Putting the Public Back in Midtown’s Privately Owned Public Spaces

Behind these doors is a public passageway meant to relieve pedestrian crowding on Midtown avenues. The developer of the Metropolitan Tower included the passage in exchange for rights to construct a taller building. Photo: Jake Schabas

“It’s a private property with public access,” a security guard explained after stopping me from taking photos of a mid-block passageway through the Metropolitan Tower on 56th Street. The space in question, which connects 56th to 57th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, is one of more than 150 privately owned public spaces in central Midtown, many of which are products of a 1980s zoning program to improve pedestrian circulation. In exchange for development bonuses that today are worth millions of dollars in rentable square footage, developers were supposed to build and maintain publicly accessible mid-block passageways to help ease pedestrian congestion on the heavily used north-south avenues. The problem is many of these semi-public spaces now appear so private, most walkers wouldn’t even know to use them.

This summer, the Department of Transportation is looking to change that with a series of midblock crosswalks tying 51st Street to 57th Street between Sixth and Seventh [PDF]. Approved earlier this month by Community Board 5, the crosswalks will string together six passageways and enhance a much-needed pedestrian path on some of the most-walked streets in the city. The project is an important first step toward reclaiming several privately-owned public spaces — or POPS, as they’re known — that could be doing much more for Midtown pedestrians.

A midblock crossing proposed by NYC DOT for "6½ Avenue" in Midtown. Image: NYC DOT

POPS are the product of New York’s epochal 1961 zoning law and come in all shapes and sizes, from passageways and arcades to plazas and parks. The basic idea is that developers can erect taller buildings if they provide and maintain a public amenity. These amenities can be as utilitarian as a covered outdoor passageway — for example, the Rihga Royal Hotel’s POPS connecting West 54th and 55th Streets between Sixth and Seventh Avenues —  to the more intricate, landscaped Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan.

The Rihga Hotel's utilitarian POPS connects 54th Street and 55th Street. Photo: Jake Schabas

As the Occupy Wall Street protests at Zuccotti demonstrated, these semi-private, semi-public spaces inhabit a legal grey area. Different rules apply to each space, from the hours the space is accessible to the number of tables and chairs that must be provided. OWS-style challenges to the rules governing these spaces are rare. More common is the slow creep of private uses that crowd out the public. Nowhere is this more clear than in midtown Manhattan’s mid-block connectors.

The AXA Building, between 51st and 52nd Street, features one of Midtown's best and most accessible midblock pedestrian connections. Photo: Jake Schabas.

The idea of incentivizing pedestrian mid-block connections to take pressure off the avenues is credited to William Holly Whyte, the groundbreaking urbanist and public space analyst. Over the years, a special Midtown zoning passed in 1982 punched dozens of walkways through the middle of 900-foot long blocks, until it was repealed in 1996. While some property owners took this opportunity to create beautiful arcades and gallerias — not just utilitarian throughways but linked plazas like the PaineWebber urban plaza in the AXA Building between West 51st and West 52nd Streets — others saw a chance to exploit the ambiguity of POPS, pedestrians be damned.

Consider Le Parker Meridien Hotel. One of three mid-block POPS connecting West 57th and West 56th Streets, the hotel’s two-story polished marble lobby, complete with bellmen and security, is part of the 6,820 square feet of space exchanged for thousands of square feet in additional developable floor area. A narrow arcade linking the lobby to West 57th Street acted as a coffee bar until a freak concrete spill last month shuttered Knave, as it’s known. The place appeared so private prior to the spill that it apparently fooled the New York Times, which described it as “a gracious room normally swathed in red velvet curtains, where a hot chocolate costs $6.” No mention was made that it was actually a public space. Or that it had been at the center of lawsuits in the early 1990s for violating its original purpose: to improve pedestrian circulation.

"The Knave" is supposed to be a public passageway -- can you tell? Photo: ##http://www.parkermeridien.com/eat5.php##Le Parker Meridien##

With enforcement remaining a problem, community groups, with the support of the Department of Transportation, are stepping forward to rectify what is essentially a transportation issue. Prompted by the Friends of Privately Owned Public Spaces, the DOT has created a plan that makes a six-block stretch of POPS connecting West 51st and West 57th Streets an official pedestrian route. Dubbed 6½ Avenue, the Midtown Midblock Enhancement plan calls for creating raised crosswalks, stop signs and curb extensions to tie together the different passageways. This will improve safety for the thousands of people already using 6½ Avenue while also acting as a wayfinding mechanism to make other people aware of the pedestrian-only route.

Community Board 5 voted unanimously in favor of moving ahead with the plan, an important first step in reclaiming these spaces for public use. The next step would be to clarify the rules and regulations over POPS, which is not to say private uses should be banned from them. Like sidewalk cafes or park kiosks, some private uses are indeed essential to successful public spaces. But when businesses have so thoroughly privatized these spaces that people are intimidated from using them as intended — as public spaces for pedestrian circulation — then clarity and enforcement are called for.

The gates to this passageway, connected to the Flatotel between 52nd and 53rd Street, close at 7 p.m.. Photo: Jake Schabas

While 6½ Avenue is the largest and best known mid-block pedestrian network, it’s not the only one. According to Harvard professor Jerold S. Kayden, the author of Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, there are five smaller mid-block passageways, one stretching four blocks between West 44th Street and 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

Like the spaces that link 6½ Avenue together, other POPS throughout the city should become part of the pedestrian network, complete with crosswalks and adequate public enforcement of their use. It’s time to put the public back in POPS.

