Secrets of San Francisco

Where to find our city's POPOS — privately owned public open spaces
SPUR Report
January 1, 2009
Photo by Keith Baker

Public open spaces should be the pride and joy of any city. They are especially important in downtown San Francisco, where a quarter of a million people converge on a daily basis. After all, these are the places — the plazas, parks, gardens and walkways — where we can sit and relax, meet with friends, eat or read in the open air and engage in the timeless urban pastime of people watching. This is where we get a glimpse of nature amid the hardscape of the downtown area. Where we can take a break from the daily grind.

But when it comes to publicly accessible spaces, not all are created equal. Some are well designed and even include trees, planters, ample sunlight and public art, while others don’t even have a place to sit.

Even more essential, however, is the issue of access: How can San Francisco's publicly accessible spaces be used if relatively few people know where they are, let alone how they can be used? Unbeknownst to many, downtown San Francisco has a rich and diverse network of privately owned public open spaces — or POPOS — in the form of plazas, atriums, terraces and small parks that support the city’s more well-known public park system. Fortunately, for downtown workers and residents, these privately owned spaces make up for the lack of more publicly provided open space downtown.

Expanding on a project called COMMONspace started by Rebar, a local art collective, SPUR thought it time to survey and evaluate existing POPOS in light of the requirements for their development laid out in the 1985 Downtown Plan - the city planning document that guides the physical development of San Francisco’s downtown area. Our report was guided, first, by an investigation into the creation of various POPOS before and after the adoption of the Downtown Plan. In evaluating the individual spaces, we asked a set of basic questions: Is there sunlight? A place to sit? A sign stating the space’s hours of operation? A toilet?

Then, we laid out a series of recommendations to improve existing POPOS and guide the development of such spaces in the future. To formulate those recommendations, we asked: Is the existing network of open spaces serving the needs of the downtown area? How can we expand and improve on what we already have? And what role should the private sector play in providing publicly accessible open spaces as our downtown continues to grow and change?

The city's first POPOSMost of San Francisco’s POPOS were created through incentive plans to encourage the development of more open space in the downtown area. Although San Francisco’s downtown office district1 now provides work and living space for more than a quarter of a million people, it has almost no publicly owned and managed open space. The district’s large public parks — Union Square, Yerba Buena Gardens, St. Mary’s Square, Portsmouth Square, Justin Herman Plaza and Maritime Plaza — are on the peripheries of the downtown office district. The only publicly provided places for sitting and relaxing downtown are the five benches and ledges around the statue in Mechanics Plaza and the sitting ledges around the BART entrance at the intersection of Market and Montgomery streets.

Prior to the city’s 1985 Downtown Plan, commercial developers included POPOS in their buildings under three general circumstances: voluntarily, in exchange for a density bonus, or as a condition of approval. Since 1985, however, POPOS have been created pursuant to the requirements of the Downtown Plan.

Before World War II, downtown office buildings generally occupied the entire footprint of a building site, with few or no ground-level setbacks from the property line. In 1959, San Francisco’s first postwar high-rise office building, the 20-story Crown Zellerbach headquarters, was built at the intersection of Bush, Sansome and Market streets. Designed as a “tower in the park,” the building is set within a sunken plaza that includes a bronze fountain, cobblestone paving and landscaping, but is surrounded by granite walls and devoid of anywhere to sit. While well proportioned and carefully designed, the plaza isn’t immediately accessible from the street. It’s not a place that seems to welcome visitors, let alone invite them to sit down and stay awhile.

ZellerbachBuilt in 1959, the Crown Zellerbach building includes one of the city’s first privately provided public open spaces. While well proportioned and carefully designed, the plaza isn’t immediately accessible from the street.

At the time, the city’s zoning rules did not require or encourage open areas around the base of office buildings. For almost two decades, buildings continued to fill most or all of their sites, leaving little room for outdoor plazas or seating. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, when the Transamerica Pyramid (at Washington and Montgomery Streets) was being designed, that the city’s downtown district saw the development of its first privately owned, publicly accessible park. The tower design included, at its base, a paved clearing enclosed by a cluster of redwood trees, as well as a fountain, public art and park benches. Its design welcomed passersby and simple amenities invited them to stay.

