Friday, March 23, 2012

On the Question of #whOWNSpace

On the Question of #whOWNSpace

It has happened slowly. Many of us have not even noticed. Little by little, the cities we inhabit — malls, shopping centers, movie theaters, private plazas, parks, and in some unfortunate places even entire streets and neighborhoods — become increasingly privatized. Yet many of us do not often stop and ask ourselves what this means and what we are losing in the process. What happens to democracy when we do not have the spaces to meet, organize, and collectively plan for our future? What happens when our city does not belong to us?

On September 17th, 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement brought new light to the privatization of the city when a group of activists occupied Zuccotti Park, a Privately Owned Public Space (POPS) in New York City’s Financial District. POPS legislation was developed in 1961 as a way to let developers negotiate building variances, often increasing the square footage of rentable space, in return for plazas and parks that should be open and welcoming to the public for multiple uses. The legislation has led to private entities building 3.5 million square feet of areas that they control but are, in theory, public.

Further, the rules governing the different POPS can be confusing and, at times, contradictory to actual law. After all, what does it mean when the POPS at 60 Wall Street asks people to not use space ‘excessively’? With this and other questions in mind, design collaborative DSGN AGNC organized a group of concerned designers, artists, lawyers, educators and citizens to launch #whOWNSpace. Thus far, groups that have contributed to #whOWNSpace include DSGN AGNC, who provided the initial vision, along with DoTank: Brooklyn, 596 acres, The Public School New York, BRUNO, and Not An Alternative.

At its core, #whOWNSpace arises from questions that the Occupy Wall Street movement brings up about ownership and use of open space in New York City, and cities around the world. The project seeks to reveal and question the often-conflicting rules that govern privatized public space, to advocate for changes when necessary, and to propose alternative policies, uses and designs for public space that encourages democratic vitality.

Image by Klaus for the MAS CONTEXT ISSUE 13 cover

Removing Fences: an Update and a Freedom of Information Lawsuit

Construction "Work" by the fenced Jean Dubuffet sculptures.
Image taken by Francisca Benitez and manipulated by Quilian Riano
Earlier this week the OWS community sought to celebrate the six month anniversary of the occupation in Zuccotti Park (also known as Liberty Plaza).  The response by the NYPD was violent and it lead to mass arrests and the illegal re-fencing of the Privately-Owned Public Space.

The Village Voice took the occasion to echo a previous article on #whOWNSpace's efforts at Zuccotti Park and ask the question: "Was Zuccotti Park Legally Allowed To Be Closed This Weekend?" Legal experts quoted agreed; it was not. However, many of you again took time to contact the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) and the barricades -- belonging to private security -- came off soon after.

While the barricades around Zuccotti have been removed; they are stored in the corner of the plaza, and we are monitoring the DOB's response to a complaint that such storage is not in the approved plans for the public plaza.

The Chase Manhattan Plaza, however, is still fenced. In "Fences Are Still Up -- What's Going On At Chase Manhattan Plaza?, the Village Voice reports:
There's now work going on at Chase Manhattan Plaza. At least, that's the impression you'd get from the handful of flagstones that have been torn up from the plaza and surrounded by orange safety cones. But in the weeks since this apparent work began, there hasn't been much working to be seen. Most days, behind the fences, the plaza is as deserted and silent as it has been since September 15.
Concerned New Yorker and Department of Buildings expert Richard Nagan, an agent of Nagan Ex, Inc., decided to find out what the scope of the approved work was – just how long could we anticipate this favorite spring and summer hang out would be off limits? But his request for the plans was met with a blanket denial by the DOB. The plans would not be made available unless Nagan got the permission of the building owners. The DOB claimed disclosing plans for surface waterproofing work without permission from Chase, the bank that has been keeping the public off the plaza for the last six months, would somehow be a danger to life or safety.  

Yesterday, Nagan Ex., Inc., represented by Rankin & Taylor, PLLC and supported by #whOWNSpace, filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit in New York Supreme Court for disclosure of the plans.

