Posted by: BayAreaComRE | March 11, 2010

Part 1: Privately Owned Public Open Spaces (POPOS) and You

Below is the first of several articles highlighting the often overlooked, under-appreciated phenomenon in San Francisco known as Privately Owned Public Open Spaces or POPOS.

In real estate, space is everything. It’s money. It’s time. It’s available – or not. It’s managed, manipulated, converted, measured (re-measured), qualified, quantified, appraised, owned, bought and thanks to the City’s 1985 Downtown Plan, it’s shared. At least 68 Privately Owned Public Open Spaces (also known as POPOS) are scattered throughout downtown San Francisco – at no cost to you. With a downtown office district that offers work, living and dining space for more than a quarter of a million people – open, communal space is limited. However slowly, San Francisco is surely making a conscious effort to integrate more leisure space into the office scene, and we’re paving the way for other cities to follow suit.

After the 1906 earthquake and through WW II, any commercial building that was developed monopolized the entire footprint of the space, which means plenty of workspace and very little play space. City officials were focused more on efficient re-development and less on public parks or urban gardens. In 1959 the 20-story Crown Zellerbach Headquarters (aka “One Bush”) was developed as a sunken plaza with cobblestone, landscaping and extra space. The final product was beautiful, revolutionary and groundbreaking (it literally is raised from the ground) but only a precursor to the concept of POPOS because the design is more exclusive than inclusive and lacks a feeling of communal accessibility.

Almost a decade later, the development of the world-famous Transamerica Pyramid created the downtown district’s first privately owned publicly accessible park which is currently considered one of the best commercial POPOS the city has to offer. For being built prior to the Downtown Plan in 1985, the Pyramid’s public space, which is surrounded by Redwood trees, public artwork and a wooden benches, still offers one of the top urban parks in the business district.

In 1980 the Planning Department began to lay the groundwork for a new initiative that would control commercial development standards and call for more public amenities – namely open spaces. This shift in the city’s thinking was a direct reflection of the public’s attitude adjustment about useable space. For instance, eating outside became more commonplace and was no longer considered unsanitary and it was also becoming less rare for the city to grant a permit which would allow tables on the public sidewalk.

Up until 1985, POPOS were developed under one of three circumstances: voluntarily, upon city approval or with a “density bonus” (i.e. developers could build more space if they pledged to build, maintain and grant access to a public space in return). The city defined the ratio of usable public open space to occupied office as one square foot to 50 square feet, respectively. As these requirements became more and more stringent, developers became more and more creative and began to blur the line between public and private spaces. The City Planning and Commission department continues to create clearer guidelines for developers so that we all can appreciate their unique expressions of public space. A total of 23 POPOS have been created since the commencement of the 1985 Downtown Plan…a few of our favorites are the sky terrace at 343 Sansome Street, the bamboo garden at 560 Mission Street and the plaza at 555 Mission Street. Next lunch, take your favorite gut-bomb burrito from the taco truck to any of these gems, we promise it’s much more pleasant than your cubicle.

Coming Soon – Part 2 of POPOS and You: A Navigational Guide to San Francisco’s Downtown POPOS

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