The total amount set aside in the city budget for dedicated spending and programs is about $860 million. The set-asides fall into several main categories. First there are revenue-driven and expenditure-driven set-asides. Revenue-driven set-asides rise and fall based on the total tax revenue coming to the city. For example, a set-aside that is a percentage of the general fund typically is revenue-driven. Expenditure-driven set-asides mandate a minimum amount of spending regardless of economic conditions and city tax revenue. These set-asides often are based on a percent of all property values.

In addition to the design of the set-aside, some measures include baseline funding. While functioning as a set-aside in restricting the city’s ability to reduce funding, a baseline is somewhat different in that it does not actually “set aside” a portion of either revenues or expenditures. Instead, it simply is a requirement to spend at least a certain amount on a service. Some measures that are primarily revenue-driven also have a baseline.

Density bonus for plazas

In 1968, the San Francisco Planning Department developed a bonus system whereby a new building could be increased in size if certain public features such as arcades, observation platforms, connections to BART, widened sidewalks or ground level plazas were included as part of the building’s plan. The system allowed developers to build an additional 10 square feet of building space for every square foot of plaza space provided. The requirements were not very specific, nor were they particularly rigorous: Up to two-thirds of the plaza could be occupied by planting, sculpture, fountains and other features. The Planning Code simply stated that “the balance shall be suitable for walking, sitting and similar pursuits.”

Under this scheme, ten office buildings provided ground level plazas of varying quality.

Voluntary creation of open space

Some office buildings created open space around new buildings without the incentive of a density bonus. New Floor Area Ratio requirements meant that developers had a choice about how to shape buildings on their sites. They could build a short, squat building that took up the entire parcel, or they could build a taller, skinnier building that created open space at the base of the building - so long as the total size of the building did not exceed the total permitted square footage.2 In order to build taller buildings, some developers began to build on larger sites, leaving space around the base of the building open. Some of these open areas were made into attractive plazas and gardens, while others were left quite barren.

Creation of open space as a condition of approval

In the late 1970s, it became apparent that the downtown financial district contained too few public amenities - including open spaces. Concern about the scale and pace of development led to a number of voter initiatives that would have modified the size and appearance of downtown office buildings, some in rather draconian ways. It became clear that better controls were needed.

The Planning Department and Planning Commission began to expect, and in some cases demand, buildings with more public amenities. Developers came to believe that to make their projects more appealing and marketable (and more likely to be approved by the city), they needed to offer more. Useable open spaces often were required by the Planning Commission as conditions of approval. Even when these were not required as an explicit approval condition, they were included as part of the project proposal the developer presented and the Planning Commission approved.

Also contributing to the increasing attractiveness of downtown open spaces was the change in public attitudes. For many years, outdoor dining was considered unsanitary and was prohibited. Until well into the 1980s it was rare for the city to grant a permit allowing tables and chairs to encroach into the public sidewalk. Tastes and regulations changed - accelerated, perhaps, by the coffeehouse phenomenon, such that sitting and eating outdoors were becoming commonplace.

In total, some 35 spaces of varying quality were created voluntarily or as a condition of a development’s approval.

Downtown Plan Requirements

In 1980 the Planning Department begin preparation of a new set of controls for future development of the downtown area. Its efforts culminated with the adoption of the Downtown Plan in 1985. The plan included new requirements and guidelines for the creation of publicly accessible open spaces by private developers. The goal was to “provide in the downtown quality open space in sufficient quantity and variety to meet the needs of downtown workers, residents and visitors.”

The Planning Department determined that the system of providing a density bonus for plazas, a pioneering measure when adopted, was not sufficient. The requirements were too general and did not always lead to quality spaces. Furthermore, it was up to the project developer to decide whether to provide the open space.

