The public parks in San Francisco are debatably one of the city’s most endearing features, with more than 200 to explore. But what of neighborhoods where grassy open spaces and towering trees are not the view from your window, but rather bustling streets and office buildings?
At least in the Financial District, SoMa, and Chinatown, the city has a solution for these crowded neighborhoods: POPOS, or “privately owned public open spaces.”
Taking form as both indoor and outdoor areas such as plazas, greenhouses or even rooftop terraces, POPOS are spaces provided and maintained by private developers, but their sole purpose is to prioritize the interests of workers and residents by giving them accessible places to work or relax.
@sfstandard Scattered throughout the bustling downtown and SoMa neighborhoods of San Francisco are over 60 POPOS, or “privately owned public open spaces.” These can take form as urban gardens, atriums, plazas and even rooftop terraces. They’re put in by private developers of large office buildings and hotels, per requirements set by the city’s Planning Department, to give the public accessible spaces to work or relax in even the densest parts of the city. #sf #sanfrancisco #sfnews #bayarea #sfstandard #POPOS #tiktok #fyp #urbanplanning #cityplanning #downtownsanfrancisco #sfhistory #soma ♬ My Kind of Woman – Instrumental – Mac DeMarco
A History of San Francisco POPOS
The history of POPOS dates as far back as 1958, with the first recorded one established in 1959 at 1 Bush Street in downtown.
Until the mid-’80s, POPOS were not required, but incentivized as the city rapidly grew. Although on occasion developers would pursue them out of their own volition, the main encouragement came in the form of density bonuses from the city’s Planning Department; the larger the public, open space a developer provided in their building plans, the larger they could proportionately build.
A seating area section of the POPOS at 55 Second St. in downtown San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, July 15, 2022. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard
The Planning Department released a formal Downtown Plan, however, in 1985. Part of this plan included a requirement for the inclusion of POPOS in the development plans of hotels and office buildings of a certain scale. It also stipulated that accessibility and amenities must be taken into account, including requirements as specific as the amount of sunshine a space gets and how well wind is deterred.
Following 1985, the creation of POPOS burgeoned. Typically identified by a plaque, there are over 60 POPOS scattered across downtown and SoMa.
Closures From Covid
The Standard visited 16 POPOS in June and July 2022 and found a mixed bag. Many were open, but some—against regulations—were locked or closed to the public.
Closed POPOS violate Planning Code Section 138, which requires POPOS to be open to the public at times when it is reasonable to expect substantial public use.
In an email, the Planning Department acknowledged the issue of closures “in the time of Covid” and said that they recently issued a courtesy notice to every property owner whose building contains a POPOS reminding them to make those spaces accessible.
A lock on the gate of Empire Park, one of downtown’s POPOS, in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, July 15, 2022. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard
The Planning Department also said that at the onset of the pandemic, it did not enforce the public access requirements for POPOS “as there was no reasonable expectation of substantial public use.” However, that grace period has ended. Closed POPOS are subject to fees including daily penalties and costs for the time and materials spent correcting violations.
The Planning Department also said that their “enforcement activities are generally complaint-driven,” meaning the work largely falls on the public to report any closed POPOS that they encounter.
But there are many pleasant POPOS still open and inviting to visit. Check out The Standard Guide to POPOS below. Zoom in on the map to search for a POPOS by type—walkways, snippets, terraces and more—then scroll down for a review of some of our favorite spots to work, relax or just hang out.
The Standard Guide to San Francisco’s POPOS
55 Second Street
Situated inside a historic building, this indoor park can be found just to the left of the building’s marble lobby. With wood flooring, carpeted areas, and leather furnishings, this rich park makes for a relaxing and aesthetic space. Make sure to notice the wide range of paintings and art on the walls. A snippet space also exists on the south side of the building, featuring designer furniture and plant beds. There is no easy access to food, but it apparently has a few on-site games, such as a giant Connect4 and ping pong table.
A seating area inside the POPOS, or “privately owned public open space” at 55 Second St. in downtown San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, July 15, 2022. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard
222 Second Street
A spacious indoor area with direct access to Equator Cafe, located on the ground floor of the LinkedIn office building. There’s no greenery, but this sleek space features wooden walls and ceilings, plenty of natural light, abstract art, and large tables with seating. The free WiFi is a nice perk.
The Crocker Galleria is home to two somewhat hidden rooftop sun terraces, located on top of a historic building. However only one terrace is currently open post-Covid. It features plenty of trees and shrubbery, fountains, and shady spots for relaxation. There are no tables, but guests can sit on benches across the space.
The view from the POPOS, or “privately owned public open space” on the rooftop of the Croker Galleria in downtown San Francisco on Friday, July 15, 2022. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard
555 California Street
This urban garden boasts red granite architecture and a black granite sculpture as its centerpiece. Trees and bamboo sit in planters, and guests can rest on teak benches nearby. Amenities are slim at this space, with no direct access to bathrooms or food services.
Located at 1st and Howard, the Foundry Square complex is actually a few public spaces in one. The southwest location is an indoor park with an art garden, a cafe, and plenty of seating. It faces the outdoor public space of this square. Make sure to notice the living wall and take advantage of the cafe’s free wifi. The northwest part is an open plaza featuring seating, sculptures, and food services.
1 Bush Plaza
Located at 1 Bush Street, this ground-level urban garden features walkways, a water sculpture, and both shady and sunny areas, though there is limited-to-no seating available. Note the river rock detailing in the walkways and the sculptures towards the interior.
The address marker for 1 Bush St. where the city’s first POPOS is in downtown San Francisco on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard
100 Pine Street
Described by SF Planning and Urban Research Association as a “quiet little gem of a space,” this urban garden provides beautiful landscaping, art, and water fountains. Visitors can sit on designer tables and chairs as they enjoy food from on-site vendors. It is accessible through the building’s front entrance or by entering a passageway off of Front Street.
611 Folsom Street
Follow the red bricks to this open plaza, a somewhat barren and bizarre space located at the edge of the office district. There are some bushes and trees, but the real attraction is the architecture and design: the floors and seating are all built in the same shade of red brick.
199 Fremont Street
Sculptor Paul Kos and poet Robert Hass collaborated to create this urban garden, which features an integrated artwork-landscape design. There is impressive rock landscaping (including an 86-ton boulder!), which doubles as artwork engraved with Hass’s poems. There is also a fountain that provides white noise akin to the tick-tock of a clock.
Morgan Ellis can be reached at email@example.com
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