Community Voices: POPOS, POPS and Pocket Parks

By Jeff Merz, AICP LEED AP – Planner with G70

Contented lunch-timers at the Crocker Galleria public garden. Source: Discover San Francisco’s Secret But Public Terrace Gardens (Culture Trip; February 9, 2017).

Year ago, when I lived in San Francisco and worked as a planner down the Peninsula, on my days off I would frequently ride my bike into the financial district, grab a sandwich and head to my favorite “public” roof garden – the formally known Crocker Galleria Roof Terrace.  It was rather difficult to access (by design, I believe. More on that later).  Signage was limited, you entered through a non-descript corner stairwell up two flights from the mall level and pushed through a heavy fire door.  Snacking on my lunch I would peer directly into offices on three sides of the garden. I would see decorative and architectural details on the second and third floors of buildings that were not visible to those at street level. Much of the time, I was the only one there. I always felt like I was semi-trespassing or was illicitly protesting the urban jungle below, via some rogue roof garden sit-in, having to make a run for it when a security guard showed up.

The thing is, nothing I was partaking in was sinister or unlawful in the least. San Francisco had years before required new downtown buildings to provide these privately-owned, public open space (POPOS) or privately owned, public space (POPS) as part of its permitting process or setting them as a condition in exchange for allowing, say, an increase in proposed building height. 

These gems, mostly found on rooftops, narrow undevelopable urban mini-lots and hidden side areas of irregular parcels, are a great undiscovered resource throughout San Francisco and in other urban areas of North America.

Honolulu has some of these permitting-mandated publicly accessible open spaces but many citizens would never know it.  I am intimately familiar with the ones in Waikiki, but there are many others in downtown Honolulu, Chinatown and (hopefully) on neighbor islands. 

Park at Lipeepee and Hobron Lane. Source: Jeff Merz.

Across the street from my condo in Waikiki, there is a great pocket park at the corner of Lipeepee and Hobron Lane.  Apparently, its construction and on-going maintenance was a condition of the permit to build the Watermark high rise condo building next door.  The developer also renovated the walk-up rental apartment buildings along the back of the park to provide infill, workforce housing. The park is shady, surprisingly quiet, affords great people watching and is void of any homeless encampments. Dog walkers frequently fill the park as it provides much needed open space for the surrounding densest census tract in the State. The park has a simple meandering walkway with five or six benches along the route which leads to a Biki bike-share docking station and further down, a busy bus stop.

At the corner of ‘Ena and Kalakaua in Waikiki, the City required the developer of the Allure to construct and maintain the corner garden as a publicly accessible open space area. The gate is wide open during daylight hours and the site has a landscaped garden area with a water-pond feature. I never see anyone within this space (except for me). I only see residents of the Allure next door cutting through to get to the street corner. The space is lush with foliage, walking paths, foot bridges and benches. It is truly relaxing and refreshing but I guess not very…inviting.

Allure Waikiki Park Corner of ‘Ena and Kalakaua Avenue. Source: Jeff Merz.

The Waikiki Ritz Carlton was required to provide a publicly-accessible garden area on the side of the main hotel. The result was Lau‘ula Park, a 22,000-square-foot green space with a stage-gazebo for community performances, a paved promenade and a landscaped lawn.  The open space is very difficult to find if one doesn’t know it’s there and, like so many of these mandated open areas, the underlying owners don’t exactly go out of their way to provide public wayfinding and directions to it.

2150 Lauʻula Street Park. Source: Jeff Merz.

In addition to this park at the back of the property, the Ritz Carlton was required to provide publicly accessible open space along its Kuhio Avenue frontage. Again, there are plenty of shade trees and benches to relax along the paved promenade.

Publicly accessible open space along Kuhio Avenue frontage of Ritz Carlton Hotel. Source: Jeff Merz.

Not far from the Ritz, is the recently completed Centennial (Rotary) Park. This park is tucked into a hidden lot surrounded by high rises between Kuhio Avenue and the Ala Wai Canal. Used as a construction staging area for years and City-owned, a few years back the City teamed with a local Rotary Club to raise money and complete needed improvements including fencing surrounding the entire park.  It still amazes me that this quantity of green, open space can be found in the center of Waikiki.