The planners concluded that the requirements for open space should be made explicit. Usable open space would be defined, a required ratio of one square foot of open space for each 50 square feet of occupied office space would be established for all office buildings, and required features and attributes would be enumerated.

The 1985 Downtown Plan states that open space can be provided in a variety of forms, including:

  • Plazas: primarily hard-surface spaces at the bases of buildings
  • Urban parks: large open spaces with predominantly natural elements
  • Greenhouses: partially or fully glassed-in enclosures
  • Urban gardens: intimate, sheltered landscaped areas
  • View or sun terraces: wind-sheltered areas on upper levels
  • Atriums: glass-covered central open spaces in the interior of a building or block
  • Indoor parks: interior open spaces where at least one wall facing the street consists entirely of glass
  • Snippets: small, sunny sitting spaces
  • Public sitting areas in a pedestrian walkway In addition, the plan requires that each type of open space must:
  • Be of adequate size
  • Be situated in such locations and provide such ingress and egress as will make the area easily accessible to the general public
  • Be well designed, and landscaped where appropriate
  • Be protected from uncomfortable wind
  • Incorporate various features that will enhance public use of the area, including ample seating and, if appropriate, access to food service
  • Have adequate access to sunlight if this is appropriate to the type of area
  • Be well-lit if the area requires artificial illumination
  • Be open to the public at times when it is reasonable to expect substantial public use
  • Be designed to enhance user safety and security
  • Provide toilet facilities open to the public if the open space is on private property
  • Have at least 75 percent of the total approved open space open to the public during all daylight hours
What makes a space "public"?

The line between public and private spaces is undoubtedly blurry. While it may be true that public spaces are owned by the public and private spaces are privately owned, publicly accessible spaces can be provided, owned and maintained by either private or public entities. Privately owned public open spaces are privately provided, owned and maintained — and are characterized by some limitations on public access due to their status as private property. This can result in a somewhat more controlled environment.

An important question to consider is this: Do POPOS qualify as “public” space in use, feeling or accessibility? Since many cities and other public entities have budget constraints, particularly in the United States, it is common practice for governments to require open space to be built by the private developer, and operated and maintained by the private property manager. Do these spaces feel more or less “public” than publicly operated and maintained spaces? If so, how do we know? How does a public space feel?

The answer rests, in part, in an understanding of the historic role that public spaces play in our built environment. Public space in the traditional sense was part of the public domain in the form of squares, boulevards and covered passages. Their common function was that of an open meeting place where any individual could choose to assume an anonymous public role that allowed for interaction and exchange with the other players, often strangers, who coincidentally shared the space. Cultural rules and norms dictated acceptable behavior. Public space was easily identifiable and accessible due to its design and location within the urban fabric. However, what made a space truly public was the experience of the unexpected.

Today, traditional public spaces still play an important role in a city’s fabric for a variety of reasons. However, they are no longer the only places for this kind of public interaction. A significant amount of interaction has moved to informal or even virtual spaces, due to readily available technology and increased mobility. New public spaces have emerged in places such as airports, shopping centers, and public and private buildings. The public nature of these spaces typically is tied to their function and the extent to which they are limited to specific users.

POPOS fall into the latter category since they tend to be dominated by a specific group — office workers — due to their location and accessibility. The limit of acceptable activities, the established set of rules and the controlled environment may not make a POPOS a true public space in the traditional sense, yet it provides a privately owned and maintained amenity that is publicly accessible. The user may feel more like a guest than a player who appropriates the public stage.

It becomes clear that POPOS cannot substitute for true public spaces due to their limitations, but nonetheless they can encourage experiences of exchange. As long as the established rules are not violated and the comfort level of the majority of users is maintained, anyone should feel invited to use the space. This invitation to use the space needs to be recognizable through good visibility, location and design.

Evaluation of existing POPOSOver the past several months, SPUR conducted a major evaluation of all of San Francisco’s POPOS in the office district. This evaluation involved multiple site visits, reviews of the conditions under which POPOS created prior to the adoption of the Downtown Plan were approved, and an analysis of how well post-Downtown Plan POPOS meet the Downtown Plan design guidelines.

