Atlantic Cities
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How to Make Privately Owned Public Spaces Truly Open to the Public

How to Make Privately Owned Public Spaces Truly Open to the Public
popos.sfplanning.org

Some of the best privately owned public open spaces in downtown San Francisco are, by nature, a little hard to find. They’re on upper-floor terraces with fantastic views of the city, or in interior plazas of office towers that look from the sidewalk like places where you don't belong. Part of their charm comes from their hybrid nature: These "POPOS" can be more intimate sanctuaries than traditional open spaces, with office-caliber amenities – leather chairs and potted olive trees – you’ll won’t find in Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco’s 1985 downtown plan required large new office and hotel developments built since then to incorporate such public spaces, in proportion to the size of the properties. But it's the kind of ordinance that’s been easily thwarted in spirit. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban critic John King wrote several years ago, some buildings have embraced their POPOS, "others are more Scrooge-like than welcoming."

Now, more than 25 years after the idea was first built into San Francisco’s downtown plan, the city is now updating the requirements to reinforce the initial goal of truly opening up private buildings to public citizens looking for a quiet lunch break, a reading nook, or a toilet. That means no more hard-to-read, out-of-the-way Public Open Space signs (King has documented some really disingenuous examples). No more private corporate events in these public spaces. No more misdirectional cues on how to find them.

As for the public, the city unveiled on Friday a new web tool that will for the first time catalog the dozens of POPOS downtown and the amenities at each one (845 Market Street’s ninth-floor rooftop space has 59 chairs and welcomes food but doesn’t sell any; 301 Mission Street’s indoor atrium features extensive artwork and service from a bar and restaurant on-premises). The city’s legislative affairs office has mapped and photographed each space and linked to the original Planning Commission motion spelling out the individual property’s requirements under the city regulation. The updated ordinance, requiring clearer signs (both outdoors and indoors for those spaces accessed past security guards and up elevators) went into effect last week.

AnMarie Rodgers, the city’s manager of legislative affairs, is a bit more diplomatic than King has been in describing how these spaces have been treated until now. “Certainly some developers and building owners embraced the spirit of the downtown plan and looked at making this an amazing amenity and feature on their site," she says. "But I think it’s been a struggle since this requirement was put in place to make sure they are truly public."

Many of these buildings were never in compliance with the original 1985 plan and will now have to make adjustments to their POPOS and update signage according to the new ordinance. New developments downtown from now on will also have to comply with the updated requirements. The city’s new web tool includes sign design guidelines and templates that building owners can use to create the signage, complete with universal logos that will designate restrooms, food or seating availability (these are also searchable categories on the website).


The logo from the city's new template.

"It should create a branding to get to the question, ‘does the public understand what these spaces are?" Rodgers says. "It should really help people to see it as not just one space, but a network of downtown open spaces."

San Franciscans would be forgiven for not quite understanding the whole concept, even 25 yeas after the creation of the downtown plan. We’re generally programmed in any city to feel like trespassers in office buildings where we have no business, or hotels where we have no room (admit it: you have behaved like a clandestine operative at some point trying to find a bathroom). The presence of food vendors also has a way of making us feel like we must pay for something for the right to sit down. But under the city’s regulation, San Franciscans deserve a seat in a POPOS, just like in a public park, whether they buy a snack or not.

Kimia Haddadan, a planner working in the city’s legislative affairs office, went through this experience at each of these POPOS inventorying them for the website. One of the more ridiculous tiny plaques mentioned by King is etched into the glass front door of an office tower, about knee level. "I went in there looking for the plaque and I really couldn’t find it," Haddadan says. “It’s virtually impossible for pedestrians to walk in and see that there’s a sign.”

Other building owners simply didn’t know they had to make these spaces public at all, because ownership had changed hands since the property was built. Haddadan encountered other buildings clearly renting out public spaces for private events.

"They were surprised when our staff insisted we had a right to access the space and experience it," Rodgers says. "You’d have to be pretty bold to go in at that point. Kimia is pretty bold,” she adds, laughing, “but the average person from the public wouldn’t be."

The idea now is that you shouldn’t have to feel that way, even as you’re enjoying a space that looks more like a private sanctuary than your average public park.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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