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Privately Owned Public Open Spaces (POPS)

public space

Seattle's Privately Owned Public Spaces: A Walking Tour Video

Since 1966, the City of Seattle has offered developers the right to build a larger development in return for providing certain amenities including low-income housing, public restrooms, sculptured rooftops, and public open space of different sorts. The Washington Mutual 2nd Ave plaza, Wells Fargo 2nd Ave plaza, and 1001 4th Ave plaza across from the library are three better known examples of public open space created this way.

Unfortunately, this program had failed to create spaces that are public in a full sense. Seattle's rules explained that public space created as a bonus should be "accessible to the public at all times."

In 2000 the City Auditor evaluated downtown developers' compliance with policies providing opportunities to earn "bonus" floor area in exchange for certain public benefits, such as public plazas. It concluded that, "by informing citizens of their right to use public spaces, signs would serve as an excellent control to prevent intentional or unintentional ‘privatization' of privately-owned public spaces downtown." One of the audit findings was that regulations require developers to identify each bonused public space with "the City's public open space logo" even though the City does not have a logo. The recommendation was the development of a unique public open space logo, with the City asking building owners to post it at these open spaces.

The "Downtown Open Space Evaluation," produced by the MAKERS in 2001 for the Strategic Planning Office, noted that public use of a significant number of these spaces is limited by a lack of visibility from the sidewalk or a private appearance. These public open spaces only contribute to the downtown environment to the extent which they are used.

In response, the City Council funded the development of a logo for POPS signs in 2006. In 2007, the Department of Planning and Development designed the logo and expressed their commitment to the enforcement of this obligation. As of 2008 and 2009 we have begun to see evidence of this commitment to enforcement.

Additional Information:

  • The Department of Planning and Development works to make sure that these spaces can be enjoyed by the general public in the way intended. 
  • Seattle's Privately Owned Public Open Spaces (POPS): A Walking Tour
    Councilmember Nick Licata defines POPS: Privately Owned Public Open Space. Under Seattle city zoning laws, building developers can engage in zoning tradeoffs that may allow them to build bigger or higher, if they provide a specified amount of space for public use. Landscape architect Guy Michaelson, representing Seattle Architecture Foundation, leads a walking tour highlighting POPS buildings, historic landmarks, public art and other public amenities. For more information on POPS and monthly tours offered by SAE, visit: seattlearchitecture.org
  • Seattle Public Spaces on DPDs Title 23 and 24 Lists - Downtown Privately Owned Public Open Spaces, by Catherine "Didi" Anstett's
  • Open Public Spaces map - pdf
  • Open Public Spaces map - google
  • Here's a bit Councilmember Licata wrote about the issue a few years back as part of the downtown density bill.
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