- See more at: http://www.bloggerhow.com/2012/07/implement-twitter-cards-blogger-blogspot.html/#sthash.DO2JBejM.dpuf

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Chronicles of Stolen Space: Department of City Planning

This is a series of posts about the failures of each of the various agencies that had a responsibility to stop illegal parking on public space at the Millenium Hilton and ensure it was properly built out as a seating area. Today we are looking at the Department of City Planning (DCP).

DCP is the agency responsible for setting the requirements for Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS). It is DCP's job to set design parameters to ensure these spaces actually provide public benefits, and this is a role it has taken seriously. What it has not done is follow up with real consequences when developers have not built out spaces according to those designs. The Millenium Hilton is a glaring example of the lack of follow through.

At the Millenium Hilton, the original Special Permit was issued to create a sidewalk widening. Using the space for parking under that original status was an egregious violation that never should have been tolerated. Instead of improving the sidewalk, the result was narrowing the sidewalk as the cars extended beyond the property line. Worse, the sidewalk was further degraded into a poorly configured driveway with the parking garage attendants using cars to force pedestrians out of their way.

Yet for some unknown reason, it seems DCP swept these abuses under the rug when it undertook its landmark study of all the POPS spaces in New York City back in 2000. They must have been painfully aware of the valet parking operation, yet the only indication of any problem was generically classifying the space as "marginal."

It is not clear if there was even any informal discussion between DCP staff and the building owners at the time. Perhaps that was part of the background for what came next. Whatever the case, the problems only became more indefensible.

In 2005, the Millenium Hilton applied to the City Planning Commission for a new Special Permit so that it could pursue additional retail opportunities. As part of its application, it promised to upgrade the space along Fulton Street from a empty sidewalk widening to an attractively designed seating area. The application went through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which entailed hearings at the local Community Board, which enthusiastically endorsed the improvements to its public space. The City Planning Commission approved the new Special Permit, with explicit references to specific drawings that clearly show improvements, such as curved benches, to make the space inviting and useful for its public users.

As part of this process, a Restrictive Declaration was recorded on the property binding the owner to building out the public seating area it had promised. The inescapable obligation to construct the space for the enjoyment of the public could not be any more clearly established:
Despite the fact the Millenium Hilton volunteered for its legal responsibility to provide these public improvements, here we are more than a decade later with a barren public space. If it weren't for the liability concerns of the parking operator's parent company, it would still be treated like a parking lot with attendants continuing to bully people trying to walk by on the sidewalk.

The only explanation I could venture is the thought that the Millenium Hilton wanted to back out after determining that the outdoor cafe concept didn't have the revenue potential it hoped. Nevertheless, even if it has second thoughts about a speculative venture, there is no basis for it to back out of its commitments to the public and DCP has an obligation to ensure those commitments are honored.

Unfortunately, DCP is failing to protect the public's interest in this public space. It has shown no independent initiative to ensure completion of the seating area, and has failed to act on complaints.

Signs denoting the status of the public space are required, and those signs inform people to direct complaints about the space to either DCP (named first) or DOB. In practice, neither agency appears to take the complaints seriously. Complaints entering the system from 311 are all routed to DOB. Despite the instructions on the signs, there is no established method to make a complaint to DCP. Visiting the website, there is no standard complaint form for POPS violations, but you can send an email to the Director. "You will receive a prompt reply to your inquiry," the website states. Correspondence #1-1-1256227598 about the problems with the public space at the Millenium Hilton was submitted on May 27, 2016, but there still has not been any response. Likewise, @NYCPlanning has ignored all the information that has come its way on Twitter.

At one point in August, I bumped into a high-ranking DCP official who I know. I took her away from a conversation with a prominent developer to briefly discuss this issue, and then we corresponded about it over email. Despite positive initial exchanges with someone I have generally found to be responsible and responsive, the trail went cold and there has been no apparent action from DCP.

This inaction is disheartening. The City Planning Commission is not merely some powerless bystander, forced to sit quietly in the corner while DOB ignores this problem. It has the power to revoke the Special Permit, thereby invalidating the building's Certificate of Occupancy. Forcing the Millenium Hilton to close its doors is real leverage to force the hand of an unscrupulous building owner that already profiteered for decades by renting public space for parking. It is time for DCP to take the matter back to the City Planning Commission to finally provide the quality space the public deserves. It is finally time to breathe life into this barren strip of pavement.

No comments:

Post a Comment