Occupy Wall Street Eviction Highlights Manhattan’s Public Spaces

New York City police were acting appropriately when they cleared protesters out of Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park early this morning, according to Real Estate Board of New York President Steven Spinola.

Police swept into the privately owned public park in lower Manhattan at 1 a.m. and told protesters to remove items such as tents and sleeping bags while the park was closed for cleaning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference today. The First Amendment protects speech, the mayor said, not “the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space.”

Spinola said he was “pleased” with the mayor’s actions. “Nobody questions anybody’s right to protest, obviously, but it would be illegal on any privately owned public space for people to camp out, whether they’re protesting or not protesting,” the trade group’s president said in a telephone interview.

Zuccotti Park, a public space near the World Trade Center site that’s owned by real estate company Brookfield Office Properties Inc., has been home to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators since Sept. 17. The park will remain closed pending a state court ruling on whether protesters may return to the park with their belongings.

Brookfield Chief Executive Officer Ric Clark sent the mayor a letter on Monday requesting that the city “enforce the law” at the park and remove tents, sleeping bags and other materials. Conditions “have deteriorated to the point where safety is an urgent issue,” the letter said, citing crimes such as rape, assault, theft, drug peddling and harassment.

The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

Park Rules

Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning at Harvard University and founder of the Advocates for Privately Owned Public Spaces, said there are no rules that would allow the park to remain closed into the future.

“The owners are allowed to adopt rules for managing their space,” Kayden said in an interview at a New York City Department of City Planning conference today. “That doesn’t mean closing it to the public, but it does mean managing the kinds of activities that might occur in that space.”

Kayden said that if the protesters claim they have a constitutional right to occupy the space, they will face an “uphill climb.” The First Amendment’s protection of free speech applies to government action. Private companies such as Brookfield are generally not covered by its limitations.

Zoning Laws

New York City is home to more than 500 privately owned public spaces, which have attracted attention amid the protests.

POPS must remain open 24 hours a day unless special permission is granted by the city’s planning commission, one reason why protesters were initially allowed to stay overnight at Zuccotti Park. Since the protests started in September, signs prohibiting tents, tarps and camping have gone up at the park -- rules that had previously gone unenforced.

The concept of POPS dates back to 1961, when the planning commission created zoning laws that allowed developers to get around building-size restrictions as long as they opened a public space as well.

The initial idea had more to do with a design aesthetic than it did with creating parks and plazas for public use, according to Kayden.

‘Style Statement’

“It was a style statement in which the building would be set back from the sidewalk and have a plaza in front, unlike the older buildings in New York that would rise right at the sidewalk,” Kayden said in an earlier telephone interview.

The early zoning codes were so minimal that an owner could “literally throw down some terrazzo in the front of its building, call it a plaza and collect 10 square feet of bonus floor area for every square foot of that plaza,” he said.

Those codes were amended in 1975 to impose higher design standards and amenity requirements, like seating and landscaping.

Spinola, of the Real Estate Board of New York, said the Zuccotti Park situation “woke a lot of people up” to the lack of clear rules at privately owned public spaces around the city, something he’s urging landlords to address.

REBNY also plans to ask the city to allow owners of POPS to decide when to close the areas, removing the 24-hour rule.

“If it’s appropriate for Central Park or Prospect Park to have an hour that it closes, which I assume is for security reasons, why is it inappropriate for plazas to have a 1 a.m., 2 a.m. or midnight closing frame for security reasons?” Spinola said in an earlier telephone interview. His group is meeting with lawyers to draw up plans for the request, he said.

Owners of POPS can impose reasonable rules on the spaces as long as the rules don’t restrict activities that would normally take place, such as eating or lingering, according to the Department of City Planning website.

Green Space

Under current zoning codes, POPS are intended to provide “light, air, breathing room and green space” at high-density commercial and residential properties, according to the planning department’s website. Owners pay taxes on the spaces and are responsible for maintaining them and keeping them safe.

Amanda Burden, director of the Department of City Planning, said she isn’t able to comment on the proposed POPS revisions being planned by REBNY because they haven’t been submitted yet. She said she would object to a plan that involves closing off spaces with gates during off-hours.

“This is a very public city and our streets are our parks,” Burden said. “They provide opportunities in the city for respite, for socialization, for fun. These public spaces, when they’re done well, are really important to the vitality of city life.”

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