As Boston grows, and burgeoning development eats up more and more of the public realm, it’s important for the city to take stock of open spaces set aside for public use — literally, with a comprehensive data base that will let residents know where they are, and what rights they have to them.
There are, of course, any number of public parks and greenspaces owned and maintained by some combination of city and state agencies: Boston Common, the Public Garden, the Esplanade, Franklin Park, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
But there are many more privately owned spaces set aside for public use, some more familiar than others — from the Custom House observation deck, to the Christian Science Plaza, to the tiny District Hall in the Seaport District, or the Harborwalk, a space for public access that crosses through virtually every privately owned parcel along the waterfront and through the Seaport District. These spaces are usually the result of trade-offs: In exchange for zoning variances or tax incentives, developers agree to provide some form of public amenity, usually in the form of space set aside for access to all.
But the nature of such agreements — even the fact of their existence — is often unknown to the public. What’s more, in some cases, owners and developers are no longer living up to their original agreements for what are called “privately owned public spaces.” In one recent example, the InterContinental Hotel in the Seaport District was cited for operating an outdoor bar that encroached on public space.
In some cases, through multiple changes of ownership over decades, the letter and intent of these agreements falls by the wayside. Or a public space is relocated, as when 30 Rowes Wharf decided that its third floor rotunda was underused and so moved its public space to the ground floor.
Kathy Abbott, president and CEO of Boston Harbor Now — a civic nonprofit that, through policy, programming, planning, and partnerships — advocates for public access to the waterfront and Harbor Islands, says, “In my experience. . . when things come up, it’s because of lack of knowledge, not because of a desire to thwart any existing rules and regulations.” Over time, she says, through multiple changes in ownership, “an understanding of what these commitments are gets lost in translation.”
In an era of big data and smartphones, this can and should be changed. Such vagaries, intentional or not, are another reason for a transparent public accounting.
Various state and local agencies now oversee public spaces. The Department of Environmental Protection manages Chapter 91 licenses, which grant permits for properties on the Boston Harbor waterfront and the islands as well as the state’s inland waterways. The Boston Planning and Development Agency oversees the many public-use agreements covered by the city’s Article 80. To their credit, both DEP and the BPDA offer mechanisms for the public to research such agreements. And they are doing more. Abbott says that, in conjunction with DEP and other agencies, Boston Harbor Now is developing a Web inventory of public spaces, to be followed by a free app with GPS. And BPDA, through a spokeswoman, says it is “currently in the process of compiling a full list of all privately owned public spaces in Boston that we will be able to promote and share with the public on our website.” The agency hopes to have such a list completed by the end of the year.
But the city should lead a coordinated effort. As is, the job is enormous. The DEP reports that there are 452 Chapter 91 properties in Boston alone, and 20,000 such licenses have been issued across the state since passage of the original law in 1866. The BPDA reports approval of 40 privately owned public spaces since 2014, but that’s only a fraction of the hundreds throughout the city.
Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban design at Harvard, undertook just such a task for New York City, working with the planning department and a municipal civic organization, eventually uncovering 503 such spaces at 302 different buildings. After years of work, the city now has a website with a designated map showing various privately owned public spaces throughout the city, listing details about ownership, the nature of the agreement with the city, and photos and commentary from city residents on everything from residential plazas to building lobbies. The site invites residents to provide photos, videos, and even suggestions for programming.
Kayden, who actually coined the term “privately owned public spaces,” has been urging such a public directory for Boston for years, as a way to list and monitor public-use spaces. As a corollary, New York’s city council recently passed a law detailing the enforcement of such agreements.
There are myriad issues involved in planning for future public space, but in the meantime, those we already have should be monitored, protected, and publicized on a comprehensive database.