For more information please see:
#whOWNSpace Press Release
Activists Sue Department of Buildings to Force Disclosure of Approved Plans for Stalled Construction Work

Richard Nagan v. New York Department of Buildings
Freedom of Information lawsuit

03.27.2012 UPDATE
In The Village Voice:

JP Morgan Chase's Life-And-Death Secret Waterproofing Plan
​The ongoing fight to reopen Chase Manhattan Plaza in the Financial District has taken a strange turn. The nation's biggest bank has undertaken a (possibly imaginary) waterproofing repair project in the plaza. But this is no ordinary (possibly imaginary) waterproofing repair project; this one is so critical, so high-stakes, that the NYPD and the Buildings Department say details of the plan must be kept top secret, because people lives are on the line... read more

Thursday, February 2, 2012

#occupyLandmarks direct action -- send a complaint now to let the Landmarks Commissioner know his staff is letting Chase slide on a technicality

It's come to this: staff from the Landmarks Preservation Commission have told the Village Voice that the guarded fences at Chase Manhattan Plaza are not subject to the permitting process that other work on Landmarked properties is because the fences are not "affixed or attached." That seems a ridiculous technicality -- and one that Chase is taking advantage of! -- in light of the massive alteration of the architectural design that the unaffixed and unattached fences and the guards that accompany them have achieved. 
But all work on Landmarks needs to be approved by the Commission to make sure that it is "appropriate and do[es] not detract from the special character of the city's landmarks and historic districts."
We need to engage the hierarchy and get the attention of the chief Landmark-Preserver. Today, let's occupy Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Robert B. Tierney's inbox. This direct action is easy, and doesn't even involve getting a stamp. Follow these steps:

2. From the first drop-down, select "Complaint"

3. Enter your email address.

4. Cut and paste the message below into the Message box:

Fences and guards have surrounded Chase Manhattan Plaza (CMP, 26 Nassau Street) for over four months now, inhibiting all public access. CMP is a designated Landmark. From the 2009 Designation Report: “The plaza was intended to be one of the project’s most dramatic and distinctive features. It …functions as an elegantly minimal forecourt or… a 'front yard…The south plaza’s most conspicuous feature is Isamu Noguchi’s “Sunken Garden"... this unique sculptural work was commissioned for public view… it was designed to be viewed from the plaza..." Landmarks staff have indicated Chase did not need to demonstrate that the fences would not interfere with the landmark through a permitting process because they are not "attached." Although they are held down with sandbags, not bolts, their effect is to inalienably alter the character of this Landmarked public plaza. Both the “front yard” and the historic sculpture have been inaccessible since September.

5. Submit.

6. When you receive an acknowledgement of receipt in your inbox, forward it to us at We want to know just how occupied Mr. Tierney's inbox gets.

#occupyDOB #occupyLandmarks

Monday, January 30, 2012

#whOWNSpace #GRNPNT Video + Outcomes

Video of the process of organizing and holding the #whOWNSpace #GRNPNT studio/class.

The class was a way to observe, diagram, and propose new uses and a network of open spaces in a large section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The class was divided in three sections:

people were asked to take a 1.5 hour walking tour and were asked to observe one of these elements, focusing on the democratic vitality of the open spaces:
1.Access 2.GatheringSpace 3.Boundaries 4.UrbanFurniture 5.Lighting 6.Barriers 7.Signage 8.Personnel 9.Demographics 10.Uses


The elements observed in the step above were diagrammed using 11"x17" maps and a 2'x4' model that #whOWNSpace provided.


The result of the studio was to form a group of designers, journalists, politicians, and other citizens that will continue to advocate and develop a BLACKBELT network of public spaces for community engagement, organizing, and action. We will do this through direct action campaigns, policy changes, and design solutions.

Join Us in this effort - we will need you as we plan and execute BLACKBELT actions (add #GRNPNT to your name)


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's still your city... right? #occupyDOB #occupyLandmarks

Image by Stephan Von Muehlen
According to an article published yesterday, Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon told the Village Voice the commission considers the fencing surrounding Chase Manhattan Plaza removable, and therefore outside the commission's purview.

But that doesn't seem right at all. 

