Inauguration of the Program
The 1961 Zoning Resolution inaugurated the incentive zoning program in New York City. The program encouraged private developers to provide spaces for the public within or outside their buildings by allowing them greater density in certain high-density districts. Since its inception, the program has produced more than 3.5 million square feet of public space in exchange for additional building area or other considerations such as relief from certain height and setback restrictions.
At first, the program was limited to a few types of spaces like plazas and arcades, but over the years many other types with differing standards were added, including sidewalk widenings; open-air concourses; covered pedestrian spaces; through block arcades, connections and gallerias. Experience with the early spaces shaped standards for the later spaces, which were more precisely defined and subject to greater public scrutiny than the first-generation spaces. Plazas built to the original 1961 standards account for one-third of the 503 spaces surveyed, the largest single category.
The results of the program have been mixed. An impressive amount of public space has been created in parts of the city with little access to public parks, but much of it is not of high quality. Some spaces have proved to be valuable public resources, but others are inaccessible or devoid of the kinds of amenities that attract public use. Approximately 16 percent of the spaces are actively used as regional destinations or neighborhood gathering spaces, 21 percent are usable as brief resting places, 18 percent are circulation-related, four percent are being renovated or constructed, and 41 percent are of marginal utility.
In response to the real and perceived failure of many of these spaces and to community dissatisfaction with their effectiveness, the types of public spaces permitted, and their locations, were curtailed in the late nineties. In 2000, The Department of City Planning, the Municipal Art Society and Harvard professor Jerold S. Kayden joined forces to develop an electronic database with detailed information about public spaces created as a result of the city’s incentive zoning program. The database findings led to the publication of "Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience
". This book describes the evolution of incentive zoning in New York City from 1961-2000, and profiles 503 public spaces at 320 buildings that had been granted additional floor area or related waivers in exchange for providing these spaces.
The need for updated design regulations
Based on the information collected for the book and further field study of privately-owned public spaces since its release, The Department of City Planning has gained expertise in understanding the qualities and regulations that help create successful (or disappointing) public spaces. For example, an analysis of past plaza regulations revealed that, while the introduction of residential and urban plaza standards and gradual refinement of these guidelines had improved the quality of plazas, there were still numerous instances of plazas that lack basic amenities or exhibit design features that inhibit public use and enjoyment. It was not unusual to find plazas that provided limited seating options, deliberately inhibited seating with spikes, or had obstructions that blocked visibility within the plaza area. These types of issues were at least partially attributable to lack of specific design guidelines or outdated criteria within the zoning text.
On the other hand, a comprehensive inventory and analysis of outdoor plazas brought attention to numerous examples of successful privately owned public spaces throughout the city. These plazas had certain key elements in common, such as the provision of abundant and generous seating, attractive planting, easy and comfortable access, and a pleasant variety of spaces for plaza users. As a result, new design standards, based on such findings, were proposed by the Department of City Planning and adopted by the City Council on October 17, 2007. The 2007 provisions overhauled the design regulations for privately-owned public plazas to facilitate the design and construction of high quality public spaces that, in turn, will provide valuable amenities to residential neighborhoods and commercial districts. Since 2007, certain regulations were identified that warranted improvement or clarification. A follow-up text amendment was proposed by the Department and adopted by the City Council on June 10, 2009, with the goal of enhancing targeted portions of the text that were approved in October 2007. The enhanced design regulations underscore the need for ease of pedestrian circulation, visibility into and throughout the plaza and the provision of well-maintained public spaces.