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Boston POPS

The city should compile a directory of public spaces

Boston is one of many cities worldwide that has deployed its land-use regulatory approval process to secure from developers so-called Privately Owned Public Spaces at office and residential towers. Legally required to be open to the public, these “POPS” — plazas, arcades, gallerias, rooftop terraces, and other outdoor and indoor spaces — are meant to be places to relax, meet with friends, eat a sandwich, read a book, take a snooze, or watch the city go by — all without having to pay for the privilege. Properly designed, accessorized, and maintained, POPS can richly complement a city’s public realm.

So how many POPS does Boston have? Where are they located? How many have seating, landscaping, public art, restrooms, or water fountains? When do they open and close? How many are indoor, heated, and air-conditioned? Are they operated at all times in compliance with applicable legal requirements? These questions have answers, but it is unlikely anyone knows them all. Most important, the public does not know the answers.

Some of us know where some POPS are. There is the 14th-floor observation deck at 470 Atlantic Avenue (Independence Wharf) and its interior seating area off the HarborWalk. There’s Foster’s Rotunda down the street on the 9th floor of 30 Rowes Wharf. Atlantic Wharf at 290 Congress Street has public seating and events. But what about the outdoor plazas scattered about the downtown commercial area? Was the Hancock tower’s observatory (now closed) ever a required POPS? Are some office lobbies actually indoor POPS?

Looking toward the city from the 14th-floor observation deck at Independence Wharf, Boston. Photo: Peter Tocci.

This lack of knowledge is not unique to Boston. Local governments, civic organizations, members of the public, and even some owners remain unaware of their full POPS collections. This condition is slowly changing, however. Inspired by an ambitious project completed in 2000 in New York City, a number of cities have assembled information from relevant legal documents and other sources to answer questions about their cities’ POPS. More recently, websites have sprung up to make the information accessible and usable to visitors.

POPS have a half-century history. In 1961, New York City introduced incentive zoning, offering to private developers a zoning bonus of 10 rentable office or residential square feet in return for one square foot of plaza. The developers and successor owners would legally own and maintain the plaza, but such spaces would have to be open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A plaza was defined as a space free of obstruction, at least 750 square feet, and no more than five feet above nor more than 12 feet below street level.

The deal proved irresistible to developers, and most office towers in succeeding decades provided public spaces in exchange for zoning bonuses. Unfortunately, the spaces, while accessible to the public, offered little to no reason for the public to use them. Most were sterile and windswept, spaces that repelled rather than invited public use. In 1975, taking heed of research conducted by the urbanist William H. Whyte, New York’s zoning began requiring better design, sunlight orientation, and the addition of amenities such as seating, lighting, landscaping, water fountains, and identifying signs. Unsurprisingly, the quality and use of the spaces increased dramatically.

Yet problems persisted, including the vexing absence of comprehensive, legally accurate, and publicly available information about the nature and extent of New York City’s POPS inventory. In the late 1990s, close to 40 years after the initiation of POPS, no one in the city could with confidence answer how many existed and what legal obligations governed their provision. It took the efforts of a scholar (full disclosure: me) — working in formal collaboration with New York’s Department of City Planning and the Municipal Art Society of New York, a civic organization — to create a database describing in carefully researched legal detail each and every POPS built from 1961 to 2000. The forensic efforts were time-consuming and exhausting. Thousands of legal documents and plans were unearthed (sometimes literally) from the dusty bowels of the city’s Department of Buildings. All were subject to post hoc legal and planning analysis. With decades-old, incomplete records, best guesses about the likely legal status of a space often had to suffice.

The results of the project resuscitated for New Yorkers an asset that many did not know they had. The raw numbers —  503 POPS at 320 buildings — were instructive, but the database created the conditions for something far more valuable. Individuals could now visit and evaluate all the sites, which we did, finding that 37 percent of them ranged from very good to acceptable while 41 percent were, in a word, unusable.

The other major finding was that roughly half the buildings with POPS had a space out of compliance with legal requirements, resulting in their privatization. Examples abounded of access denial, commercial activities spilling onto the space, and removal of required amenities such as seating. In 2000, contemporaneously with the publication of the full study in the book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, the city filed three civil lawsuits and eight administrative actions against owners for alleged violations of the legal requirements, now available for all to see, governing their spaces.

In the years since, other city planning departments or civic organizations have undertaken their own projects to assemble and publicize data about their public spaces. San Francisco, Seattle, and Toronto are among the better examples of creating and making available POPS data for public and professional consumption. But New York City boasts the most ambitious website anywhere (apops.mas.org), providing photographs, written profiles, site plans, and legal data for every space. Equally important, the website creates a digital space where members of the public can post comments, report problems, share photographs and videos, and even suggest redesigns for underperforming spaces.

So where does this leave Boston? Behind, to be sure, but remediable given the right attitude and hard work. A first step would involve a physical survey of the city, along with discussions with knowledgeable individuals, to develop a list of possible outdoor and indoor spaces. Next would be an analysis of the legal documents governing the public approvals of the buildings to which the possible spaces are attached to determine whether, indeed, the spaces are required and, if so, what are the requirements. Synthesizing this analysis into a publicly available and usable format would complete the initial project. From there, programs for activating the spaces, along with monitoring and enforcement to ensure compliance with applicable legal requirements, would be suddenly possible.

Whether Boston’s city government takes on this project by itself or in partnership with civic organizations and interested researchers, it needs to make available for scrutiny the legal documents governing the public approvals received by developers. Some of these records are maintained by the city, others are held elsewhere, but they are all obtainable with the right spirit of transparency and cooperation. Only then can we have the appropriate debate about whether POPS, with their private owners, can ever be truly public spaces; what rights citizens hold in terms of using the spaces; whether the zoning deals for the spaces have yielded a worthy benefit; how existing spaces may be improved; and whether new ones should be encouraged. If this is done correctly, then when someone refers to the Boston POPS, at least some people may ask, “Do you mean the orchestra or public spaces in the city?” ■