuable,” said Jerold S. Kayden, a lawyer and professor of urban planning and design at Harvard University and an advocate for keeping privately owned public spaces open to the public. “The financial value of the extra floor area was completely out of whack.”

The extensive network of 598 privately owned public spaces across 392 buildings makes up a significant portion of public space in the city. The cumulative footprint is about 3.8 million square feet, or roughly 10 percent of the area of Central Park. In comparison, the bonus space developers have gained in exchange amounts to about 20.7 million square feet.

In 2000, Mr. Kayden wrote the first comprehensive survey and analysis of New York’s privately owned public spaces, in collaboration with New York’s Department of City Planning and the Municipal Art Society of New York.

The Times obtained data from that analysis and additional records since 2000 through a Freedom of Information Law request. This detailed dataset shows how much bonus space developers received compared with the public space they built.

Mr. Kayden reviewed the data at the request of The Times and identified some of the properties that were granted the most bonus space.

Public Space vs. Bonus Building Space

The additional space that developers received is often far larger than the public spaces they provided. The violations were issued from May 2011 to June 2023, and the building owners were assessed penalties for the infractions.

Number of

violations

since 2011

Total

violations

since 2011

Public

space

Sq. ft.

Public

space

Sq. ft.

Bonus floor

space

Sq. ft.

Bonus

space

Sq. ft.

