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