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The $21 million sidewalk: Putting a price tag on privately owned public spaces

Using details on recent real estate sales, we calculate the value to developers of the public plazas on their property

Collage of buildings that have privately owned public spaces.

Collage: Michael Keller

See the New York World slideshow of some of New York City’s priciest public spaces.


The strip of pavement outside 180 Water Street, home to the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), may not look like much, but it’s for sale. The building’s owner, Melohn Properties, recently put the tower on the market for $180 million. If the owners get their asking price, this drab stretch of concrete, plus a loading area on the side of the building, will be worth nearly $21 million to them. That’s because the sidewalk is a privately owned public space, like hundreds of others around Manhattan — including Zuccotti Park, home base of Occupy Wall Street.

In exchange for this sliver of sidewalk, public records show, the developers of 180 Water Street received permission to build nearly 47,000 square feet of office space that would not have otherwise been permitted by zoning. Multiply each of those square feet by the current asking price — which we calculate at about $455 per square foot — and the value of privately owned public spaces to property owners comes into sharp focus.

The sidewalk outside 180 Water Street has special significance because it’s the site to which advocates for the poor and people with AIDS flock to protest program cuts and other actions taken by HRA. While some demonstrators report requests from police and building security to refrain from blocking or distributing flyers at the building entrance — part of the required 2,400 publicly accessible space under an overhang — they and other members of the public generally have free access.

The plaza behind the headquarters of the New York City Human Resources Administration is supposed to be accessible to the public 24 hours a day, but cars often park there. Photo: Yolanne Almanzar

An adjoining “public space” on narrow Pearl Street is another story. On Monday, five vehicles sat parked in the supposedly public area; two had HRA employee parking permits in their windows. (HRA was not available to comment by our deadline.) City records show complaints of parking in the space in in 2000 and 2006, and dating as far back as 1982.

“If anyone’s parking there, we don’t control that,” said Barry Goldberg, general counsel for Melohn Properties.

Goldberg was the owner’s attorney on the company’s purchase of 180 Water Street in the 1990s and is now handling its sale. He says the call from The New York World was the first he had heard of the property having obligations to open the sidewalk to the public. “I’m not aware of it at all,” he said, noting that no documentation came up in the title search or other documents in the transactions. “We comply with the law as required.”

Like many privately owned public spaces, 180 Water Street picked up the extra square footage “as of right,” because its developer met the standards set by the City Planning Commission.

The battle for Zuccotti Park brought unprecedented attention to privately owned public spaces, property whose developers committed to making them open to the public, in exchange for a boost in the scale of the building they could construct. But it also overshadowed a basic question. Who is getting the better end of the deal for these spaces, property owners or the public?

We decided to find out. The New York World filed a freedom of information request with the Department of City Planning to obtain records detailing the public space promises made and extra square footage received by each property developer, compiled in 2000 by the urban planner Jerold Kayden in collaboration with the department and the Municipal Art Society. In total, says Kayden, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, such spaces have enabled the development of 20 million square feet of New York City real estate that zoning would not have otherwise permitted.

Then we looked to put a price tag on the spaces. How much did the extra square footage add to the total value of each piece of real estate? That’s easier said than done. Office lease prices are a closely guarded secret, and since market conditions change, the price a building sold for five years ago doesn’t say much about its value now.

So we turned to a list, compiled by Crain’s New York Business based on data from Real Capital Analytics, detailing New York City’s 25 biggest commercial real estate sales of 2011. Ten of those properties included privately owned public spaces. Based on the price per square foot of those deals and the amount of extra space generated through the public space bonus, we calculated that privately owned public spaces contributed anywhere between $19 million and $353 million to the value of each property.

View the slideshow to see the top-dollar POPS of 2011.

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1633 Broadway
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1633 Broadway
1633 Broadway
Photo: Maral Noshad Sharifi
Photo: Maral Noshad Sharifi

The privately owned public spaces at “Paramount Plaza” include a plaza, arcade and underground pedestrian walkway connecting Broadway with 8th Avenue. The arcade includes a gym and a sports store. An elevator was broken during our February visit, leaving people with disabilities no way to move between upper and lower levels. (Calls and emails to Paramount Group, the building’s owner, were not returned.) The bright spot is an expansive plaza that offers a welcome escape from the crowds at Times Square, and the property also includes the Gershwin and Circle in the Square theaters. In 1971, the developers received an unusually generous 514,000 extra square feet in exchange for all the amenities. At last year’s sale price of $687 per square foot, the bonus space they used is worth more than $350 million today.

Value of bonus space
$353 million
Public spaces
Arcade
Plaza
Underground concourse

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299 Park Avenue
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299 Park
299 Park
Photo: Salim Essaid
Photo: Salim Essaid

This plaza and arcade are examples of the bare minimum required of privately owned public spaces. The only mandate is that these spaces remain accessible 24 hours a day. In total, some 20,000 square feet are open to the public. Property owners were able to build an additional 154,000 square feet of office space. Based on the $1,086-per-square-foot price at which an interest in the building sold last year, that space is now worth nearly $168 million.