Our evaluation of San Francisco’s POPOS serves several purposes. First, it allows us to understand how well POPOS created prior to the Downtown Plan perform, relative to those created under the Downtown Plan. Second, it enables us to identify where existing POPOS of all types have room for improvement. Third, it allows us to highlight the highest performing POPOS in the city. Finally, it provides lessons learned from the first 50 years of POPOS that we can use to revise the rules under which current POPOS may be upgraded and under which future POPOS will be created.

POPOS created prior to the adoption of the Downtown Plan

Beginning in 1959, and until the adoption of the Downtown Plan in 1985, a total of 45 POPOS were created either voluntarily, to obtain a density bonus or as a condition of approval. A total of 17 pre-1985 POPOS are north of Market Street, seven are on Market Street and 21 are south of Market. In terms of quality and location, this makes for a fairly even distribution over the downtown district.

POPOS created under the 1985 Downtown Plan

Since the adoption of the Downtown Plan in 1985, a total of 16 office building owners have created 23 POPOS. (The number of open spaces exceeds the number of buildings that gave rise to them because more than one type was constructed at some locations.)

Ten spaces occur north of Market Street, while 13 are in the South of Market district, where more of the new development has taken place.

SPUR measured all POPOS created under the Downtown Plan against the stated mandatory guidelines and criteria. Our analysis finds that these POPOS generally achieved higher quality than those before 1985 and are providing many or all of the required amenities. Some outstanding and truly enjoyable spaces have been created, such as the sky terraces at 343 Sansome St. and 100 First St,, the greenhouse at 101 Second St., the poetry garden at 199 Fremont St., the bamboo garden at 560 Mission St., and the plaza at 555 Mission St.

On the other hand, there are some POPOS that lack seating and other necessary amenities.

Charts 1
The majority of pre-1985 POPOS are urban gardens and snippets, which tend to be very small spaces. When these spaces were developed, there was no standard regarding how many square feet of open space should be provided relative to the size of the building. A good mix of open space types has been achieved under the Downtown Plan. However, in light of the Downtown Plan policy that states that “priority should be given to plazas and parks,” the number of terraces seems high.

SPUR RECOMMENDATIONS1. Make needed improvements to existing POPOS.

Building owners are increasingly seeing the provision of on-site usable open space - particularly with adjacent food service - not as an onerous burden, but as an important amenity that enhances the value and marketability of the building. The experience of those who have retrofitted their buildings for just this reason should be cited in working with other owners to improve their own spaces.

Most of the improvements needed for existing POPOS could be made with a minimum of effort and expense. The owners of the buildings where POPOS require improvements should be encouraged to make them.

The Planning Code contains a provision (Section 137) stating that plazas and arcades for which a density bonus previously was granted may be modified and improved in conformity with the Downtown Plan guidelines. Under this provision, three plazas that received density bonuses have been substantially modified and improved to Downtown Plan standards. In addition, one arcade has been filled in exchange for the creation of a urban garden that complies with the Downtown Plan standards.

In the future, if building owners seek to change or eliminate pedestrian arcades that have been proven to be only marginally useful, the city should give permission only if the owners create a POPOS or pay an in-lieu fee to support the creation of POPOS on another site.

Charts 2
The sheer number of pre-1985 POPOS, some 45 spaces, is quite impressive. But judged by the Downtown Plan standards and guidelines, the quality of these spaces is mixed.

2. Improve POPOS signage.

The most glaring defect in the implementation of the open space requirements is in making people aware of the location of the space and its status as a public space. This is particularly important when the existence and public availability of the POPOS are not obvious from the public sidewalk.

Information signage was not required of any of the pre-1985 spaces, and none has been provided. Nevertheless, a plaque identifying these spaces as amenities open to the public and as part of a larger POPOS network would be desirable.

