It may be one of the most expensive places to live in the country, but San Francisco is still sticking to its hippie roots and trying to look out for its commoners. A city mandate requires that downtown developers include a space in every new building for the city’s scruffy thousands who can’t afford Financial District condos. Some of these privately owned public spaces, or POPOS, look especially nice and fancy. Some have weird but glorious monster head sculptures. All languish relatively unused — but that may be about to change.

Moonrise by Ugo Rondinone
Scott Beale

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

The provision of privately owned public open spaces is governed by the city’s 1985 downtown plan. The formula “to meet the needs of downtown workers, residents and visitors” requires 1 square foot of public space per 50 square feet of office space or hotels.

At least 15 such spaces have been created since then because of the program. In addition, at least two recent projects not covered by the downtown plan include distinctive publicly accessible spaces: the San Francisco Federal Building with its three-story “sky garden” cut into the 18-story tower, and an expansive landscaped passage between the clover-shaped towers of the Infinity condominium complex. …

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.

C’mon: If you were a downtown developer, would you want the street rabble accessing your luxury loft building’s glorious roof garden, even though the city requires it? Hell no. They must build it, but they can make it very difficult for you to come. “Stay in the streets, plebes!” the developers cry as they ash their cigars off the 101st floor.

But not anymore! An update to the city’s ordinance now requires much clearer signage for the public benefit. From Atlantic Cities:

“It should create a branding to get to the question, ‘does the public understand what these spaces are?” [city manager of legislative affairs AnMarie] Rodgers says. “It should really help people to see it as not just one space, but a network of downtown open spaces.”

A new online tool maps all the POPOS and lets you sort by open hours, food availability, and public restrooms. Many have seating and views of the city, and some even have power outlets for your new pop-up flash-mob coworking space.

Can you imagine if all cities did this? We’d have public bathroom maps for every downtown!