Centennial (Rotary) Park. Source: Jeff Merz.

City Pocket Parks

Along Kuhio Avenue are two triangle-shaped parks – both are city owned lots and were formed where two roads separated and odd-shaped small triangles too small to develop, were the result. The King Kalakaua Park is where Kalakaua Avenue splits from Kuhio Avenue. It features a statue of the King within a fountain and landscaped area next to a city bus stop and bikeshare station.  It is relaxing to sit on a bench here for a bit, on a bike ride down Kalakaua Avenue.

King Kalakaua Park. Source: Jeff Merz.

The Princess Kaiulani park is where Kaiulani Street splits from Kanekapolei Street. While this pocket park is owned by the City, a few years ago the Outrigger Hotel next door agreed to work with the City to maintain, repair and patrol the park.  The results have been dramatic. The park features a statue of Princess Kaiulani and fronts a city bus stop and bike racks.

Princess Kaiulani Park. Source: Jeff Merz.

With all the positive examples and benefits of open space provided on private property or private maintenance of public pocket parks, there is also an ever-increasing backlash against them, as these spaces multiply.  With municipal budget strained and costs of park acquisition and maintenance increasing, cities have increasingly turned to the deep pockets of private developers in desirable urban real estate settings, to fill the open-space void. 

Unlike purely public pocket parks or squares, POPOS and POPS are created public spaces that likely would not exist but for a developer being required to produce them. They are usually not a result of a privatization of an existing public park.  But the public generally does not differentiate this nuance and sees public open space as “public”. 

And therein lies the rub - while reading through the Guardian searching for background information for this article, I came across a quote by the geographer David Harvey who noted that “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is … one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”. Do we really want to turn this task over to developers and only as a condition if/when development is proposed in a specified area with the developer setting the rules for park use?

Ever since malls supplanted the public square in our towns and cities in the mid-20th century, the distinction between public and private spaces has become gray.  And not just malls made the distinction gray. Bishop Square in the heart of downtown Honolulu is actually a POP. It is patrolled by private property manager security and maintained by a private entity but open to any and all, 24 hours a day, as downtown’s “town square”.  Well…actually it is not open to all.  Unlike Fort Street Mall a block away, because Bishop Square is private, the homeless, people perceived to be causing disruption to others, bicyclists, protest/support rallies, skateboarders and people playing in the fountains, are quickly removed by security.  

But, let’s be honest, which space would you prefer to eat your lunch and read your novel – Bishop Square or Fort Street Mall?

Another example of a POP is the new Victoria Park in Kakaako.  My understanding is this is private property owned by Howard Hughes Corporation which has been set aside as a green space amongst the towering new condo buildings abutting it.  While it would appear to be a welcome relief in the area, I have been there a few times and felt underwhelmed. It initially looks inviting but there is no street furniture, facilities, landmarks, destinations or way finding in the park. It acts as more of an occasional structured event venue. When my husband and I attended free movies in the past there, pre-COVID, the presence of a gate through which to pass through security and have your packs searched, seemed a bit overkill. Aside from any highly programmed and privately operated events, the park gets no use or foot traffic, again I presume, by design. 

And while visiting the green spaces in Waikiki on a beautiful sunny Saturday, I was struck that in most of them, I was the only one there.  Developers don’t make it easy to get to these spaces nor do they make them inviting.  Frankly why would they? The more people use these spaces, the greater the need for them to provide services, maintenance and security to the spaces.

While the concept of POPOS and POPS is a noble one, we need to ensure we as a community strike the right balance between, a right to assemble, free speech, spontaneity, inclusion and psychological community “ownership” of true public spaces, with the need to ensure safety, organization and room for a range of activities by all park users.  Maybe a menu of in-lieu fees paid by developers into a park fee, dedication of land for public parks and Adopt-a-Park tools can ensure that the right approach to our public spaces is reached. 

In the meantime, next time you are in Waikiki, grab a picnic lunch and a buddy (or your dog where permitted), “go rogue” and head to one or more of these hidden oases.   Chances are you will have them all to yourself... alone… in the center of Waikiki. Enjoy!

Additional reading:

The views discussed in this article are those of the contributing author and do not reflect those of the APA Hawai‘i Chapter.