After the adoption of the Downtown Plan, the Planning Department had a POPOS plaque designed that featured a very attractive and distinctive logo. The department required project sponsors to use it to identify POPOS as being publicly accessible. However, the department did not specify clearly enough the size of the plaque and its placement. As a consequence, only a few of the spaces have adequate informational signage. Some have no sign at all. Where signs are present, some are too small to be noticed, some have text that is too small or illegible, some are placed in obscure locations (although the code requires a “publicly conspicuous location”), and some do not include the logo.

To improve the signage for existing and future POPOS, SPUR recommends the following changes to the Planning Code and to the design guidelines in the Downtown Plan:

Size and design: The Planning Code and design guidelines should be amended to require that the plaque be at least 21 inches by 21 inches, employ the standard logo that has been developed, and be placed at eye-level at all necessary locations and easily visible from the public sidewalk. There should be a clear contrast between the lettering and the plate to enhance readability, and the plate should be made of non-reflective material.

Location of signage: For some POPOS, directional signage is essential. For spaces within a building, or spaces not clearly visible and accessible from the public sidewalk, the Planning Code or the design guidelines should require the sponsor to install wayfinding plaques.

Methods for correcting deficient signage: The Planning Department should explore whether the owners of buildings with POPOS that were produced in conformance with the Downtown Plan can be required retroactively to modify deficient signage. If not, efforts should be made to encourage those owners to voluntarily modify or add to their signage. A complying plaque, including its installation, would cost approximately $2,500.

The Planning Department commissioned the design of this plaque in 1985, but did not specify clearly enough the size of the POPOS plaque and where it should be placed. As a result, only some POPOS (like this one at Empire Park) have clear signs that are well placed.

3. Include maintenance information on POPOS signage.

It is generally in a building owner’s interest to continue to maintain the required open space as part of the general maintenance of the building. However, SPUR has found that some of the more poorly maintained spaces were those that are not at ground level or immediately adjacent to and identifiable with the building. SPUR also is concerned with the ongoing maintenance of POPOS as buildings change ownership.

Planning Code Sec 138 (h) provides that “open spaces shall be maintained at no public expense.

“Conditions intended to assure continued maintenance of the open space for the actual lifetime of the building giving rise to the open space requirement may be imposed in accordance with the provisions of Section 309.”

It does not appear that in the past, such a condition has been expressly imposed in buildings’ approval documents. This should be done in the future. In addition, the approval documents should be recorded so that subsequent buyers clearly are bound by the obligation.

The Planning Code requires information regarding maintenance to be included on the informational plaque. Unless the space is at ground level and immediately adjacent to the building, the informational plaque should include the name and address of the owner or owner’s agent responsible for maintenance.

New York City, which has had extensive experience with hundreds of POPOS, requires its information plaques to include the name of the owner of the building; the name, address and phone number of the person designated to maintain the open space; and a statement that complaints regarding the open space may be addressed to named city agencies. San Francisco should do the same. New York also requires the building owner to post a performance bond to assure compliance.

4. Correct seating deficiencies and modify guidelines to require more moveable seating.

The Downtown Plan contains the following policy:

“The popularity of an open space correlates highly with the amount of comfortable sitting space provided. To accommodate this common need, adequate seating should be required in new facilities in direct relationship to the size of the open space. Existing spaces without adequate seating should be retrofitted. Sitting places should be located up front near the action and secluded in the back, in the sun and in shaded areas. Their configurations should accommodate people in groups as well as those who want to sit alone.

“Sitting space can be provided in many ways. Besides conventional bench-type seating, walls, steps, ledges, planters and fountains can be designed imaginatively to invite people to sit. Movable chairs are particularly desirable because of the flexibility in seating arrangements they provide.”

Pre-1985 POPOS were not required to meet these specific standards. However, many of them appear to do so. There are, however, some with seating deficiencies. Most could be easily corrected by the addition of benches and/or moveable chairs and tables. Additionally, the Planning Department may wish to strengthen the moveable chair requirement in the code.

