Liberty Square ≠ Zuccotti Park :: POPS + the Commons

Redubbed “Liberty” Square, the space that has become the pulsing heartbeat of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, is an interesting case study. Wikipedia does a fairly good job summarizing the history and basic details…

Zuccotti Park, formerly called Liberty Plaza Park, is a 33,000-square-foot (3,100 m2) publicly accessible park in Lower ManhattanNew York City, privately owned by Brookfield Properties.[1] The park was created in 1968 by United States Steel, after the property owners negotiated its creation with city officials, and named Liberty Plaza Park and situated beside One Liberty Plaza. It is located between BroadwayTrinity PlaceLiberty Street and Cedar Street. The park’s northwest corner is across the street from Four World Trade Center. It has been popular with local tourists and financial workers.

The park was heavily damaged in the September 11 attacks and subsequent recovery efforts of 2001. The plaza was later used as the site of several events commemorating the anniversary of the attacks. After renovations in 2006, the park was renamed by its current owners, Brookfield Office Properties, after company chairman John Zuccotti.

One of the most interesting, and ironic, aspects for me at least, is the fact that the space is a privately owned public space (POPS). The City of New York enacted this law, which is essentially a zoning variance, in 1961. It was an innovative one at the time and was actually, from what I understand; the idea was presented for the city’s consideration by the Design Trust for Public Space (more about them later). Back then it was known as the “plaza bonus” and it served an interesting purpose, which was allowing developers to boost floor to area ratio (FAR) by providing ground level open, public space. Essentially this allowed taller buildings on smaller footprints with ground level public space. I must admit a deep seated internal conflict surrounding the idea of having/allowing privately owned public space in cities. When I first learned of and researched this innovation last year I was smitten, but further inquiry has uncovered an array of unforeseen consequences, both favorable and unfavorable for the public good via this old zoning provision. 

Pops<script type=”text/javascript”>(function() { var scribd = document.createElement(“script”); scribd.type = “text/javascript”; scribd.async = true; scribd.src = “http://www.scribd.com/javascripts/embed_code/inject.js&#8221;; var s = document.getElementsByTagName(“script”)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(scribd, s); })();</script>

This video , entitled “No More Tall Stories” created by CIVITAS in 1986 decries the “plaza bonus” at 5:29 into the video. They argue that the plaza bonus (AKA POPS) allows developers to increase building height (which they note decreases sunlight and the feeling of open skies) while at the same time destroying the street wall, creating sterile, disused and uninviting places that don’t offer the various uses and storefronts that activate streets.

I read the argument in a WSJ article that, 

 “It makes no sense that Central Park is officially closed at 1 a.m. but that Zuccotti Park is mandated to be open 24 hours a day.” 

I agree 100% with this, I think it is past due for all public spaces to be free and accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year!

This goes deep into a discussion that was recently picked up and elaborated on by spurse during the recent BMW Guggenheim Lab which I have written about extensively. Spurse often discussed the commons, the fact that one particular fieldwork experiment focusing on reclaiming the commons around Hunts Point in the Bronx by foraging around the perimeter and in the lost spaces of the largest industrial food distribution node in the world obscures the fact that all of their livefeeds (2x/week over 11 weeks) had an undercurrent of reclaiming the commons. From interviewing Occupy Wall Street participants and asking questions focused on Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom‘s eight design principles of stable local common pool resource management, to our visit with the NPO Rocking the Boat who’s mission of teaching school kids boatbuilding skills is a subversive means of reclaiming the Bronx River and it’s banks. The commons is quite possibly one of the most important ideas in free and democratic societies. But, as spurse so eloquently taught, the commons is not merely a place for people. The commons must be inclusive of other species and objects as well. Furthermore, the commons must respect and make room for outsiders, invasive, non-natives; acclimated and otherwise. I will not go too deep into these ideas as I want to push forward some more ideas pertaining to Liberty Square in particular and POPS in general. 

The current Liberty Square (FKA Liberty Plaza Park) owner, Brookfield Properties, has undergone substantial renovations recently (circa 2006) including the addition of trees, seating and public art in order to bolster it’s namesakes image and prominence. The fact that the park is actually a well functioning public space can be attributed to the parks creator though, United States Steel. 

