Privately owned public space in New York City-you’ve seen ‘em everywhere. On Park Avenue in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the Financial District with the Occupy Wall Street protests. And Midtown’s own 6½ Avenue, now named the “Holly Whyte Way”. It’s clear these are not parks and are in fact private spaces, but who owns them, and why would anyone want the public trudging on their property?
Well, the answer isn’t that simple, nor is it as altruistic as it seems. Nonetheless, these privately owned public spaces are just what they sound like. Green spaces found mostly in Midtown Manhattan and the Financial District were born from a compromise between New York City and Manhattan’s skyscraper developers.
It all started in the early 1960s. New York’s skyscrapers were turning away from the setbacks and tapered roofs of an older era, to a more up-to-date class of architecture: the International style. Tall, straight, rectangular buildings were the latest trend in modernism–but towers like these cause shadows. MASSIVE shadows. And as you can imagine, getting permission to build this kind of tower in Lower Manhattan took more than ‘pulling a few strings.’
So an idea was brought forth by the City of New York: developers could build these modern skyscrapers–height and all–as long as they included public open space in the plans. And in 1961, the Zoning Amendment became law.
Today, these privately owned public spaces are a vital part of New York City’s Financial District streetscape. Just last year, Zucotti Park and other sites were taken over by protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But not all of these urban open spaces are easy to find. In fact, many are completely hidden from the sidewalk, with little to no signage.
One of my favorite private open spaces happens to be one of the most hidden. It’s “Elevated Acre” at 55 Water Street, which is placed so far from the street that you need to ride up an escalator to get there. There’s a garden, a lawn, and breathtaking views of Brooklyn and the East River.
So take advantage of these privately owned public spaces in New York City. Because you never know when you might come across your new sanctuary.