5. Relax requirements for the provision of public restrooms.

Although Planning Code Section 138 (d) (10) states, “If the open space is on private property, provide toilet facilities open to the public,” few of the post-1985 open spaces provide such facilities directly adjacent to the open space. A number of open spaces are adjacent to indoor food services with toilet facilities intended primarily for patrons, but which the public generally is permitted to use. Some spaces, particularly small snippets, provide no restroom access at all.

Because of the difficulties in ensuring that restrooms are kept clean and that all users conduct themselves appropriately, it seems reasonable to allow access to the restrooms only from within the building, thereby allowing the building management to exercise some supervision over the facilities.

For snippets and other small sitting areas, the provision of toilet facilities is not practical and should not be required. The Planning Code requirement should be modified accordingly.

6. Require approval motions to describe how a building will comply with open space requirements.

In the future, the approval motions adopted by the Planning Commission should contain a specific finding that Planning Code Section 138 has been complied with, and should describe specifically how the building’s required open space meets each of the minimum standards of Section 138 and the design guidelines. (In the past, some of the Planning Commission’s motions to approve proposed construction merely have contained the statement that the open space generally conforms to the open space guidelines, and some have made no mention of the required open space at all.) Approval motions also should be recorded so that it is clear to succeeding owners that the open space cannot be modified without department approval.

7. Establish Friends of POPOS.

Our analysis of existing POPOS has found that while many POPOS are well known and well used, some POPOS are not. Part of the problem stems from the fact that not all POPOS are easy to access. Also, there is relatively little public programming to let members of the public know about the space and to invite them to use it.

A nonprofit entity, perhaps named something such as Friends of POPOS, should be established to monitor and develop programming for POPOS. This nonprofit group could function much like Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS) - a New York City based private entity that monitors New York’s existing POPOS. In addition to monitoring the spaces, encouraging upgrades through physical improvements and programming initiatives, and promoting their use to the general public, APOPS has a formal agreement with New York City’s Department of City Planning to cooperate in this effort3. The board of the San Francisco Friends of POPOS should comprise downtown workers and residents, downtown building owners and managers, parks and open space advocates, arts groups, and others.

San Francisco should require new buildings with POPOS to participate in the Friends of POPOS group. The Friends of POPOS would be responsible for a number of tasks:

  • Monitoring: On a rotating basis, visit all POPOS to make sure they are accessible and have the appropriate signage. Maintain a Web site that maps all POPOS and provides information about each POPOS.
  • Maintenance: Encourage property owners to maintain their POPOS and upgrade them when appropriate.
  • Enforcement: Work closely with the Planning Department to enforce design standards and help the city develop a code of conduct.
  • Programming: Host events in spaces to raise awareness of POPOS.
  • Rental of POPOS for private use: Ensure that some portion of the fees from renting POPOS for private events during non-public hours goes directly to additional programming for the spaces.

8. Establish a code of conduct for POPOS and allow for signs prohibiting specific conduct.

Given that POPOS are, by definition, publicly accessible private property, the rights of both the property owners and of the public need to be protected and balanced against one another. Clearly, the quiet enjoyment (sitting, reading a book, eating a sandwich) of a POPOS during open hours always should be allowed. But what about holding an impromptu concert? Holding a protest? Playing soccer on a roof garden? One individual’s reasonable enjoyment can be another person’s liability nightmare, and vice versa.

In San Francisco, numerous entities hold jurisdiction over public spaces, including the Recreation and Park Department, the Port of San Francisco, the Redevelopment Agency and the Department of Public Works. The Recreation and Park Code defines prohibited behavior for city parks under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Park Department. Surprisingly, some rules vary from park to park.

SPUR recommends that a code of conduct for POPOS be developed by the Planning Department in consultation with the public, and presented to the Planning Commission for adoption. These rules should be simple to administer and should take into account the differing types of POPOS. Likewise, guidelines for the number and type of signs prohibiting certain conduct should be developed by the Planning Department and presented to the Planning Commission for adoption.

