POPOS -- Secret City Retreats

Empire Park: Commercial St.  btwn Montgomery & Kearny.
POPOS have been called San Francisco’s best kept secrets.  The acronym stands for Privately Owned Public Open Space and although these little gems are often hidden on rooftops or tucked inside buildings, you can find them all over downtown -- if you know where to look.

San Francisco has one of the most densely populated downtown areas in the country –over 250,000 people live or work within a 1 ½ mile radius of the downtown area.  According to BART, every day, over 100,000 people exit from the four downtown stations –Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell and Civic Center.  Since 1985, POPOS have been part of San Francisco’s Downtown Plan to give that army of office workers and urban dwellers some pleasant places to sit, meet friends, eat a snack, get some sun, think, relax and rejuvenate. 

Walkway overlooking urban garden btwn 555 & 575 Market Street. 
POPOS History
Prior to 1950, buildings downtown were generally built out to the lot line, maximizing interior, rentable space.   That started to change as architectural trends began to take into account the setting of the building as part of the design.  In the late 1950s and the 1960s, architects began to included public space in their design as an architectural element (as in the Crown Zellerbach building at One Bush Street), as an amenity for building tenants, or to quiet opposition to an controversial design (as in the TransAmerica Pyramid).

In 1968 the city established limits on the height of buildings downtown, but they included an incentive -- you could  build a taller building if your design included public space.  There were only loose guidelines as to what the public space might include – seating, shade, easy access, signage, etc. Up to 2/3 of the open space could be used for  plantings, sculpture or fountains and there was no requirement for adding amenities like seating or shade, or  signage to invite people in.    

San Francisco’s1985 Downtown Plan included the requirement for developers to include one square foot of open space for every 50 sqft of occupied space and they put in better guidance on access, seating and wind control. 

POPOS Atrium inside Citicorp Center, Sutter & Sansome Streets
A Variety of POPOS
The non-profit group SPUR – San Francisco Planning and Urban Research identifies 10 different types of POPOS ranging from indoor parks, to urban gardens, to sun terraces, to snippets (pocket size resting spots).  South of Market, where the blocks are bigger and the buildings newer, POPOS mostly take the form of street level urban gardens or plazas.   North of Market, POPOS are more diverse to fit among the historic buildings --roof gardens, alleyways, fountains and sculptures.

Visiting POPOS
POPOS are generally only open during business hours.  Since these little oases are designed for office workers, many are not accessible weekends and evenings.  And while there are no set rules for dress or behavior, please be mindful of your surroundings.  Avoid sunbathing in your Speedo, diving in the fountain, playing your guitar, or doing anything else that could  prevent others from also enjoying the space.  Remember POPOS are private property and they do have the right to ask you to leave.  Think of it like a shopping mall – everyone is welcome as long as they behave.  And please don’t leave trash for others to pick up.

San Francisco City Guides offers tours of hidden gardens in the Financial District on Fridays, at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.  Meet at the Montgomery Street BART, NE corner by the flower stall.  Tours are free but donations are requested.

 The non-profit group SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research) publishes a guide which gives locations and ratings for 68 POPOS in downtown San Francisco.    Find it on SPUR’s website at:  http://www.spur.org/publications/library/report/secretsofsanfrancisco_010109

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