888 Howard Street

While not widely publicized, over 12,000 square feet of public open space was constructed in the form of two sunny terraces off the fourth and sixth floors of the 31-story Intercontinental Hotel at 888 Howard Street, a condition of the development’s approval and the result of a 1980s-era city policy which requires new South of Market commercial buildings to provide such privately-owned public open spaces.

Next month, a proposed amendment could be adopted which would allow developers to pay an in lieu fee rather than provide any on-site public open space in their buildings.

And assuming the amendment will be adopted, the owners of the Intercontinental have requested a retroactive amendment to the conditions of their building’s approval, an amendment which would allow the Intercontinental to privatize their two public terraces in exchange for a fee.

As proposed, any fees paid in lieu of developing, or perhaps reclaiming, currently required on-site public spaces would be deposited into an account to fund South of Market recreation and open spaces.

If the amendment is passed and the Intercontinental is successful, don’t be surprised if a flood of similar requests to privatize other existing public spaces in San Francisco soon surface.

32 thoughts on “Little-Known Public Open Spaces Could Be Made Private”
  1. This is akin to selling off park land. A one-time shot in the arm in the form of the in-lieu fee in exchange for the eternal right of the public to use the space.

    How much is 12,000 sq. ft. parcel worth on the open market?

    1. How many people either know of or ever use those difficult to access terraces?

      If the money goes into USEFUL parkland it would serve a much better public benefit. How about either using the funds to refurbish existing public parks or acquiring land and building mini-parks in neighborhoods where people can actually regular access and enjoy the parks.

      And, yes, I agree the city should get a fair price, but let’s be reasonable with what the actual value of a terrace on a hotel is worth to the anyone outside of the hotel.

      1. The problem is that others of these public/private spots are a heck of a lot more popular and once the precedent is set to allow a fee-based privatization, they could all be lost.

      2. Many of the POPOS are deliberately designed to be difficult to access because the property owners don’t want to deal with upkeep. They fulfill the letter of the law but do their best to make them hidden. I find it ridiculous (but quite cunning) that they are now using that as a reason to get out of the obligation altogether.

        1. Agreed. The lack of use is from a general lack of public knowledge, as well as often cumbersome means of access. And unless the fee is in the millions (which it won’t be), a one-time fee isn’t going to be worth a spit into the sea in terms of S.F.’s deferred parks maintenance budget – let alone go towards the acquisition of yet more open space.

      3. No, the city should not exchange a real estate asset for pile of cash to blow on a one-time project. That would only make sense if the city had a surplus of public spaces which it does not, especially in this part of town.

        If anything curmudgeon’s proposal should be the only option considered for releasing a building owner from their public space obligations. The net effect should maintain or increase the amount of public space.

      4. The one atop my office building has to be closed regularly so that they can steam clean after homeless people crap in the planters. Which is lovely because when its closed, they reroute to my company’s floor and take baths in the bathroom sink. We had a customer accosted and physically assaulted, had to call the police… fun times.

  2. Some of the “privately owned public open space” is great…some not so much.

    I would not object to this kind of retroactive action if 1) the public gets a reasonable amount of funding that will allow them to develop truly accessible public open space in return and 2) if discretion is retained to force private owners of public open space to keep it in that designation if the City decides it is actually great and needed space, including public noticing and hearings.

    The City and non-profit groups like SPUR have actually made some strides in publicizing the great POPS scattered around downtown, but often private owners have done the bare minimum to make the space accessible (through signage, etc). I would hate to see us lose some great spaces because building owners decide it’s easier and more desirable to pay a fee to fully privatize their space and get rid of the on-going headache. We’d lose some great lunch spots that get great use.

    1. I agree. There should be no net loss in public space, just the replacement of a privately owned space with a truly public space somewhere nearby. Many of these POPS are in neighborhoods that are starved for public space so just replacing them for cash to be spent on whatever shortchanges the neighborhood and decreases its desirability.