Should a project sponsor require a variance from the code of conduct due to special circumstances (for example, if the project requires heightened security or has special safety conditions that need to be taken into account), the sponsor should request that variance from the Planning Commission. If the commission grants that departure from the regular rules, the variance should be recorded in the conditions of approval for the project.

San Francisco should require new buildings with POPOS to participate in the Friends of POPOS group. The Friends of POPOS would be responsible for a number of tasks:

Recommendations for improving future POPOSWhile recommendations 1-8 propose changes to existing POPOS, recommendations 9-14 are intended to guide the development of new privately provided open spaces to make them more useful to downtown users - residents and office workers alike. Some of the resources that would otherwise go to building on-site POPOS for commercial buildings should be used in a way that both satisfies the requirements while giving the city the flexibility to create a broader range of public spaces.

The downtown is no longer just a place to do business and shop. It is also a place to live and a place of recreation and culture. The existing rules for downtown POPOS do not particularly well serve this expanded use or expanded populace. This wider population needs public space that:

  • Is accessible before and after normal business hours and on weekends and holidays
  • Offers a variety of traditional park elements, particularly facilities for children (e.g. play equipment, lawn areas), for pets (e.g. dog runs), and for flexible/multiple use (e.g. yoga, sports, ball playing)
  • Features more green landscaped areas to provide relief from the concrete, steel, asphalt, and glass of the downtown environment

9. Modify guidelines to call for enhanced landscaping and ecological functionality.

The downtown needs more than just plazas with benches for eating lunch, but a place to get a breath of fresh air in an environment defined by materials other than concrete, asphalt, metal and glass. This is not just for the psychological and recreational benefit of residents, workers and visitors, but also for the actual health of the downtown and the city. Even plazas, which by their nature must be more proportionately hardscaped, should be designed to not just mitigate their own ecological footprint, but to actually enhance the sustainability of that project and the wider area. Plazas, particularly because they are open expanses of paved material, should be designed to capture, filter and recycle rainwater from adjacent buildings and streets. Plant life filters pollutants from air and water and provides habitat for wildlife. The city may want to consider adopting a "Green Factor" or other metric to require and measure minimum sustainability features of POPOS, (particularly outdoor spaces) which could include increased coverage of landscaping, rainwater harvesting and other features.

10. Expand the types of POPOS that can satisfy the open space requirement.

POPOS that directly serve the needs of office workers and patrons of downtown commercial buildings meet current requirements. However, SPUR believes that it would be reasonable to allow a project developer - voluntarily - to instead provide publicly accessible spaces that are a bit less clearly related to those needs, but are comparable in cost.

These could include such things as children’s playgrounds, workout space for tai chi and active sports facilities such as basketball and volleyball courts. In addition to expanding the list of spaces and facilities that can be provided, the Planning Code also should permit other kinds of space that meet a demonstrable need.

11. Encourage, provide incentives for or require POPOS to be publicly accessible beyond the current work-hour guidelines.

The standards listed in Planning Code Section 138(d) state that POPOS should be “open to the public at times when it is reasonable to expect substantial public use.” A further standard states that “at least 75 percent of the total open space approved [should] be open to the public during all daylight hours.” The Downtown Plan guidelines provide more specificity. For some interior spaces, the hours of operation stated in the Downtown Plan guidelines vary from the longer period of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. to as brief as 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and only five days per week. This guidance should be re-examined. The notion of what is “reasonable” certainly should be more expansive, given a more 24-hour, seven-day-week downtown population.

12. Permit, encourage and/or require new commercial buildings to contribute in-lieu fees to a fund dedicated exclusively to creating more publicly owned open space.

While it’s certainly beneficial to continue ensuring that there are small spaces and nooks embedded into most new commercial development projects, the point is being reached where the marginal utility of having such spaces at every building is outweighed by the glaring lack of other needed forms of open space. In areas north of Market Street, the prevalence and density of major historic buildings without public space meant that only a relative smattering of new buildings would provide all the needed open space.