55 water street
55 water street
1
1

90,000

90,000

480,000

480,000

1 new york plaza
1 new york plaza
0
0

40,000

40,000

330,000

330,000

1 pennsylvania plaza
1 pennsylvania plaza
6
6

50,000

50,000

310,000

310,000

1 liberty plaza
1 liberty plaza
1
1

30,000

30,000

290,000

290,000

1345 sixth avenue
1345 sixth avenue
2
2

30,000

30,000

270,000

270,000

388 greenwich street
388 greenwich street
1
1

50,000

50,000

270,000

270,000

1251 sixth avenue
1251 sixth avenue
1
1

30,000

30,000

260,000

260,000

1221 sixth avenue
1221 sixth avenue
1
1

30,000

30,000

250,000

250,000

1211 sixth avenue
1211 sixth avenue
0
0

30,000

30,000

230,000

230,000

245 park avenue
245 park avenue
3
3

30,000

30,000

220,000

220,000

345 park avenue
345 park avenue
0
0

20,000

20,000

210,000

210,000

1166 sixth avenue
1166 sixth avenue
0
0

30,000

30,000

210,000

210,000

1301 sixth avenue
1301 sixth avenue
1
1

20,000

20,000

200,000

200,000

1114 sixth avenue
1114 sixth avenue
0
0

20,000

20,000

200,000

200,000

767 fifth avenue
767 fifth avenue
1
1

20,000

20,000

200,000

200,000

9 west 57th street
9 west 57th street
3
3

30,000

30,000

200,000

200,000

322 west 57th street
322 west 57th street
1
1

30,000

30,000

190,000

190,000

153 east 53rd street
153 east 53rd street
0
0

20,000

20,000

190,000

190,000

919 third avenue
919 third avenue
0
0

20,000

20,000

190,000

190,000

350 jay street
350 jay street
1
1

30,000

30,000

170,000

170,000

280 park avenue
280 park avenue
1
1

20,000

20,000

170,000

170,000

1886 broadway
1886 broadway
1
1

20,000

20,000

170,000

170,000

85 broad street
85 broad street
3
3

30,000

30,000

160,000

160,000

330 east 38th street
330 east 38th street
1
1

30,000

30,000

160,000

160,000

125 broad street
125 broad street
0
0

20,000

20,000

160,000

160,000

140 broadway
140 broadway
0
0

20,000

20,000

160,000

160,000

101 park avenue
101 park avenue
0
0

20,000

20,000

160,000

160,000

299 park avenue
299 park avenue
0
0

20,000

20,000

150,000

150,000

1411 broadway
1411 broadway
0
0

20,000

20,000

150,000

150,000

60 wall street
60 wall street
2
2

20,000

20,000

150,000

150,000

1095 sixth avenue
1095 sixth avenue
0
0

20,000

20,000

150,000

150,000

180 maiden lane
180 maiden lane
1
1

20,000

20,000

140,000

140,000

425 east 58th street
425 east 58th street
0
0

30,000

30,000

140,000

140,000

622 third avenue
622 third avenue
5
5

20,000

20,000

140,000

140,000

17 battery place
17 battery place
2
2

20,000

20,000

130,000

130,000

400 east 56th street
400 east 56th street
1
1

20,000

20,000

130,000

130,000

888 seventh avenue
888 seventh avenue
1
1

10,000

10,000

120,000

120,000

235 east 95th street
235 east 95th street
1
1

20,000

20,000

120,000

120,000

1 battery park plaza
1 battery park plaza
0
0

20,000

20,000

120,000

120,000

45 broadway
45 broadway
1
1

2,000

2,000

110,000

110,000

375 pearl street
375 pearl street
0
0

20,000

20,000

110,000

110,000

1 lincoln plaza
1 lincoln plaza
2
2

20,000

20,000

110,000

110,000

437 madison avenue
437 madison avenue
1
1

10,000

10,000

110,000

110,000

457 madison avenue
457 madison avenue
1
1

6,000

6,000

110,000

110,000

555 west 57th street
555 west 57th street
2
2

20,000

20,000

110,000

110,000

111 wall street
111 wall street
0
0

20,000

20,000

110,000

110,000

32 old slip
32 old slip
1
1

20,000

20,000

110,000

110,000

1285 sixth avenue
1285 sixth avenue
2
2

20,000

20,000

110,000

110,000

343 gold street
343 gold street
2
2

20,000

20,000

100,000

100,000

1 state street
1 state street
1
1

10,000

10,000

100,000

100,000

Sources: Privately Owned Public Space Database, owned and maintained by the New York City Department of City Planning and created in collaboration with Jerold S. Kayden and The Municipal Art Society of New York; Department of Buildings’s Environmental Control Board violations dataset; Department of Buildings’ Buildings Information System

Notes: Figures are approximate. The bonus floor space shown is the additional floor area used by developers in their buildings.

Since 2000, the Department of City Planning has maintained records on these bonus space agreements, but there have been gaps in the record-keeping. A 2017 audit conducted by the city comptroller’s office found that the locations of some spaces were not tracked. In response to a request for comment about gaps in the data, the Department of Buildings said that the city has done “extensive interagency work” to expand this database. But in the data that the city provided to The Times, multiple records provided little to no information on the public spaces or the bonus space given to the developers.

The Department of City Planning said that such data is used by city inspectors to check whether building owners should be issued violations. Any errors in the record-keeping might lead to lapses in enforcement that undermine the zoning program.

Gale Brewer, a city council member who led the push to protect these public spaces on the Upper West Side for over a decade, agreed that while some are well-kept, many are not maintained as they should be.

“Developers have gotten a great deal,” Ms. Brewer said. “Somebody needs to hold them accountable.”

Larry Silverstein, a New York City real estate developer who has built three privately owned public spaces, defended the program, saying the public spaces provide pleasure to the occupants of the building and add value to the real estate.

“The program has given enormous amounts of good to the public,” Mr. Silverstein said.

Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning, said that the zoning program has resulted in “hundreds of quality public open spaces” at no cost to the public.

There are a number of well-maintained and prominent spaces that exist because of this program, like Zuccotti Park, the site of Occupy Wall Street protests in lower Manhattan, and the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center.

But at many of the buildings, city inspectors since 2011 have regularly found that the spaces were closed, like the plaza at 325 Fifth Avenue, or poorly maintained.

By denying access or neglecting to provide the required amenities, building owners could potentially save on operating and maintenance costs.

Sometimes, the spaces were illegally occupied by cafes, restaurants and other businesses. And in some cases, hostile architecture, like spikes on ledges, was retroactively added to the spaces, which critics have said discourages use and disproportionately targets people who are homeless. Times reporters visited over a hundred of these spaces and found similar instances of noncompliance.

Here are the 392 buildings with privately owned public spaces. Half of them have been issued violations over the past 12 years.

“100% of all amenities have been removed from plaza”

October 2019

“POPS was closed to the public with gates padlocked”

December 2020

“Observed an unapproved open air cafe set up by a restaurant.”

May 2022

“Approx. 75 linear feet of metal spikes affixed to masonry planter edges.”

From violation notes, February 2022

MANHATTAN

BRONX

QUEENS

BROOKLYN

Note: The violations were issued between May 2011 and June 2023.

Access to public space is crucial for the quality of life for many New Yorkers who live in small apartments. This was especially evident during the pandemic, when city officials and property owners grappled with how to provide people with safe spaces for social interaction.

This zoning incentive was originally created in 1961 to introduce light, air and open space into the dense streets of New York. In the last two decades, the city has introduced design requirements like mandatory signage to make these spaces more visible. But when building owners have failed to follow the law, it has raised questions about whether the benefits of the deals were primarily going to developers and building owners rather than the public.

