They are hidden between blocks and tucked inside skyscrapers. You might walk through them, or past them, without ever knowing. But not all New Yorkers have forgotten that they are entitled to access the city’s more than 500 privately owned public spaces, or POPS. Last summer, the New York Times noticed that a marble bench in the atrium of Trump Tower, which is a POPS, had gone missing and their reporting resulted in its quiet return. Now, the City Council is hoping to protect POPS by passing three bills that would, among other things, require annual inspections and fine owners who violate the law.
In exchange for more room to build or other construction perks, landlords can bargain with the Department of City Planning to reserve and maintain a POPS nearby. Often, however, they fail to uphold that part of the bargain. One such case is the pocket park on East 88th Street between Second and Third Avenues, which is owned by the Monarch at 200 East 89th Street.
Nancy Ploeger, who lives nearby, took the matter of its rehabilitation into her own hands and contacted the building’s management. “He said ... when the park was given to them, they planted flowers and bushes and they were all stolen,” she said. “This was back in the 1980s. This park has literally been desolate and horrible for over 20 years.”
Ploeger offered to raise money and buy the plants herself if the building would maintain them, but that didn’t work either. So she turned to her elected officials. “I said, ‘I can’t imagine that this is the only POPS that has been neglected in the city,” she said.
Ploeger had Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Ben Kallos send a letter to the departments of buildings and city planning notifying them of the East 88th Street park’s violations. “Our public spaces are limited and it is imperative that we protect and maintain them,” Brewer and Kallos wrote. “POPS law requires owners of the property to provide maintenance and upkeep of these spaces … This space should be restored and available to the community.”
Kallos, along with fellow Council member Dan Garodnick, introduced a POPS-related package of legislation earlier this month. “The Upper East Side and East Midtown, including my district and Council Member Garodnick’s, have the highest concentration of POPS in the city,” Kallos said. The Upper East Side, coincidentally, is notorious for its lack of green space in general. “In some cases a problem is so large that is requires legislation, and this was exactly that,” he said. Kallos credited Ploeger and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer with leading the push for protection of these pocket parks.
The three bills Kallos and Garodnick introduced would raise fines against landlords with POPS in violation of their individual agreement to $10,000 for a first-time violation, with a fine of $2,500 for each month the park remains unfixed. Another bill would require signage to be present in each POPS indicating which amenities should be available. These could include 24/7 access, a certain number of trees, seating, and bathrooms. The third would create a website where complaints about non-compliant POPS could be registered, and would mandate annual inspections.
Franny Eberhart, president of the board of Friends of the Upper East Side, has been helping Ploeger with the POPS preservation effort. “They’re enormously important on the Upper East Side where we are so underparked,” she said. Friends of the Upper East Side recently gave an award to a POPS at the northeast corner of East 80th Street and First Avenue, where statues by Tony Rosenthal provide seating and aesthetic pleasure.
Other groups have also taken notice of the problem. The Municipal Arts Society created a website in 2012 with the Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space that has maps, photos and information about some of the city’s POPS. The mission statement of the collaboration echoes the sentiments of everyone who has become involved in the effort: “We believe that a city’s greatness is enhanced by an attractive, usable, and egalitarian public realm.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org