Plots & Plans logo



Privately Owned Public Spaces


The City's Art Commission Should Be Empowered To Review And Regulate Them, Not The Buildings Department Or The Landmarks Preservation Commission

Third Avenue plaza at 200 East 62nd Street with spiked planters

The Meanest of the Mean Streets/Plazas: 200 East 62nd Street

Will The Residents Please Sit Down First?

By Carter B. Horsley

A study issued in October, 2000, by the Municipal Arts Society, the New York City Planning Department and Jerold S. Kayden of Harvard University and published by John Wiley & Sons, a publisher that has recently decided to relocate out of New York City, indicated that many plazas created under various zoning incentive programs of the city over the past three decades are not benefiting the public as much as had been hoped.

The study surveyed 503 "privately-owned public spaces" at 320 buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens and found that only 15 were of sufficiently high quality to be termed "destination spaces," 66 were considered "neighborhood spaces that draw people from the community," and 207 were found to be "marginal spaces...poorly designed or maintained that...actually deter the public from using them."

The report received front-page coverage in The New York Times, which also gave it two-and-a-half page coverage in its Sunday Real Estate section, Oct. 15, 2000.

The Times stories emphasized that many building owners had closed off all or part of their plazas, or let them be given over to "café creep," or had not provided required seating and the like. It also reported that this was the first systematic study of such plazas but it stopped short of blaming the city for failing to notice and/or investigate and use its powers to remedy the problems. The book was not available for purchase at the Urban Book Store in the building that houses the Municipal Art Society unfortunately a week after The Times said it would be published soThe City Review could not comment quickly and specifically on its findings or the quality of its observations. The book is now available at the Urban Book Store and at for $49.95. The 348-page book is published by John Wiley & Sons Inc., and contains brief descriptions of 320 privately owned public spaces in New York City with a small, black-and-white photograph of each as well as a small but very good site map and details on the developer, architect, amenities, access and size. The book also has brief prefaces by Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society and Joseph B. Rose, the director of the New York City Department of Planning. Mr. Rose, who is also chairman of the City Planning Commission, wrote that "one of the hallmarks of Mayor Giuliani's leadership has been the attention to all aspects of quality of life," adding that "this book as well as the New York City Privately Owned Public Spaces Database described within it, are part of that effort to improve the lives of New Yorkers and the neighborhoods within which we live and work." "The book shines a spotlight on these spaces and provides - for the first time - a sound basis for the city to improve regulatory and design standards, and better enforce the private obligations to maintain these spaces and keep them fully accessible to the public," he concluded.

Plazas, of course, have been studied before, and the fact that many have been poorly designed and maintained reflects not only failures by the private sector but also the public sector. Despite its poor illustrations and emphasis on checklist of amenities rather than architectural and design merit generally, the study is a valuable reference work. While it often points out egregious flaws with specific plazas, such as spikes on what would otherwise be fine seating facilities, it does so almost cryptically and unfortunately may not arouse the citizenry to picket the buildings and their owners and residents as they should for their insulting civic conduct. (I have highlighted this specific problem prominently on the cover of the real estate section of The New York Post where I was the real estate editor and architecture critic, but this book's author has appparently never read any of my articles discussing plazas in general and specific plazas either in The New York Post, or The New York Times, or The International Herald Tribune, or in The City Review, but then he is young and works at Harvard University.)

The prominent play given the "publication" of the study is likely to fuel some civic activists to try to change the city's zoning to do away with plazas and perhaps to even try to lop off some floors that were created as result of the bonuses given to builders who provided the plazas after new legislation encouraged them. Certainly, the owners of properties that have flagrantly abused the plaza bonuses, such as 200 East 62nd Street, shown above, which has sported nasty spikes on its many planters, should be forced to correct the offending abuses and pay very heavy fines for their insult to the citizens of New York. In the spirit of good-neighborliness, one need not require that the owners be impaled on the offending spikes.The worst plazas are not necessarily those that have been poorly designed. The apartment tower on the southeast corner of Third Avenue and 62nd Street, 200 East 62nd Street, for example, has attractive paving and very nice planters, but the planters' stone tops have been covered with spikes to prevent public seating and send out a very nasty message not only to the homeless but to the pedestrian shopper burdened with bags desirous of taking a load off their feet for a moment or two.