Liberty Square was chosen by the New York City General Assembly for very specific reasons. The name is a nod to the park’s original name “Liberty Plaza Park” yet was changed to square in order to align it with Tehrir Square. The name change is also emblematic of OWS’s rejection of corporate elitism by which the park was renamed in 2006 to Zuccotti Park after the chairman of the company that owns the space, John Zuccotti. It has been reported that the fact that the park must be publicly accessible is just fortuitous for the group and I doubt that this fact was realized before the Occupy Wall Street movement began. I’m sure that if this was not the fact there would be one more thing that the movement would have stood for at an early point, the free and open access to public spaces around the clock. It is almost unfortunate that this is not on of the major issues being talked about as a part of the movement.

This ceremonious renaming of the park to honor the company chairman reminds me of the lyrics to a powerful song by one of my favorite artists Erykah Badu “A.D. 2000

“No you won’t be name’n no buildings after me

To go down dilapidated, no

No you won’t be name’n no buildings after me

My name will be misstated, surely”

Buildings are one thing but renaming infrastructure (bridges, expressways, parks and plazas) in this city is a bothersome and unfortunate activity that seems to be self perpetuating. If we are going to allow this edifice complex to go to the extreme, someone should rename the sewer pipes after some of these sleaze bags. The Midtown Madoff Sewer Pipeline, how about the Gowanus Exxon Oil Leaking Bulkhead?!

I encourage people who align themselves with the OWS movement to forgo referring to the park in Lower Manhattan as Zuccatti Park and instead refer to it from here on out as Liberty Square. This simple act subverts the corporate control even as the space is “privately owned”. Yes it as a semantic and linguistic act of defiance but these are in fact important in the current soundscape in which we exist. Sound-bites make up the entirety of the messages that are spewed by corporate multi-nationals who want little more than our money but know they must control our thought patterns and behavior in order to get at it. Rephrasing the conversation is actually a big part of the battle. We, The People, must reclaim the conversation and insert civility, real content and our voices back into it.

 

Ownership is another touchy subject in today’s day and age of massive foreclosures across America. It should seem that banks who have made predatory loans and denied mortgagers the opportunity to renegotiate their loan terms, even after being bailed out with taxpayer dollars to do exactly that, are on the verge of owning the buildings and structure Americans once called home. People are finding that after being foreclosed on, they are now homeless having to squat in the very homes they have for so long paid a mortgage on. I predict that vacant property will be a highly contentious front as the Occupy Wall Street movement pushes ahead into new territory, eventually occupying sprawl.

One thing that is important to point out is that, in general, the POPS program has drawn heavy fire from preservationist groups and others over the years. This is primarily due to the fact that many of them where designed so poorly that they actually offer little to no benefit to the public as they barely serve as public spaces at all. Unfortunately it is probably more likely, and sinister, that they where designed very well in order to be considered “open space” but to exclude public participation by being hidden, uncomfortable or otherwise inaccessible. The city has refined the law over the years in order to ameliorate this issue but it may be too little, too late. I really like the fact that the Design Trust for Public Space (DTPS) and Urban Omnibus (a project of the Architectural League NY)organizes Public Space Potlucks at some of the 320 different POPS around the city. This has for some time been opening up these spaces, which DTPS the Urban Design Group had so large a hand in creating to begin with, up to the public they are supposed to serve.

These Public Space Potlucks do, on a very short term mind you, a lot of the same things Occupy Wall Street has done. While DTPS provides plates, cups and utensils to facilitate a reclaiming of the commons, OWS provides food and asks that you bring your own plate and utensils in order to minimize waste in the form of disposable plates and such. They also do this in order to facilitate the reclamation of the commons.

For more information about POPS I highly recommend reading this article on ArchPaper.com: http://www.archpaper.com/news/articles.asp?id=5691

Here are some other pertinent articles:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/20/opinion/zuccotti-park-and-the-private-plaza-problem.html?_r=2&hp

http://blogs.wsj.com/developments/2011/10/17/what-occupy-wall-street-owes-to-…

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204002304576631413421195574.html

 

 

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