Trump Tower and the Question of 'Public' Space

As part of an agreement Donald Trump made in the 1970s, New York City requires that his flagship building’s communal plaza and gardens meet certain specifications. But they often have not.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Trump Tower is the place where Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, taking a long escalator down to a stage in the building’s atrium. It’s where some scenes for his reality show were filmed. It’s where, as the Republican Party’s nominee for president, he maintains his campaign headquarters. It’s the command center of his business empire. It’s his home. And it’s also been the subject, over the years, of controversies over the proper management and maintenance of public space.

One such controversy has centered on a 22-foot-long stone bench that went missing from the building’s atrium, and then was suddenly and surreptitiously replaced. The reason the bench is an issue of contention in the first place is that the atrium of Trump Tower is what’s called a privately-owned public space, the product of an agreement in which a developer receives special permissions from the city in exchange for the inclusion and upkeep of spaces open to the general public.

Some see these kinds of arrangements, often called POPS, to be win-win situations, with developers getting zoning concessions from the city, which in return receives some well-maintained public space. Unfortunately, though, developers frequently neglect the public spaces they add to their buildings, sometimes violating the agreements they made with local governments; poorly maintained or advertised POPS are not uncommon throughout New York and plenty of other cities.

So, with respect to the city they take place in, any POPS violations that have occurred over the years at Trump Tower do not stand out. But the building’s owner does: Given that Donald Trump is running for president without having been elected to any government office, there aren’t many examples of how he manages public goods. Trump Tower’s POPS represent just such a case study, and suggest what Trump’s version of honoring deals made with the public might look like.

When the construction of Trump Tower began in the late 1970s, Trump, like a number of other developers at the time and in the previous decade, made an agreement with the city: He’d provide a number of public amenities in his building in exchange for permission to add about 20 more floors, roughly a third of the building’s height. These offerings included an atrium, restrooms, two upper-level public gardens, and the aforementioned bench.

Shortly after Trump Tower opened its doors in 1983, though, the bench was covered with large planters, thus rendering it unusable. As The New York Times reported recently, Trump defended the move at the time, writing in a letter to the Department of City Planning, “We have had tremendous difficulties with respect to the bench—drug addicts, vagrants, et cetera have come to the atrium in large numbers.” He continued, “Additionally, all sorts of ‘horrors’ had been taking place that effectively ruined the beautiful ambience of the space which everyone loves so much.” The city was apparently not convinced, as the planters were eventually removed.

The empty space in the Trump Tower atrium where a stone bench used to be, as seen on July 14, 2016 (Robert Rosenberger)

The Trump Tower POPS agreement has been breached in the years since then, prompting fines from the city. When I visited the Trump Tower atrium in mid-July, there was no trace of the disputed bench. Trump Tower Commercial LLC, the company that owns the building, was fined $10,000 in June when its lawyers failed to appear in court regarding the bench’s disappearance. When asked, a representative of the Trump Organization explained the missed court appearance in an email, writing, “Due to a scheduling error, this first time Oath Hearing proceeded without being attended by Counsel. Upon receipt of the notice of default, a rehearing will be immediately sought where evidence of compliance will be demonstrated.”

The new metal benches in the Trump Tower atrium, as seen on July 25, 2016 (Robert Rosenberger)

Sometime during the latter part of July, new benches appeared in the Trump Tower atrium. The former grounds of the stone bench are now occupied by four six-foot-long metal benches bolted to the ground. Despite these quiet changes, Trump Organization spokespeople had claimed that Trump Tower was in compliance with its agreement with the city. But, in mid-August, the city upheld the $10,000 fine, deciding that the addition of new benches after the missed court appearance did not negate the prior violation.

The bench is not the only part of the atrium that has been controversial. One problem was the existence of two 40-foot-long counters selling Trump merchandise (including “Make America Great Again” hats going for $30). The city has, at various times, taken issue with them: Sales counters have merited fines in the past, and about six months ago, the city issued another fine, for $4,000, before they were eventually removed, leaving behind the empty and benchless space—for which it earned that previously mentioned $10,000 fine.

Similarly, other public spaces within Trump Tower are the site of violations of either the POPS agreement or its spirit. Some have reported, for instance, that Trump Tower’s guards discourage people from visiting the building’s public gardens, which are located on the building’s fourth and fifth floors. And while the building’s POPS agreement doesn’t specify any requirements about the signage directing visitors to public gardens, it’s worth noting that the terraces are not nearly as well-marked as the Trump Bar, Trump Grill, Trump Café, Trump Ice Cream Parlor, and Trump Store.

The public garden on the fifth floor of Trump Tower (Robert Rosenberger)

On one of the days I visited, the fourth-floor garden appeared small and neat, at least from what I could see of it—its entryway was cordoned off with a velvet rope, for no apparent reason. On a later visit, it was open, but it had none of the six tables required by the POPS agreement. The fifth-floor garden, which I was able to enter the first time I tried, was equally clean and relatively well-maintained, even if its fountain wasn’t running, it was missing four of its required 21 tables, and some of its 13 trees had seen better days. (The POPS agreement, which requires nine large trees and four small ones, doesn’t say anything about whether they need to be alive.) These may seem like small slights, but the public gardens in Trump Tower contrast starkly with the two well-marked and well-maintained POPS nearby, the IBM Plaza, part of an adjoining building, and the Sony Plaza, just across the street.

In addition to all this, the city of New York launched an investigation earlier this summer over the Trump campaign’s potentially improper use of the atrium for press conferences, since the terms of the 1970s agreement stipulate that the atrium can only be used for closed events up to four times per year, and that prior permission must be granted by the city in such cases. The Trump Organization, though, denied any improper usage of the atrium: A spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that there “is no agreement in existence” that would restrict the use of the atrium “for any purpose he deems appropriate.”

“The types of violation that have occurred over the years at Trump Tower are unfortunately not uncommon in the city’s inventory of POPS,” says Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Denial of access, the takeover of public spaces by private ones such as the sales counters, the removal of some of the tables, chairs, or other amenities, occurs sadly in too many POPS.” (The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment on what it considers to be its obligations to the POPS agreement it made with the city.)

Kayden, who founded the organization Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space, says that it’s hard to say precisely how common POPS violations are, but a rigorous assessment in the late ‘90s indicated that about half of the buildings with POPS had violated the terms of their agreements. “It’s more than time for another field survey,” Kayden says.

When companies strike deals with governments, it’s most often in the form of contracts, with the private sector agreeing to provide a good or a service to the public sector. POPS agreements, though, diverge from government contracts in an important way. While the occasional fine may deter developers from reneging on their agreements with cities, the conditions of POPS in practice depend a lot on the good faith of private citizens. In this regard, POPS stand as a test for how seriously someone, in the course of doing business, takes the agreements he or she has made with the public.