Here's the law: "If an owner wishes to perform any work on a designated landmark or on a property in a designated historic district, he or she must obtain a permit from the Landmarks Preservation Commission approving such work before carrying it out." The Commission will only issue a permit if it deems that the proposed work has no effect, is appropriate or is minor.

Permit applications for TEMPORARY changes -- defined as one (1) calendar year or less -- must be filed and include a plan and time schedule for the dismantling of the installation and Installation details indicating that there will be no damage to protected architectural features. There has been no application filed for the fences.

The phone number for Landmarks is 212-669-7951.

Today is a great day to give Landmarks a ring to talk about whether a fence that has been up for 4 months and seems to be staying up indefinitely is within the Commission's purview.
We'd love to hear how your conversation goes -- email with a report.

Here are some things you might say:
1. You might want to ask to see a copy of the permit for the fence work, even if it is temporary, being sure to ask for a the plan and time schedule for dismantling the fences and details indicating that the fences will not damage protected architectural features.

2. You might want to use the language below which come directly from the Chase Manhattan Plaza Landmarks Designation Report, and also contain photographs of the places we can't access now.

"Not only did it stand out sharply from its older masonry neighbors, but the planning of the site, incorporating an irregularly shaped 2½ acre plaza, established a welcome break from the narrow, twisting streets that characterize much of
the neighborhood."

"The plaza was intended to be one of the project’s most dramatic and distinctive features. It isolates the tower from its older masonry neighbors and the empty space functions as an elegantly minimal forecourt or, as Architectural Forum described it, a 'front yard.'"

"As originally built, the raised plaza was reached from three marble staircases, each with a different design. The widest and most elaborate stairs is located to the south and adjoins Pine Street. Due to the sloping site, it was designed with a second set of deep cantilevered risers to the east. The west stairs is located near the intersection of Nassau Street and Cedar Street and consists of two elements: a staircase that narrows slightly as it descends to the concourse level and behind it, a wider staircase, which rises onto the plaza. The east stairs descend to where William Street meets Cedar."

"The south plaza’s most conspicuous feature is Isamu Noguchi’s “Sunken Garden"... this unique sculptural work was commissioned for public view. This type of patronage was not uncommon in the late 1950s when large, often colorful, pieces of abstract art were frequently introduced into office building lobbies, bank interiors, restaurants and airline terminals."

"The plaza’s “Sunken Garden” is sited in a circular well between the south stairs and a raised cantilevered marble planting bed that is original and adjoins the east facade of 20 Pine Street. The 60-foot diameter garden is well preserved; it was designed to be viewed from the plaza..."

"On the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture and other features of this building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission finds that One Chase Manhattan Plaza has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York City."

#occupyDOB #occupyLandmarks

UPDATE 01.27.12:
"...Richie Nagan, the Building Department expediter who first complained about the barriers at Zuccotti Park and alerted the National Lawyers Guild to the violations, disagrees.
"Actually a permit is issued by Landmarks" for a case like this, Nagan says, citing page 28 of the Guidelines and Materials Checklists for Performing Work on Landmarked Buildings, which says even "temporary installations" require a plan filed with the Commission and assurances that the installation will be removed on time.
De Bourbon disgrees, claiming that regulation only governs signs."
Chase Manhattan Plaza Still Fenced Off, Activists Call on Landmarks Commission To Act
Nick Pinto, The Village Voice 01.27.12

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

#whOWNSpace GREENPOINT: Observe, Diagram, Intervene

Date: January 29, 2012 at 1:00pm
Meet up: 155 Freeman St, Brooklyn
Facilitators: DSGN AGNCDoTank:BrooklynBRUNO596 acres
Twitter: #whOWNSpace#GRNPNT
Following up on our past studio/class, this Public School NYC studio/class will use design and urban theory to critically study the design, ownership, and rules of Greenpoint's open spaces and infrastructure as part of the #whOWNSpace project. The lens for the studio will be on neighborhood power dynamics around space, focusing on the potential of open space to create democratic vitality.  We want to look at and propose a 'Black Belt' of open spaces that can be used for community organizing and activism.

