urban "public space"

My understanding is that the zoning regulations in San Francisco tend to require construction projects downtown to put in "public space", the presumed goal being to get some greenery and open plazas into the area instead of featureless concrete canyons.

What they tend to do instead, though, is build things like rooftop gardens on top of office buildings. While these areas are technically open to the public, it might not be easy explaining that to the doorman who has never heard of any such thing. And how would you know it even existed if you weren't already a tenant of that building?

Or, this example that I've walked by a few times: I can't remember exactly which building it is (somewhere on 2nd Street maybe), but it's a relatively tall office building whose footprint is something like this:

The black area is the building, and the white area is glass-enclosed and looks like a lobby or food court... but really it's just a big empty space filled with tables. It goes all the way up: there are no building-floors above it. There are no storefronts or vendors inside. It's incredibly uninviting, and always empty. And next to the street-facing glass doors is a plaque that says something like "DESIGNATED PUBLIC SPACE, OPEN 8AM-9PM." They could have just left the glass off and planted some trees, but instead someone thought this walled-in concrete slab was a better idea.


purple_b tells a story of how, years ago, one of the local papers published a list of these so-called "public" spaces downtown, and he went and visited many of them. But he no longer has the list, and my google-fu fails me on searching for anything like that.

I would like to find such a list.

I'm also curious about what the actual zoning rules are that result in this kind of thing.

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21 Responses:

  1. gordonzola says:

    It was a Guardian Superlist. the sfbg website doesn't seem to be working but you should be able to access it from there.

    also, this site seems to link to it on a good day: http://gridskipper.com/travel/san-francisco/sf-bay-guardian-superlists-issue-164661.php

  2. tooluser says:

    I saw a book that was specifically 'rooftop|public gardens of sf' (IIRC). So hunting for a book instead of a newspaper article may help.

    I'm going to go even further, but not much, and say that I vaguely recall the same author did another book on SF, so a 'local books' section may be good. Sorry I can't be of more help; Christopher's in Potrero Hill has found books for me when I've given them similarly lame amounts of information to go on.

  3. sethg_prime says:

    IIRC one New York developer took advantage of a similar New York City ordinance by putting a skyscraper up on stilts and designating the plaza underneath an Official Public Space. Of course, nobody goes there.

  4. sheilagh says:


    Discusses green space in Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, etc.

    Really, it seems like Parks & Recreation should have a section akin to this one, so that the public can really access their "designated public space"

  5. wealhtheow says:

    Sounds like the CNET building on Second at Howard. There is really no reason why anyone would want to hang out in there that didn't work there, or would even notice the little sign telling them they could.

  6. xrayspx says:

    When I was playing with the permit thing, I found a list of every building permit issued in SF by month, in PDF format, or excel or something just as unautomatable. It included every guy who wanted to put a replacement window in his bedroom, right on up, or so it seems.

    I'll take a stroll around and see if it includes large scale projects.

  7. rapier1 says:

    Philly has something like that. If anyone has ever wondered why there are so many sculpture and other works of art on the city streets in Philly its because city projects and redevelopers are required to put aside at least 1% of the costs for public art. The result of this has been some really iconic and amazing works. Its also resulted in some absolutely atrocious works that all get funneled into one area of monument drive. I'm sure some buildings have their public art inside and semi-locked down but fortunately most of it actually ends up being public.

  8. bassfingers says:

    Not about green space, per se, and not SF, but in Houston here's a TX state historical marker / plaque that I can see but not read because it's in a gated community. Seems like state funds shouldn't go to that kind of thing if the public can't access them, but I don't know who to fight about it with.

  9. the (free) SF City Guides tour given through the public library system takes you through all these. I went a few years ago and got a very useful map (which has probably been updated since).

    It's a fun way to spend a few hours on a weekday afternoon.

  10. vajrabelle says:


    (Sorry, too drunk to do the HTML)
    You want to read the sections on "setbacks", noteably Article 1.2, but the section itself is hard to pinpoint because it depends on the zoning. You can figure out the zoning of a site via the Planning department (http://www.sfgov.org/site/planning_index.asp), Zoning maps, Bulk and Height Districts (me thinks, from drunken memory, without downloading the maps to check my memory). What you are most interested in is C-3 zoning (read the zoning district summaries on it). But you're smart enough to google all that, so I'm probably not being much help. I will say, that from what I knew, that the Open Space idea turned out to be a bit of a fiasco, creating wind tunnels rather than useable spaces. The City realized this (amazing) and changed the zoning, trying to get more creative with the need for 'open space' than just on the public plaza/wind tunnel level. Thus, roof decks became the thing. Not that it helped really, as you can see, since no one knows how to get to them. I bet one could 'push' the City to publish a list of such 'public spaces' as part of the public permitting process. There are bunches of decent folk at the otherwise insipid Planning Dept. who would get behind such a thing.

    • badgerbag says:

      Seems like they should just write more policy to specify that the access to the roof gardens be obvious and part of the public space. There would be resistance because people might use the spaces for nefarious things, like sleeping.

  11. kencf0618 says:

    Southern California has the same problem some easements which provide public access to beaches.

  12. The place you're describing sounds like this one on 2nd and Howard:


    It's not a bad place to take takeout from B&M up the street.

    The rooftop gardens can be pretty nice. Of course, since it costs money to keep

    these places clean and the "post 9/11" excuse comes so readily to hand, a lot of them

    don't exist any more. The one on top of 1 Market was a particular lunchtime

    favorite. Don't know if it ever came back.

    I've never had any trouble getting past the building guards.

  13. qvtqht says:

    If anyone has a list like this for NYC, I'd love to see it.

  14. sixty4k says:


    They've got a map and are looking to find more of these privately owned public spaces, so I assume their map will grow.