The Times reached out to several building owners about the violations they were issued, but most did not respond. The building management company for 325 Fifth Avenue, AKAM, said the building had a work permit from 2013 to 2020, even though an inspector noted during this time that there was “no work in progress warranting closure of plaza to public use.”

The Department of City Planning did not comment on the history of violations associated with these spaces. The Real Estate Board of New York, a trade group that represents the city’s building owners and developers, also did not respond to a request for comment.

The violations fall under three main categories:

Reduced Access

In 2021, the plaza at 835 Sixth Avenue was fenced off.

July 2019

The plaza at 835 Sixth Avenue open and occupied by members of the public.

July 2021 (plaza fenced off)

The plaza at 835 Sixth Avenue completely fenced off.

Google Street View

The plaza at 835 Sixth Avenue is supposed to be open 24 hours a day. From 2020 to 2022, the building owners were issued three violations for the plaza being completely fenced off, as it is in the above image captured by Google Street View in July 2021. The owners were assessed penalties totalling $25,000.

“It’s the only public space in the immediate area. There are no other options for people to meet,” said a member of the public in a complaint in 2021. The person added that the closure was “particularly problematic” during the pandemic.

The building’s management declined to comment.

Encroachment

In 2021, a restaurant operated in the plaza at 888 Seventh Avenue.

August 2013

The plaza at 888 Seventh Avenue filled with people sitting, standing and walking through.

August 2021 (restaurant operating in plaza)

The plaza at 888 Seventh Avenue filled with tables and red umbrellas.

Google Street View

In 2022, a city inspector found that the plaza at 888 Seventh Avenue had a “private property” sign and was illegally privatized by a tenant, Brooklyn Diner. The building owners were issued a violation and were assessed a $5,000 penalty. In the above Google Street View image from 2021, the restaurant filled the plaza with tables and umbrellas, turning it into a private dining area for paying customers instead of being available for anyone to use.

The building owners submitted paperwork to the city in 2022 saying the violation was corrected, but a Times reporter visited the plaza in mid-July and found that the restaurant was still occupying the space.

The Times reached out to both the restaurant and the building management company about the encroachment but did not receive a response.

Lack of Amenities

In 2017, spikes were added to a ledge at 875 Third Avenue.

May 2016

Pedestrians sitting on a ledge in the plaza at 875 Third Avenue.

November 2017 (spikes added to ledge)

The ledge in the plaza at 875 Third Avenue covered with spikes.

Google Street View

In 2016, Google Street View captured pedestrians sitting on the ledge in the plaza in front of 875 Third Avenue. One year later, this ledge was covered with spikes. In 2022, the building owners were issued a violation for the installation of spikes, among other infractions, and were assessed a $5,000 penalty.

A member of the public voiced disapproval of the spikes in an online forum in 2017, saying that it was “appalling” that the building used hostile architecture to “deter those who are in need.”

The Times reached out to the building management company about the spikes. The next day, paperwork was submitted to the city that said that the violation had been addressed.

The spikes have now been removed.

Sources and methodology

The graphic representation of the bonus floor area received by the developers of 325 Fifth Avenue is based on plans of the building sourced from the New York City Department of City Planning.

The Times obtained records about violations regarding privately owned public spaces from the Department of Buildings’ Environmental Control Board violations dataset as of June 2023. Public complaint records, including 311 complaints, about privately owned public spaces were obtained from the Department of Buildings’ dataset of complaints received. Complaint descriptions and inspection notes were obtained from the Department of Buildings’ Buildings Information System. Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings, provided The Times with a list of buildings with privately owned public space violations issued during the most recent triennial inspection cycle conducted by the agency from 2020 to 2022.

The Times obtained data on the bonus floor area developers received in exchange for providing privately owned public spaces by filing a Freedom of Information Law request. Most of this data originated from a two-year study of privately owned public spaces conducted by Jerold S. Kayden, the Department of City Planning and the Municipal Art Society of New York City that concluded in 2000. The Department of City Planning is currently responsible for maintaining and updating the Privately Owned Public Space Database. Mr. Kayden reviewed this data at the request of The Times.

The value of the bonus space developers received from the incentive zoning program is based on an estimation by Richard Roddewig, a managing director of JLL Valuation & Advisory Services. Mr. Roddewig reviewed over 200 development rights sales transactions in Manhattan from 2002 to 2020, and he estimated an average price of $500 per square foot of office or residential space in Manhattan. The data was primarily sourced from Real Capital Analytics, with supplemental research and analysis conducted by the valuation team at JLL.

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