time off in new york city

almost three months to fill

POPS – privately owned public spaces

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Around Midtown and Downtown I’ve walked through and stopped in quite a few Privately Owned Public Spaces (or POPS). They are marked with a tree logo and came about through deals between the city and property developers, for example, provide additional public space in return for an extra few floors on a skyscraper. You have a right to enter these spaces and stay as long as they are open, within the rules (which differ from place to place) – that’s the deal. Some of them have architectural merit so are worth a visit, not all are successful spaces however.

Zuccotti Park

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The AIA guide (published in 2010) describes this space as “a large, bleak, red granite plaza with spindly trees” brought to life only by the vending carts around the edge (I took this picture at lunchtime). It has now become infamous as the venue for the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011 – they are still there (bottom right of photo) to a reduced extent. It is because this space is a POPS that the protest was able to continue for as long as it did – the rules for the park initially didn’t stop this sort of protest and the owners had to keep the park open under the terms of the zoning agreement.

There is an illuminating article about POPS by Douglas Woodward on the Urban Omnibus website which looks at the way the rules of conduct for using these spaces have been tightened up following the Occupy protests. Woodward argues that the rules “express a view of public space as fundamentally inert, of public space as a refuge from urban life rather than as a place of engagement within it”. I take the point that the rules do go somewhat over the top, but I also think that the strength of these spaces, particularly the atriums, is that they are a refuge from some aspects of urban life (particularly Manhattan urban life). They are perfect as places to sit reading a book or to contemplate in peace, to shelter from extreme weather, to escape from the traffic, have a quiet take-out lunch, or engage in quiet conversation. They break up the monotonous grid street pattern and the atriums in particular allow people to enter buildings without paying an entry fee and without the expectation that they will spend money (as in a shopping mall).

Here are some more of the POPS I have visited and spent time in, I particularly like the atriums so there’s more of those. For more on POPS, see the City Planning Department’s website.

Citicorp Center, Lexington Avenue

The whole Citicorp estate is worth a visit with the sleek tower cantilevered over the Lutheran church below. It even has its own style of traffic light on Lexington Avenue. The AIA book calls the atrium “urbane”; it wraps around the central core of the skyscraper so is worth visiting for architectural interest alone. Unfortunately it also feels like a slightly downmarket shopping centre. There is free wifi however and sometimes a pianist.

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Trump Tower, 5th Avenue

This is on the tourist trail; its a public space, not a shopping centre. It’s gaudy, but it’s fun to travel up the escalator past the pink marble waterfall. There are two gardens at the top, one was closed when I last visited, the other didn’t quite live up to the splendour of the atrium.

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590 Atrium (former IBM Building), Madison Avenue

Pass through the back door of the Trump Tower atrium and you enter a cool and calm winter garden with granite floor, silver tables and chairs and bamboo trees. You can almost see the relief on people’s faces as they enter. There are birds in there, sparrows chirping and flitting between the roof and down around the tables.

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Sony Building, Madison Avenue

The AIA book says the atrium with “its quarter-arched glass roof [is] truely reminiscent in scale of the ancestral Milan Galleria”. Others might say it looks like an eighties shopping mall. Enter through the front door (you are allowed, look at the POPS map by the front door) on Madison Avenue which is like a sepulchre and I think is very impressive.

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Paley Park, E 53rd St

Rightly famous shady spot with a raging waterfall that drowns out the traffic noise; there are dragon flies here. You find a lot of these waterfall features around the city – some are more successul than others (see below). You can smoke in this park (unlike the whole of Central Park and every other city park), when I visited the park men from the surrounding offices were relaxing with their cigars.

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The trees in Paley Park filter the sunshine and further soften the urban surroundings.

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Olympic Tower, 645 5th Avenue

An indoor waterfall in a cool and calm space.

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Behind 6th Avenue, between W48th and W 49th Street

Another waterfall, Paley Park style, but this space felt barren and unloved. When I was there it was too hot to sit for long despite the waterfall – it needs more trees (some of the trees that are there looked dead). People seem to like walking through the tube though, it’s more fun than trapsing up 6th Avenue in the heat.

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The Galleria, E 57th Street, bet Park and Madison

A stylish walk-through. Nowhere to sit, but a change from the street. I don’t think this is used that much and some of the shop spaces appear to be vacant. You feel like you shouldn’t be here, but that’s part of the fun.

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This entry was posted on July 20, 2012 by and tagged , , .
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