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Sunday, April 24, 2016

When the Wealthy Steal Public Space

When the City allows a developer to construct a larger building in exchange for public space, you expect there to be a real benefit to the public. At the very least, you would expect the space to be minimally usable by the public. Nevertheless, at the Millenium Hilton Hotel, a "privately owned public space" is nothing more than a parking lot outside the hotel's garage, and it uses the public sidewalk as its driveway. As we will see, this is just a small part of a larger pattern of wealthy business owners padding their profits by stealing from the masses in New York City.

Of course, the privately owned public space at the Millenium Hilton is nothing short of a swindle. No space has been provided to ease pedestrian circulation. Instead, pedestrians remain confined to the original sidewalk, where they now have to contend with cars driving back and forth. Meanwhile, the private interests are able to eek out even more profit through the illicit revenue-generating use of this space.

There are unintended consequences, and there is negligence. It is not clear if this case quite crosses the line, but the City could clearly do much more to protect the public's interest in this property.

A few years ago, the Department of City Planning (DCP) went out to evaluate each of the privately owned public spaces that had been created through zoning incentives, and it followed up with efforts to improve the zoning requirements to ensure better spaces in the future. As important as this was, there were missed opportunities to seek more enforcement against the more egregious violations. This is a good example. The Department of City Planning characterized the sidewalk widenings at the Millenium Hilton as "Marginal." That was the lowest category DCP used; there was no lower classification to reflect spaces that had been fully privatized, or, worse, spaces that degraded adjacent public spaces. Additionally, the written description of this space does not even mention the parking, even though satellite images and Google historic views shows that this has been a continual operation for decades.

Yet while DCP may have been able to do more to identify and publicize this disgrace, it is not an enforcement agency. Primary responsibility lies with the Department of Buildings (DOB). As proves too often to be the case, DOB has simply not shown up to do the job of enforcing laws to protect New York's public realm. While it is true that DOB did not receive any citizen complaints about this problem until recently, there is no explanation for the total lack of self-directed management of privately owned public spaces. Nor is there any explanation for how this particular situation did not surface when reviewing the construction scaffolding that covered this space a few years ago.

There is another agency that could eliminate this occupancy immediately: the NYPD. It is illegal to park on the sidewalk and it is illegal to drive on the sidewalk. With a little enforcement, this practice would come to an end very quickly. The fact drivers are constantly using the sidewalk extension as a parking lot, while treating the original sidewalk as a drive aisle, demonstrates how little the NYPD cares about enforcing the law when powerful business interests seize public space.

The Millennium Hilton is a particularly egregious example, but it is far from the only case where spaces have been stolen from the public. A certain presidential candidate has seized public space in one of his buildings to install a shop that sells his brand image. Matt Chaban explained it well in the Times last month, including this discouraging fact:
The Trump Organization was fined $2,500 for the violation in 2008, but there has been no further action, and the violation remains open and unresolved. A Buildings Department spokesman said recourse was limited because the space presented no public hazard.
A charge of $2,500 once during a seven year period doesn't come close to qualifying as cheap rent on Fifth Avenue. It's barely even a nominal charge. The assertion the City has such limited power is ridiculous. There are legal avenues the City could pursue in court to discontinue the illegal occupancy, and probably recover in damages for the City's residents much of the revenues illicitly derived from the use of public space. There has been zero effort.

This needs to be viewed with complete clarity. When it comes to these large, powerful business interests, the City almost seems to go out of its way to turn a blind eye. Yet for small, immigrant-owned businesses, the City lets the NYPD take the gloves off. This is extremely disparate treatment; the powerless experience the most aggressive measures when they are making a good-faith effort to survive in a challenging business environment, while billionaires get a free pass for stealing prime real estate from the public, after they were paid to provide it. Just compare the glaring lack of effort invested in protecting the public from the likes of the Hiltons and Trumps to the treatment of hard-working immigrant shop owners documented by Pro Publica yesterday.

It seems likely enough the Millenium Hilton will eventually be resolved. In all likelihood, it will not be due to a concern for working New Yorkers or more equitable enforcement, but rather the interests of the tourism industry. This sidewalk provides a significant view corridor for the new Calatrava transit hub and One World Center, so when the transit hub eventually opens at street level, this sidewalk is likely to become busier and receive more attention. Objections to the junky appearance may bring pressure from other powerful interests that could actually get the City to respond.


Update 5/3/16
It's helpful to include a few photos showing cars parked and driving out on the regular public sidewalk itself. I put in a few 311 complaints in recent days, which have all been closed by the NYPD stating they either did not witness any violations or took action to fix the condition. There has been no improvement whatsoever.



  1. Egregious and generalized. the city comptroller could audit this if he wanted.

  2. I find it bizarre that this "public space" was approved even though it was designed to be a driveway in front of enormous garage doors.

    1. The Department of City Planning has made improvements in design review. The City continues to fail entirely at basic enforcement once POPS gets built.

  3. they also regularly park cars on the sidewalk itself, blocking the path of pedestrians. I mention to the valet guys that this is illegal and open 311 complaints, but nothing ever changes.

    1. Yes, they do. I'll update with recent photos. I have also filed a few 311 complaints, which the NYPD promptly closed by either saying they didn't observe any violations or that they took action to fix the condition (without fixing anything).