However, South of Market Street, particularly east of Second Street, almost all sites that have not already been redeveloped in the last 20 years will see construction in the upcoming years. This means that almost all buildings in the area would feature a POPOS of some sort.

SPUR believes it would be no loss - and in some cases a boon - to relieve some sites of the need to build major POPOS on-site, and instead contribute those resources toward one or more large new publicly owned open spaces in the area. A precedent for this approach has been set through the recent approval of an office building, not yet constructed, that will satisfy its open space requirement by expanding and extending the public St. Mary’s Park over the top of a smaller building to be built at the corner of Pine and Kearny streets.

There must be a strict prohibition against using these funds to renovate existing public open spaces. In the past, the Downtown Parks Fund, intended for new open space, was instead used to renovate an existing public park: Union Square. This should not be allowed in the future. Because the requirement otherwise would result in new open space, in-lieu fees also should fund new open space or improved access to planned new open spaces, such as the proposed 5.5-acre Transit Center Park south of Market Street.

Finally, in-lieu fees must be priced according to a regularly updated and realistic cost of land, as well as the costs of the improvement and perpetual maintenance of privately owned open space.

13. Encourage developers to build publicly accessible connections to the Transbay Transit Center’s proposed rooftop park.

The development of the proposed Transbay Transit Center will contribute a major publicly owned open space in the heart of this very dense area. However, because the park will sit atop a four-story terminal, access will be challenging. There are many major new developments planned for the district surrounding the Transit Center that could aid in maximizing the public use of the 5.5-acre rooftop park.

14. Increase the open space requirement for downtown residential dwelling units.

The Downtown Plan's POPOS requirements are justified by a nexus rationale that new commercial buildings, which bring an influx of workers or shoppers into the area, create a new demand for public open spaces. Residential buildings have their own related open space requirements intended to meet the needs of some of those workers. Under the current nexus rationale it is not legal to impose on the commercial buildings the burden for the provision of downtown open space to serve new residents.

The existing downtown residential open space requirement is 36 square feet per unit. (Common open space may be substituted and counted as 1.33 feet per unit.) The requirement often is met by small balconies that are too small to be useful. SPUR believes the requirement should be increased to 75 feet per unit. The requirement would be satisfied through the creation of on- or off-site, publicly accessible space. The city should give building developers an incentive to do so by crediting publicly accessible space at a rate equal to 133 percent of required private open space. This increased residential open space requirement recently has been imposed in Rincon Hill and in the high-density districts in the Eastern Neighborhoods plan area.

Another possibility would be to allow some of the residential open space requirement to be satisfied by an arrangement with office developments, under which they would make their POPOS available by request to area residents or organizations after hours for no charge. This could be done through a regular community liaison contact (perhaps through the proposed Friends of POPOS organization), or even through a Web site.

ConclusionPrivately owned public open spaces are a key component of our downtown open space network. There are many steps we can take to improve and make better use of these important spaces. Given the changing role of our downtown core, our future open space needs may not be the same as those in years past. It is up to us to build on our past successes to make sure that the next generation of downtown open spaces helps us create a better San Francisco. END


1 For the purposes of this paper, the downtown office district consists of the C-3-O and C-3-O (SD) zoning districts, and some immediately adjacent properties. It excludes the properties in the Golden Gateway (Embarcadero Center), Yerba Buena Center and Rincon Point redevelopment project areas.

2 To illustrate, a building on a site that had a 15-to-1 FAR limit could contain 15 floors if the building occupied 100 percent of the development site, or 30 floors if the building occupied only 50 percent of the development site.

3 See

About the Authors: 

Primary contributors: George Williams, Eva Liebermann, Karin Edwards, Joshua Switzky, Heidi Sokolowsky

SPUR lead staff: Sarah Karlinsky

Research interns: Saboor Atrafi, Jordan Salinger

Other task force members: Blaine Merker, Bob Passmore, Matthew Passmore, John Bela