A new life for plazas : reimagining privately owned public spaces in New York City

Richard Suarez's (MCP '12) thesis found that since 1961 the City of New York has allowed buildings to receive added floor area in exchange for privately owned public spaces. These spaces, typically in the form of small outdoor plazas, are spatially clustered in the densest areas of Manhattan and serve as a valuable public amenity for the residents and employees in these areas. Many of the 500+ spaces built before the last major overhaul of the design regulations in 2007 inhibit public use through poor design and management, and new zoning regulations dictate the design and operational standards that make new and redesigned plazas functional and usable. The recent resurgence of the public realm in New York City has brought attention to the quality of public space design and the activities that can take place in the public and private public spaces of the City. As the rate at which the City constructs new public parks slows and developers continue to provide new and redesigned privately owned public spaces, there exists the potential for new and innovative forms of public space given the variability of the designers. As zoning continues to govern these spaces, the administrative review process is increasingly discretionary and creates many levels of uncertainty for the developer and designer. This thesis examines the regulations and administrative processes for new and redesigned plazas to recommend a level of regulation that is clear, flexible, and sustainable over time. The thesis also examines the elements of the public space projects of the past decade to recommend additional provisions in the zoning regulations to align the design of privately owned public spaces with the emerging ideals of public space design being demonstrated in parks, plazas, and waterfronts around the world. The recommendations presented explore policies for the appropriate level of design review oversight, for including the most appropriate urban elements prevalent in emerging public space trends, and for encouraging higher quality design in plazas.