  • great article on an oft overlooked topic. Any chance someone has a complete list or even better maybe made a full map of all the public passageways in the city?

  • HamTech87

    The US Trust Building on 47th Street btw 6th ad 7th has a gated tunnel with a bike parking sign on it.  Is this the ped walkway?  Looks like a jail.

  • Daphna

    A sidewalk on a street is open 24 hours a day.  These mid-block pedestrian passage-ways should likewise be open 24 hours a day.  The gates should be removed from the passageway from 52nd to 53rd Street (the Flatotel) since there will be no need to ever close them.  And the Le Parker Meridien Hotel definitely needs to move their furniture out of the way so there can be a clear, wide aisle for people to walk through.

    I hope the four blocks from 44th to 48th Streets between 6th & 7th Avenues will get the same treatment soon by the DOT as these as this stretch from 51st to 57th Streets between 6th & 7th Avenues.

    Also, in the spirit of lessening overcrowding for pedestrians, elsewhere around Manhattan certain sidewalks need to be widened because pedestrians overflow.

  • HamTech87

    While I disagree with the Knave taking over the passage, I think it is ok and even beneficial to have cafes or other amenities fronting them.  Less isolating.

  • It needs to be:

    a. branded (give it a formal name and logo)
    b. have lots of signs
    c. be open 24/7. There cannot be any gates or locked doors at any time. The PATH in Toronto for example is open 24/7. The stores obviously aren’t open all night, but the pathways themselves never close.

  • Miles Bader

    … and you should damn well be able to take a photograph…

    [not that the law has much effect on the actions of security guards]

  • Public-private space always seems the same issues. Over time, the private group starts chipping away at the public access, and by the time those in power can be forced to care, its too late. In Boston, for example, the Hancock tower was required to have the top floor open to the public as an observatory.  It was closed for “security” and is now a private office space, original deal be damned.

  • Larry Littlefield

    One word.  Bikeshare.  I mentioned that there is a scarcity of docking stations in East Midtown.  The Chase on Park Avenue near 48th Street has extensive bike racks.  Bikeshare could go in other locations.

    This is space the public paid for by conferring on developers $tens of millions in development rights other buildings didn’t get.  And a bikeshare station would provide a service to the tenants.

  • Kaja

    A security guard telling you you can’t take a photograph, doesn’t mean you can’t take a photograph.

    Just take the pic anyway. They can’t stop you, can’t take your camera, and can’t block you from moving.

    My kingdom to live in an era where people wouldn’t take shit from rentacops.

  • Kevin Giant

    I agree with Chris.  One of the reasons why Toronto’s PATH (aka “Underground City”) works is because the city standardized the wayfaring.  The Canadian winter makes it much nicer to not go outside, but even in summer it is heavily used.

    There is no reason why New York cannot also have standardized wayfaring and mandatory signs so that people expect to be able to use these public spaces. 

    For more about PATH, see:

    http://www.toronto.ca/path/pdf/path_brochure.pdf

  • Albert

    It’s not just passageways.  There are probably dozens of supposedly public pocket parks and terraces around the city that are either locked or not handicap accessible.  How are these “public”?

    The owners, who are already guilty of not honoring their agreements for many years, should not only be forced to make them truly public, whatever the security costs, but they should also be fined for the years they’ve benefited by keeping this public real estate unavailable to the public—a fine calculated using market real estate values.

    Or would they rather be required to lop off the stories of their buildings that are above the zoned maximum height?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Looked at the City Planning report, and took a walk around East Midtown looking for bonused plaza space.  In some cases all it is is a wider than average sidewalk, with people standing in it smoking.  Put the bikeshare rack there instead, for the smokers’ own good.

  • Ben Kintisch

    A couple of years ago I went on a great walking tour led by Jack Eichenbaum with the Municipal Arts Society,called “Public and Private Spaces in Midtown.” We learned all about these passageways and plazas. I remember feeling, despite being part of a perfectly legal tour, that we were somehow “invading” a space that wasn’t where we belonged.

  • “I agree with Chris.  One of the reasons why Toronto’s PATH (aka “Underground City”) works is because the city standardized the wayfaring.  The Canadian winter makes it much nicer to not go outside, but even in summer it is heavily used.
    There is no reason why New York cannot also have standardized wayfaring and mandatory signs so that people expect to be able to use these public spaces. ”
    Exactly. Even though this is basically just a straight line, there should still be maps like you see inside malls. Especially if some of the “offshoots” towards the northern end eventually become part of this system. 
    And like I said before: no gates or locked doors. Ever. 24/7/365 access.

  • Popsnyc

    Dave, I have a list / map of all the through-block POPS as part of my work on Privately Owned Public Spaces. you can email me at citydesign@me.com and i’ll send it along to you…

  • Md0258

    the dumbest thing I ever heard of……there are going to be many many accidents with cars rear ending the car in front……another Bloomberg stupidiy

  • Driver

    Cars rear ending other cars is strictly driver stupidity.  As much as I hate the mayor, you can’t blame him for the reckless and irresponsible practices of drivers.

  • Anon resident

    It would be nice if this cb would address the horrible traffic flow on 6th avenue. Speaking of public spaces, street safety on 53rd Street the Hilton Hotel removed their driveway, and pick-up for guests is now on the street. Does anyone know how this was approved? Can I just pave over my own driveway and put retail space in it?

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