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Preserving Downtown Open Spaces

by Gloria Lenhart,

Hidden throughout downtown San Francisco are dozens of small parks, rooftop gardens, indoor atriums, plazas and other restful spaces known to city planners as POPOS – Privately Owned Public Open Spaces. SF City Guides’ City Scapes tour takes walkers into some of these spaces in the Financial District, and other tours like South of Market Architecture Stroll visit them. Although there are specific regulations regarding public access to these spaces, several building managers and property owners have recently been testing the boundaries of the law.

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The open space at One Bush Plaza is not a POPOS, since it predates the 1985 Downtown Plan.

First some background on POPOS. In 1961, New York City passed the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinances designed to create a more human scale among the skyscrapers and maintain “light and air” at street level. These regulations introduced the idea of privately owned spaces that would remain accessible to the public at large.

Up until the 1980s, developers in San Francisco were not required to include public open space in their plans. Some did so voluntarily as part of their design. Others included open space in exchange for approval to build larger or taller building. One Bush Plaza, originally built for the Crown Zellerbach Company, is an example of an open space included voluntarily as a design element. Redwood Park behind the Transamerica Pyramid was put in as part of an exchange for the right to build over Merchant Street, which once cut through the block now occupied by the landmark building.

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Current POPOS sign with hours, seating, handicap access and more

In 1985, San Francisco passed a comprehensive Downtown Plan that required major developments in the Financial District, SOMA and other high density areas to set aside one square foot of public open for every 50 square feet of rentable space. Unfortunately, the original plan did not include a requirement to provide signs to help people find these spaces. That changed in 2012 with an amendment requiring clear signage posted at eye level. But it only applies to newer developments.

POPOS were in the news lately due to a request by the Intercontinental Hotel at 5th and Howard St. to release them from the obligation of opening their terrace POPOS to the public. They asked to pay an “in lieu of” fee instead. Public outrage, including attention from John King of the Chronicle and City Guides rallied by guide Reed Rahlmann, led to the hotel’s request being put on indefinite hold. “The hotel’s POPOS signage is definitely not what it should be,” Rahlmann said. “There are no signs in the lobby or the elevators. It’s only if you are on the same floor as the rooftop gardens that you’ll notice a sign.” The city’s Planning Department is doing checks on POPOS to see that they are in compliance with regulations regarding signage and access.

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Public Garden on Commercial Street

Although open to the public, POPOS are still privately owned, and some buildings have rules about their use. Some require visitors to show I.D., and some have asked guides to sign liability releases before allowing tour groups to visit. Occasionally a garden will be closed for a private party. And the POPOS on top of the Wells Fargo Bank at Montgomery and Market is often closed when there is a parade or other demonstration expected. The same is true of Redwood Park behind the Pyramid.

POPOS are hidden jewels in the urban landscape. The more people know about these spaces and the more they are used, the less likely it is that efforts to limit access to them will succeed. The city’s Planning Commission provides an interactive map of POPOS on its their website. It shows locations, hours and amenities like rest rooms, art, and more. Take a City Guides tour, or just get out there on your own and visit a POPOS.

Photos by Gloria Lenhart
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