Value of bonus space
$167.6 million
Public spaces
Arcade
Plaza

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280 Park Avenue
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280 Park
280 Park
Photo: Salim Essaid
Photo: Salim Essaid

Here you can find a 17,600-square-foot plaza open to the public 24 hours a day, complete with plants, a bicycle rack, and a towering art sculpture. The developers of were able to build 172,000 extra square feet in return (and could have built 4,000 more). The property sold last year at $941 a square foot – meaning that the extra space here is today worth $162.6 million.

Value of bonus space
$162.6 million
Public spaces
Plaza

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55 E 52nd Street
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55 52nd
55 52nd
Photo: Salim Essaid
Photo: Salim Essaid

The through-block arcade offers a plethora of amenities including lush plants, restrooms and a fountain. When we visited on a Thursday afternoon in February, a pianist was performing for a crowd under a skylight. This 13,000-square-foot Midtown East haven generated 78,000 additional square feet – equivalent to $76 million worth of space at last year’s sale price of $976 a square foot.

Value of bonus space
$76.1 million
Public spaces
Arcade

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455 Madison Avenue
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455 Madison
455 Madison
Photo: Salim Essaid
Photo: Salim Essaid

The large courtyard in front of the New York Palace Hotel is accessible 24 hours, and a shortcut through the lobby to East 51 St. is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. The property took advantage of all the 111,000-plus square feet of bonus space allowed, adding $53 million worth of real estate based on the $482-per-square-foot sale price.

Value of bonus space
$53.6 million
Public spaces
Preserved Courtyard

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401 E 34th Street
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1633 34th
1633 34th
Photo: Aidan Gardiner
Photo: Aidan Gardiner

The residential plaza at the Rivergate apartment high-rise includes amenities from bicycle parking to basketball courts, all easily accessible. Located at the base of a large tower, the space is dominated by bushes, trees and grass divided by swirling cement pathways. It includes multiple places for people to sit, a play structure for younger children, and clear signs indicating that the space is open to the public from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. (But no longer an ice skating rink that opened along with the building in 1985: a decade later the City Planning Commission granted permission to remove it.) The developer elected to use about 41,000 square feet out of the 140,000 square feet it was entitled to – worth about $24 million to builder Zucker Organization in last year’s sale.

Value of bonus space
$24.2 million
Public spaces
Plaza

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212 E 42nd Street
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212 42St
212 42St
Photo: Michael Keller
Photo: Aidan Gardiner

The plaza at the New York Helmsley Hotel is divided into two spaces. A spacious entryway is lined with four trees. A plaza tucked away at the back of the hotel features a steep staircase and curving wheelchair ramp lead to a small brick plateau surrounded by ivy and trees. Scaffolding blocks use of benches, but most of the area is accessible. A share in the property traded hands at $750 a square foot last year, making the hotel’s nearly 28,000 square feet of bonus space worth almost $21 million.

Value of bonus space
$20.9 million
Public spaces
Plaza

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95 Wall Street
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95 Wall
95 Wall
Photo: Maral Noshad Sharifi
Photo: Maral Noshad Sharifi

In 2008, this office tower was reincarnated as Dwell95, a high-end rental building designed by Philippe Starck. But its public space is nothing remarkable: an arcade and plaza between Wall and Water Streets that are really more of a covered sidewalk, accessible 24/7. At last year’s rich sales price of $806 a square foot, Dwell95’s 27,000 square feet in bonus space is worth about $20 million today.

Value of bonus space
$20.7 million
Public spaces
Arcade
Plaza

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140 E 45th Street
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140 45th
140 45th
Photo: Aidan Gardiner
Photo: Aidan Gardiner

More than 6,000 square feet of public space is spread across a plaza, arcade and extra-wide sidewalk. These areas are open 24 hours, but the only seating is a brick structure surrounding a planter in the center of the plaza. Records indicate there should also be 3 movable chairs — seats that have ended up inside the building, removed from public use. The $630-per-square foot sales price last year was nearly 60 percent higher than in the 2008 deal in which developer Harry Macklowe sold the building to Boston Properties and Goldman Sachs, which can now thank the bonus space for $20 million of their $401 million deal.

Value of bonus space
$20.1 million
Public spaces
Arcade
Plaza
Sidewalk Widening

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1540 Broadway
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1540 Broadway
1540 Broadway
Photo: Maral Noshad Sharifi
Photo: Maral Noshad Sharifi

The public passageway at the Bertelsmann Building is open business days between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., offers pedestrians a less congested option than Broadway and is accessible to people with disabilities. The developers did not use any of the bonus space allowed — more than 846,000 square feet — so effectively they are providing this space to the public free of charge. At last year’s sales price, equivalent to $750 a square foot, this bonus space would have netted over $634 million.

Value of bonus space
$0
Public spaces
Through Block Connection

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Value of bonus space for properties sold last year is based on price per square foot of each sales transaction, as published by Crain’s New York Business on January 16, 2012, based on figures from Real Capital Analytics. Price per square foot is then multiplied by the bonus floor area recorded in the public space record as compiled by Jerold Kayden, Municipal Art Society and the New York City Department of City Planning. Where price per square foot is not available, we took total dollar value of the transaction and divided it by the total square footage recorded in the public space record for that property.

Additional reporting by Salim Essaid, Aidan Gardiner and Maral Noshad Sharifi.