‘Occupy’ing the Zoning Resolution

On September 17, a leaderless (or, alternatively, leader-full) group of people began a demonstration aimed at highlighting the vast income inequality that exists in this country today. Named ‘Occupy Wall Street’, they gathered to express their outrage at the collusion between the country’s largest financial institutions and the government – a relationship which led to the 2008 financial collapse and one that has greatly increased the already vast wealth gap.

Among the many early decisions made by this group that allowed the movement to be so successful (catchy name, lack of hierarchy, open decision making process, etc.), one additional decision stands out as particularly wise – the location of the demonstration.

The group chose a small park between Broadway and the World Trade Center site – Zuccotti Park. This park, however, is no ordinary City park. It is a “privately-owned public space” – or “POPS”. To the naked eye, a POPS looks like any other urban parklet. But to the discerning zoning wonk, a POPS is a unique creation found in a wrinkle within a fold of the NYC Zoning Resolution. A POPS is a byproduct of a floor area bonus given to a developer. It is the second half of a quid pro quo transaction. The developer, in return for being granted permission to build a larger building, agrees to provide a publicly accessible open space. This space remains privately owned, but must remain open to the public — the entire public.

Today, there are tighter rules on how POPS are to be designed and maintained, but when Zuccotti Park was built, the only rules were that it remain open to the public, 24 hours a day.

And it was the occupation of a POPS – with its unique place somewhere between public and private – that allowed the demonstrators to stay for so long.

Alas, on November 16th the City raided the park and kicked out the demonstrators on questionable grounds.

Following the raid, the park was ringed by metal police barricades with access restricted to a very small area. The park stayed this way until early last week, when the NYCLU submitted a letter to the Department of Buildings demanding that full, unfettered access be returned to the public.

And why was the City’s Department of Buildings the recipient of the letter? Because they are the City entity charged with enforcing the zoning laws.

So it was a wrinkle in the zoning resolution that aided in the longevity of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and it was the ultimate enforcement of the zoning that reopened the park this week.

Who would have guessed that what began as a small movement intended to raise the public’s consciousness about income inequality – a movement that caught on worldwide and ultimately changed the national conversation – would be aided by the zoning resolution?

This begs certain questions:

Are there other wrinkles in the zoning resolution that might aid the next revolution?

Should we plan for such things?

What role does public space play in social movements? And do planners have an obligation to consider this role when shaping a city?

Let us know what you think.