San Francisco's "public" privately owned spaces are hidden away and that needs to change

In San Francisco, developers who want to build big projects are required to make space available to the public as part of their planning permission. Some of the most beautiful spots in town are in these privately owned public spaces. But you'd be hard-pressed to discover their existence, as many of them are hidden away with tiny, obscure signs announcing them, and in some cases, you have to sign in with a guard to get to them. Writing on SFGate, John King lays out the problem and suggests some solutions:

The solution: pull back the addition's 11th floor to tuck in a terrace that also maintains views from the west of the 1906 landmark's regal mansard roof.

The result is unique, a vantage point of the sort that until now was available only to penthouse dwellers or corner-office executives. The space itself is amply outfitted with benches and planters.

The problem, again, is knowing that it exists.

The 1985 plan states that when public spaces are located within or on top of buildings, "their availability should be marked visibly at street level." But because the guidelines are so vague, it's easy to fulfill their letter but not their spirit.

That's true of One Kearny's hideaway. By placing the sign at knee level - and making it less than 5 inches wide - the likelihood of outsiders finding their way to the roof is almost nil.

At another recent space, the enclosed plaza included as part of the Millennium Tower, the exterior sign is brushed metal. But at 6 inches square, it's too easy to miss.

Compare this with the signs required for similar private-but-public spaces in New York City. The city's planning code requires signs to be "12 inches square in dimension and dark green or black in color with a highly contrasting background," with "lettering at least two inches in height stating 'OPEN TO PUBLIC.' "

Privately owned public spaces: Guidance needed (via JWZ)


    1. Plus it has a fun little map showing all the POPOS.

      I think the fact that they’re “hidden” is part of the fun.  There’s nothing quite like stumbling on a cool little patio or garden somewhere and feeling like you’ve discovered something few others have seen.

  1. But “Open to Public,” of course, doesn’t mean that the space is open to any given person at any given time. The landowner’s permission is still required, and may be denied or withdrawn at any time. (cf. Zuccotti Park.) The distinction between privately-owned public space and simple private property is unclear; there may not be one, in which case the signage is entirely irrelevant.

  2. Clicking on the link in the article to “Check out to see six sites here“, I get Firefox can’t establish a connection to the server at

    These “public” privately owned spaces are hidden away from my browser and that needs to change! :-P

    1. Use the server name of the article with the /foo/bar stuff from the url, and you can find it.

  3. We do photowalks to many of these places a couple times a year. It’s really awesome to find these little hidden gems in the city, but there’s one spot on this list, at the base of a federal building, were the overzealous security guards will actually call the cops if you have a camera on you. We’ve done this walk three times so far with no problems, except for this one spot, were we’ve been called “trespassers” by the private security for being in the POPOS.

      1. The sign itself is also something of an heirloom, having been painted by an undergraduate back in the late 1980s, and carefully moved as the library was shunted from room to room in the college :-)

  4.  I dunno what happened to America, but the current view of property is really irritating. It used to be that property wasn’t meant to be horded and wasted, thus community access was a big deal.

  5. The idea of being able to pay a fee to circumvent the signs is ridiculous unless the fee goes specifically into a fund that creates and maintains an equal or better public area in that same neighborhood.   I could see having a fee go into building a nice block park or playground further down the street being of better use to the public than just a mandatory space inside that property and under the control of its owners. 

    It would help make things nicer for property owners,too, that are really sensitive to having the public there.  If I ran a luxury hotel, I’m not sure I’d want to have to allow every single person on the street to hang out there.  I can see wanting it to be guests only.   Sure, ideally, the public spaces are just full of awesome people having a quiet cup of coffee or families having a picnic and picking up after themselves and minding their own business.  But that’s not necessarily how it ends up when the entire public is entitled to be there.  You don’t just get the office folks getting some fresh air on their lunch break.  You get bums.  You don’t just get kids throwing a frisbee.  You get criminals eyeballing the hotel guests to pick victims.  You get litter and vomit and protesters and prostitutes and vandals and people that you have little control over suing for accidents.  I can see that not being for every property owner.  So you get the ones that you have to sign in with a guard and play while supervised and scrutinized and the ones that are technically public but you have to obtain permission to use it.

    Plus, a lot of the public would feel freer to enjoy themselves and more welcome in a more fully public place.  I don’t mind strolling around in a public park in shorts and a tank top, no make up, hair in a pony tail.  I’m getting a good walk in.  And other folks there are,too.  It feels normal.  But I’d feel out of place walking through the lobby of a fancy hotel or business office or taking the elevator with guys in suits and ladies in heels, me carrying a picnic basket and a trashy paperback headed to relax while they’re carrying briefcases and talking serious stressful business. 

    And the public spaces being planned and run by someone who was genuinely interested in public space would probably end up a lot nicer and more relevant to what the neighborhood needs and wants than just leaving it up to the property owner who’s not interested at all in that, just having to do it to satisfy the requirement to be allowed to build.  Putting people with a different priority entirely in charge of providing a public amenity is seldom for the best. 

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