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Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) In San Francisco

My family constantly asks, "Is this what you are going to do with your retirement?" Well, this is what I may do with my retirement, some of the time. There are a number of hikes and sights I have thrown in a drawer, meaning to get around to them "someday." Well, someday is now.

On Dec. 4, 2012, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article pointing out that many of the owners of Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) did not go out of their way to let people know of their existence. Some signs were at ankle-level, in small type, or printed in a light color. The city has since begun to standardize the signage. In the meantime, SPUR, a San Francisco urban renewal group, has published a guide to POPS. I printed out the guide and kept it in a drawer, periodically mentioning my desire to see at least some of these sites. Many of them are inside office buildings, and cannot be seen at night nor on weekends, which is when we are usually in the city. As a birthday present, my wife V took Monday off, and we went hiking around downtown SF.

POPS result when a developer wants more floor space or more floors in a building than are allowed by the building code. They can "buy" the space from the city by providing amenities for public use, one of which is a public space, maintained in perpetuity by the building owner. It is this private maintenance that makes POPS different from public parks.

So, here is what the new signage looks like:


The SPUR map shows 55 POPS, but many of them are "snippets," and amount to a few tables and plants. We went to eight of the sites rated "excellent," or that seemed interesting to us.

Redwood Park b etween Transamerica Pyramid and 505 Sansome

Perhaps, like me, you have driven by the Transamerica Pyramid and wondered about the small park at the foot of the tower. This week was the first time in 37 years of on-and-off residence in San Francisco or Orinda that I have set foot here. It was set up in 1972, when the tower was completed, so isn't officially a POPS, but it is, by far, the most beautiful of the ones we saw. It is a grove of redwoods in the middle of the city. The trees, amazingly, create a cool and quiet respite from the city (SF was an unnaturally warm -- 80 -- on the day we toured). It contains walls you can sit on, a fountain and artwork. The 505 Sansome POPS is in the lobby of the building, with tables and chairs, separated from the redwood grove by a large glass wall; on a cold or rainy day, it would be the perfect place to sit and gaze at the redwood grove.

Redwood 1

The fountain and the redwoods


The artwork

Redwood 3

The fountain

A brief digression

We stopped for lunch at Mangia Tutti at 635 Clay Street. Lucky for us, they serve lunch until 3, because it was past 2 when we got there. The food was great, the service was first-rate and the prices seemed reasonable for San Francisco. Also, the bread and dipping sauces were heavenly.


343 Sansome

Not far away is a POPS you wouldn't know existed if you didn't have a map--it's a sun terrace on the 15th floor! Tables, chairs, benches, olive trees and benches, with a piece of artwork in the middle. Both sun and shade were available during our visit. It was quiet, delightful, and had a terrific view.

343 sansome

The view from 343 Sansome

343 sansome 2

A great view of the Transamerica Pyramid (and me)

343 sansome 5

Art in the middle of the sun deck

150 California

The SPUR brochure suggests stopping at the front desk and telling the attendant where you are going. This is a good idea, as otherwise, you may take the wrong bank of elevators and not be able to find the fifth floor sun terrace. Tables and chairs, sun and shade, and a lovely view of the city.

Time for my Booneville Dog story. In 1978, I was riding my bike through the semi-rural western reaches of Portland, Oregon, following the instructions of a book about metro area bike rides. The book warned of a dog in a neighborhood known as Booneville (not the one near Corvallis you find in Google). We stopped to buy a soda (no bottled water back then!) and met the store owner--and his dog. The dog was not as advertised, and the owner had no idea that hundreds of bike riders had heard of his dog because of the guide book. The same goes for the attendant at 150 California. We stopped at the front desk and told him he was in the guidebook!

150 california 5

The view from 150 California

101 California

This office building is mostly known around these parts as the site of an awful gun incident on July 1, 1993. Turns out its front plaza is a beautiful POPS with a pretty fountain, and its lobby is an award-winning garden. Lots of places to sit, but quite shady--which is OK if it is 80 out, but it isn't 80 out very often in SF. Handy place to go if you are taking out of towners on the California Street cable car; lots of nearby food service.

101 california

The 101 California fountain

One Bush

One Bush is the oldest POPS listed by SPUR. This was the first high-rise building in SF after World War II, and the public space has been around since 1959. I have walked or driven past it hundreds of times without realizing it was there. It is below ground and has walls along the Market Street side that make it difficult to see (which, given the nature of some of the denizens of Market, makes sense). SPUR describes it as an "urban garden" for "visual enjoyment only," with no benches or food service, resulting in a rating of "fair." Still worth a look, even if just for the shock value for San Franciscans who didn't know it was there.

One bush

The One Bush fountain

100 First Street

This 1988 entry is another example of "hidden in plain sight." It was paid for by 100 First Street, but is entered via a non-descript staircase from Mission Street which does almost nothing to hint at the sun terrace above. I particularly enjoyed this POPS, despite the fact that the fountain is turned off and the tables and chairs are attached to the ground and thus immobile. I would rank it second, after the Redwood Park at the Transamerica Pyramid. There is a deli at the foot of the stairs.

100 first

The non-descript stairs leading to the sun terrace. The setback from Mission makes it a quiet place.

100 first (2)

One of several settings of benches and tables

100 first 3 (2)

The fountain would have been prettier with water in it.

560 Mission Street

Lots of places to sit and two nearby delis make this a likely stop for lunch. A tall kinetic sculpture in a shallow pool is beautiful, and contains steps that allow you towalk out and get a closer lookat the art. There is also bamboo along the walls. Quite lovely.

This is V's second favorite. She said, "It is minimalistic and very Zen and calming. At first, I thought it would be perfect if it were above Mission, but now I know it is the perfect counterpoint to Mission.

560 mission

The sculpture in the fountain, and the steps

555 Mission Street

Directly across the street from 560 Mission is 555 Mission, a much more open, light and airy POPS, if you're into that sort of thing. It features playful sculptures and a small grove of ginko trees in the back. The crane from big building project in the back adds another dimension; maybe they should keep it there.

555 mission

Other POPS

There are 47 other POPS in the SPUR brochure, and no doubt more on the way with all the new development south of Market Street. They are sometimes lovely hidden gems in the world's favorite city, hidden on upper floors or in plain sight. Plus, I like to think that we should all make use of them as often as possible, so that the public gets its money's worth from the amenity provided to us in exchange for the developer making a whole lot of extra money.