      Here’s an excellent guide to POPOS from SPUR: http://www.spur.org/sites/default/files/migrated/anchors/popos-guide.pdf

    2. I’d worry that your proposal would provide incentive to owners of successful POPOS to make them less attractive (i.e. perform the absolute minimum) in order to persuade the city officials that the city should just accept money in lieu. If we’re going to succumb to a complete market ideology, let’s at least keep a good incentive structure that promotes good public spaces and top dollar to privatize public spaces (even if they are only open during business hours).

      I’d suggest scraping the in-lieu fee in general, as our affordable housing fee amasses some money but on-site affordable units actually create affordable units. I assume this in-lieu fee would be much the same: we will not be able to buy with fees what we get from on-site POPOS.

  3. You may be right. I’ll accept your friendly amendment, jdbig, to make sure owners are incented to keep up the spaces.

    1. If the POPOS is clearly visible to the building’s tenants and their visitors then the building management has an incentive to keep it in good shape. Hopefully the planning dept. turns down proposals that tuck the POPOS in an out of way and hard to find location.

      I think that’s what is going on at the Intercontinental. Their POPOS are out of the way and looking shabby. The hotel does not have the natural motivation to maintain it well because their guests won’t stumble across it.

  4. Post 9/11, it became really difficult to access a lot of the POPS that weren’t at ground level if you didn’t actually work in the building (looking at you, Speer Street Tower Roof Deck). Agree they were outstanding lunch spots, but the security hassles weren’t worth it.

    1. Oh no, another application of the 9/11 excuse. Project developers have been using that to weasel out of a wide spectrum of commitments. One of the most ridiculous cases I encountered was a development that attempted to avoid the requirement to provide bicycle parking because, in the words of the developer’s security analyst “You wouldn’t believe how much explosives can be packed into a bike frame”. The bike parking that was at risk was to be replaced with another revenue car parking spot. Any guess on how much more TNT can be packed into a van vs. a bike?

      1. Exactly. Because as everyone knows, the 9/11 attacks involved pedestrians with backpacks filled with explosives. If only the general public hadn’t been allowed into the WTC, the attacks never would have happened.


        1. A few weeks before 9/11 I was shooting photos of the WTC towers (and wearing a backpack!). A guard told me to put the camera away citing security issues. From a camera?

          He was right about the target but wrong about the technique.

    2. What kind of hassle did they make you go through? I think I am going to go see if I can get up there and if they deny me, I will make a complaint with City Hall. This should be fun.

  5. This whole idea is a bit of a crock. Yes, it’s officially publicly accessible, but it’s blindingly obvious that this isn’t the same as a ground level park. If we’re going to make developers contribute to open space, we should make it be legitimate.

    (Or, my pet hobby horse, let them compensate by widening the sidewalk in front of their building, or even better step back from the corner. That would give the public a lot more space that we would actually use than some random balcony on the 6th floor that a few people have heard about)

    1. One nice thing about a somewhat out-of-the-way balcony on the 6th floor is that it’s hard to get a shopping cart up there.

    2. No way. We don’t need any more big “public plazas” on streetcorners. If you want to know why, hang out outside the Carl’s Jr. by civic center BART for a few minutes.

  6. I just hope the great popos at 101 Second and the roof gardens @ 343 Sansome and 1 Post St. aren’t closed to the public, these are great places to meet and/or have lunch.

  7. I use and love these spaces. Even the ones at the Intercontinental. The staff sometimes try to shoo people away, or put up bogus signs saying there is a “private event” preventing access, but a friendly reminder usually does the trick.

  8. I use these POPOS all the time – there is a subset of downtown workers who knows and loves them. I would be loathe to let the city sell [any] of these necessary refuges in the urban downtown area.

    1. I’m clearly an outlier, LOL, because I like it. At a minimum, I think it’s hard to say that it’s worse than any other building seen in the picture above!

  9. You omit the name of the agency considering the amendment. Is it the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission or another body? Please give us all of the facts. I’d like to know who is considering the amendment.

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