The mysterious incident of a missing public bench at Trump Tower last year has triggered a new effort by the City Council to crack down on possible misuse of privately owned public spaces that were created by developers in exchange for valuable building rights.
Some 538 privately owned public spaces in and around 329 New York City buildings provide about 3.5 million square feet of space, or enough open space to fill more than 10% of Central Park.
In return for providing the spaces, landlords got the right to build 23 million square feet of extra space, or the equivalent of more than eight Empire State Buildings.
But numerous complaints have been lodged over the years about public spaces not being kept up to snuff, from missing amenities, dead trees and closings for private parties to locked gates. A few years ago, a father complained he was harassed by a security guard when he was playing chess with his two young children at a table at plaza behind a Madison Avenue tower.
The problem is continuing: At a small park behind a condo building on the Upper East Side, plantings and trees have shriveled and died and not been replaced, neighbors say.
At Trump Tower, the bench has been in dispute on and off since at least 1984, when there was a complaint that it was covered by plantings—making it unusable by the public. In a letter to the City Planning Commission, Mr. Trump said the problem was that “drug addicts, vagrants” and the like were sitting and sleeping on the bench.
At some point the bench was replaced by a counter to sell Trump merchandise. In 2006, a violation was issued and a fine was paid, but the problem wasn’t fixed. A new violation was issued in 2016.
What made the case at Trump Tower unusual, public-space advocates said, was the diligence with which the city bureaucracy pursued the violation because of Mr. Trump’s celebrity, while routine complaints elsewhere remain unaddressed.
The bench fight, in turn, prompted a review of the entire program.
Several Manhattan council members, along with David Greenfield, chairman of the council’s land-use committee, are looking to use the Trump bench incident to press for strong measures to increase fines and enlist the public to help enforce the rules.
Council member Ben Kallos of Manhattan, a sponsor of the legislation, said the attention surrounding Mr. Trump’s campaign led to enforcement efforts that other buildings had escaped. Council member Daniel Garodnick is also a sponsor of the legislation.
“Unless you are a landlord who happens to be running for president you won’t be under the same scrutiny as Donald Trump was,” he said. “Landlords get away without making good on their word to provide public amenities in exchange for more building.”
A package of bills to be introduced in the council on Wednesday would raise penalties for building owners to $10,000 from $4,000 for first offenses, and to $20,000 for subsequent violations. In addition, a fine of up to $2,500 could be imposed for each month a problem in a public space isn’t corrected.
A second bill would require new signs in the spaces explaining exactly what amenities are required at each site and how people can register complaints.
A third bill would create a public website with an online map where complaints could be logged. The bill also would add annual inspections and reporting requirements, and the designation of a staffer to handle public-space complaints.
Last year, then presidential candidate Donald Trump drew attention to these public spaces when he paid $14,000 in fines for two violations connected to the removal of a public bench in the marble lobby of his flagship building on Fifth Avenue and East 56th Street in Manhattan.
The 22-foot long stone bench where passersby could rest their feet was installed as part of a deal in 1979 to provide and maintain a public lobby and atrium in the building. In exchange, Mr. Trump was permitted to add 105,436 square feet to the 58-story building.
But the Trump Organization, then headed by Mr. Trump, had the bench removed and added two 40-foot-long sales counters to the lobby, where Trump merchandise, from perfume to golf shirts and ties, was for sale, along with campaign paraphernalia including “Make America Great Again” hats. Last summer, the Trump Organization installed a new bench near the Fifth Avenue entrance to Trump Tower to resolve the issue.
At a hearing, Michael Cohen, now President Trump’s personal attorney, said he believed that plans had been filed in the past to permit changes to the lobby, but he said didn’t have any record of them. A hearing officer upheld the violation.
A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization declined to comment on the latest move by the City Council.
The Real Estate Board of New York, which represents the real-estate industry, said it needed to review the proposal.
Mr. Greenfield said the extra building rights obtained by landlords are often worth tens of millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars. He said a hearing last year showed that the Department of Building inspectors rarely takes action in response to complaints from the public.
“There is no question that Donald Trump is the most famous example of an individual landlord who has not abided by the [public-spaces] rules,” he said. “But he is certainly not the only offender.”