Read this review by Urban Omnibus on the previous TPSNYC and #whOWNSpace class:

UPDATE 1.29.12:
The DSGN AGNC crew built this diagrammatic model of Greenpoint for today's class:

 The participants in the class will be using it to study Greenpoint's open spaces and propose a 'BLACKBELT' of open spaces used for community engagement, organizing, and action. See you there.

Monday, January 16, 2012

#occupyDOB Un-caging the Commons - Illegal Fences at One Chase Manhattan Plaza

The fences at Liberty Plaza are down but public space in Lower Manhattan remains barricaded. Just down the block, the One Chase Manhattan Plaza has been closed since mid-September. Chase closed the plaza in anticipation of the first Occupy Wall Street General Assembly that was called for that space at 3pm on September 17. It was on the map that was handed out that day, but when people arrived at the plaza, it was closed - barricaded with fences that appear to have been purpose-built by the building owners or management. 

The assembly happened elsewhere, and history unfolded. But our public space continues to be compromised. 

A great public plaza and seminal works of public art have been caged for four months (Isamu Noguchi’s Sunken Garden, 1964, and Jean Dubuffet’s Group of Four Trees, 1972). 

One Chase Manhattan Plaza was constructed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, LLP in 1961; the architects voluntarily allocated the majority of the allowable space to the public realm. The plaza was a success and created a model for future privately owned public space (POPS) zoning and the Zoning Resolution that governs post-1961 POPS. The public use of the plaza as designed set the standard for public space in densely-built Manhattan. Chase Manhattan is a private space, but a private space built with the intention of public use; we are the public, and we can leverage New York City agency power to help us get our commons back. 

Here’s how: One Chase Manhattan Plaza got Landmark status in 2009. Part of its historical significance is the deliberate allocation of plaza space for public use. 
Under New York City law, before doing work on landmark properties that will affect their exteriors, building owners or tenants need to apply for a permit from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Violations of the Landmarks Law occur either when work is done on a Landmark without a permit or when work does not comply with a permit. The fences around Chase Manhattan plaza clearly affect the exterior of the building, yet no one has applied for a permit for their erection (the only permit for exterior work filed in the last two years -- scaffolding for the sculptures -- is here).

The New York City Landmarks law has been violated with the erection of the fences and the closing of Chase Manhattan Plaza. Luckily -- anyone can report a violation by filling out this form and sending it in (in the real mail or through a hand-delivery -- the Landmark Preservation Commission hasn’t joined us in the digital age, yet).

Here are the questions on the form, and how you can fill it out:

Building Number: 26
Street Name: Nassau
Cross Street(s): William, Nassau, Pine, Liberty
Borough: Manhattan

Fences have been added at all access points around the historic Chase Manhattan Plaza. This work was done without a permit and has altered the landmark’s exterior. Outdoor public artwork that is part of the Landmark is not accessible as it was when the building became a landmark.

Mail or bring to:
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th floor North
New York, New York 10007
Attn. Violations Unit

Then send us an email at to let us know that you filed a complaint.

Two Additional Notes:

ONE: The Department of Buildings is also an agency that can be contacted about these fences. They have received one complaint so far: “THERE ARE FENCES AT THE PERIMETER OF THE PLAZA THAT IS NOT PROPERLY INSTALLED. IT IS HELD DOWN BY SANDBAGS CREATING A DANGEROUS CONDITION AS THEY CAN BE BLOWN OVER BY STRONG WIND AND CAUSE INJURY.” You can also submit your own, following this model. We will be monitoring how they respond.

TWO: And here’s a chance to engage people directly at the barricaded plaza, this Thursday:
There is a NY Legal Services labor action planned for this space for 8am on Thursday, January 19, 2012. We are looking for #whOWNSpace volunteers to go and have folks fill out this complaint to the Landmark’s Commission, then drop them off at 1 Center Street that same morning. 

**Project Formulated by #whOWNSpace. All Images taken by designer Aaron Plewke over the last three months and manipulated for this post by Quilian Riano from DSGN AGNC. Text by Paula Z. Segal and #whOWNSpace legal team.