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Behind closed gates: Inaccessible ‘public spaces’

WNYC listeners and New York World readers report back on plazas and lobbies improperly blocked off from public access

After three weeks and more than 150 reports, The New York World and The Brian Lehrer Show are wrapping up our survey of New York City’s privately owned public spaces. Property developers created these arcades, plazas and other areas – including Zuccotti Park, home to Occupy Wall Street – in exchange for zoning benefits, often including the ability to build additional square footage for rent or sale.

We’ve already taken a look at some of your favorite spaces. More than three in four reports gave spaces a score of 3 or higher on our 1-to-5 scale, meaning that they were open to the public as required, and more than half of all reviews gave scores of 4 (good) or 5 (great).

But the other 25 percent of reviews were dismal, describing “public” spaces that are not as public as they should be. These were either locked or otherwise inaccessible. In some cases reviewers reported being ejected by building staff or security.

We took a closer look at some of the worst-rated spaces to determine whether property owners are holding up their end of the deal. The New York World revisited each of these sites and compared access and conditions to obligations documented by urban planner Jerold Kayden in his encyclopedic 2000 book, Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, published in cooperation with the Department of City Planning and the Municipal Art Society. (The New York World has pending requests with the Department of City Planning for the agreements between developers and the City of New York governing spaces reviewed in the survey.)

345 East 80th Street

345 E. 80th St.

The open space at 345 E. 80th St. Photo: Michael Keller/The New York World

Julia told us that she has walked by the East Winds condominium, at 345 East 80th St., multiple times every day for more than a decade without realizing it was supposed to be a public space. “Seems to be simply ingress and egress to the building,” she reported of the 7,000-square-foot plaza. “It is in fine condition but is not public. There is no seating and no reason to believe it is public.” The property management company and the co-op board declined to comment about the space.

Kayden’s guide indicates that the best part of the space – a small lawn with well-trimmed hedges – is hidden from the street and accessible by a canopied stairwell. While no amenities are required here, the plaza is supposed to be open to the public 24 hours.

155 East 31st Street

155 E. 31st St.

Gates at 155 E. 31st St., aka Windsor Court. Photo: Merritt Duncan/The New York World

Robin told us about the locked residential plaza at Windsor Court, 155 E. 31 St. in Murray Hill. “This space used to be open and lovely (although lots of homeless),” she said. “For the past few years it has been locked all the time.”

In 2003, then-owner Edward Milstein was fined $2,500 by the Department of Buildings for violating the property’s open-space obligations by installing a fence and lockable gate. Kayden determined that Windsor Court’s space should be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or until dark, whichever is later. Bicycle parking, a water fountain and seating are among some of the amenities required at this space.

On a bright Friday afternoon, the small rectangular plaza was locked, though a sign identifying it as a privately owned public space could be seen behind the gate. Brian Perna, the property manager for the current owner, Mastic Associates, said the space has been locked intermittently since May because of repairs on the building’s brick facade. Perna could not say when the work would be completed, but said the space typically is open to the public from dawn to dusk.

“We open it when we have the opportunity, but right now it’s a safety concern,” he said. As for reports that the space has been locked in previous years, Perna added, “I wouldn’t have knowledge of that.”

875 Third Avenue

875 Third Ave.

Public space at 875 Third Ave. Photo: Merritt Duncan/The New York World

Nate cherishes the space available at 875 Third Ave., and there’s a lot to love: a triangular area at the corner of Third Ave. and E. 53 St., an indoor walkway, a three-level covered pedestrian space and an arcade totaling more than 28,000 square feet.

The arcade and open space are supposed to be open 24 hours. The remaining spaces are meant to be open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays and holidays.

Our reviewer says that the hours of access are “The building staff often opens the seating area late and closes up to 2 hours early,” he said.

The property management company did not respond to a call from The New York World.

101 Barclay Street

Douglas found the Bank of New York building on 101 Barclay St. has guards that prevent access to the public lobby.

“The icon and description indicates that this is a ‘public lobby’ but this is not the case,” he said. “Guards inside the building control movement throughout the lobby.”

Ron Gruendl, a spokesman for Bank of New York-Mellon, said identification is required to access the lobby and added that the space is only open during normal working hours.

“It is a secure building,” he said.

Kayden reported the property owner was required to keep the lobby and a pedestrian space open to the public 24 hours.

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1 Comment

  1. Kayden’s book covers POPS built under the incentive zoning program of the 1961 Zoning Rule? What about spaces built before the 1961 — where can one find information about their potential public accessibility?