As most architects and perhaps some planners know, good urban spaces do not always fit into easy formulas, which is to say that serendipity and surprise are not as seriously studied as they should be. It is not require a professor to wander down from Harvard University to discover that New York City has an assortment of plazas, some good, some bad and some ugly, nor to realize that those that are not sensational are sometimes the fault of the city, and especially its top political leaders who have not evidenced any aesthetic sense for decades, for not being intelligent, and sometimes the fault of stupid and even greedy developers or landlords or commercial tenants. Not all developers, landlords and commercial tenants are boorish, and some actually are extremely frustrated at the city's highly restricted, highly detailed regulations, which may have been well-intentioned but not well thought out.

A great part of the problem is that some planners, such as William "Holly" Whyte, made well-publicized studies of urban spaces and presented some interesting and pseudo-scientific information about how well they functioned in the real world of the city's pedestrians and strollers and loungers. As a result of such studies, many of the city's planners concluded that certain amenities should be mandated and encouraged and many of these, such as seating, water elements, landscaping, and the like, are often desirable. At the time the city began its initial major plaza "incentives," the city was under pressure to make its zoning simpler so that builders could erect their projects "as-of-right," which means that if they conformed and did not exceed the exact "letter" of the city's laws, they need not have their projects required to go through lengthy, costly and controversial public reviews with city agencies, community boards, the City Planning Commission and the City Council before receiving final approval.

Largely because of the popularity of Robert Caro's scathing attack in the 1970s on Robert Moses in his book, "The Power Broker," the city has shied away from serious master planning. With prodding from William Paley, the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay created an Urban Design group that attracted many very bright architects and planners such as Alexander Cooper and Jacquelin Robertson, but Lindsay's successors were more focused on budgets and the group was broken up, although its policies and participants would exert significant influence, through the concept of design guidelines, on many projects such as Battery Park City and Times Square.

Legally, the city has tried to avoid being accused of "spot-zoning," which some courts have rightly construed as arbitrary and capricious and a "taking" of property without due compensation. As a result, it has, understandably, sought to create large zoning districts with uniform regulations, rather than fine-tuned mapping and design consideration of every block with guidelines varying according to the specifics of the block. This approach, obviously, has its failings and resulted in many buildings being built with plazas where none was needed.

The problem has been further exacerbated by the city's belated creation of a Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965 in reaction to the widespread dismay, which continues, over the demolition of the old Penn Station. The city has been a national leader in pioneering zoning and while it came late to historic preservation it realized that its landmarks commission was sailing forth into untested legal waters. As a result, the first couple of decades of its existence the commission designated many old buildings and churches in the outer boroughs and generally avoided the city's most famous buildings in New York, the major commercial and residential skyscrapers, because it feared the well-to-do owners might legally challenge the law. It actually required that a building be at least 30 years old to be considered for designation in an attempt to appease many wealthy builders and owners.

The greatest challenge to the commission was the plan of Penn Central to erect a tower over Grand Central Terminal, which it owned, few years after the Pan Am (now the MetLife) Building (see The City Review article on the building) had intruded itself mightly into the terminal's district just to the north of the terminal. The Pan Am Building destroyed the romantic silhouette of the former New York Central (then New York General and now the Helmsley) Building straddling Park Avenue at 46th Street and furthermore was designed by Walter Gropius and Emery Roth & Sons in the Brutalist style that had few afficionados in the city.

The city rejected plans by Marcel Breuer for a somewhat similar Brutalist tower for Penn Central and it appealed arguing that the terminal's original owners and architects had originally envisioned a large tower, somewhat similar to the New York Central Building, over the terminal. At one earlier point, I. M. Pei had designed a spectacular and very modern helical tower over the terminal, but that plan was aborted because of economics. (See The City Review article on an excellent book by Paul Byard that has illustrations of these plans.)

In time, however, the commission began to test its powers and began to create "historic districts" in which all external building changes would have to be reviewed and approved by the commission.

Seagram Building plaza

Seagram Building plaza seen from across Park Avenue with its two side pools without water

Plazas began to proliferate after the completion of the Seagram Building (see The City Review article on the building) on Park Avenue, which had its bronze-colored tower set way back on its site to create an enormous plaza with two pools. The plaza, which was created without any zoning incentives, became so popular with planners that the city soon adopted zoning regulations that mandated them in many locations for big projects. The regulations provided a 20 percent increase in building bulk for the developers for providing the "public amenities," which soon came to also include arcades, atriums and gallerias.

Dissatisfaction with many of the created plazas is now new and the revamping of the city's zoning proposed in 1999 and still under study by Joseph B. Rose, the chairman of the City Planning Commission, has called for the removal of the zoning bonus. The bonus was significant because in the case of many medium-sized midtown and downtown office buildings it enabled the developer to add two or three floors of rentable space to his project and higher floors command higher rents.

Redesign of General Motors Building plaza

Rendering by landscape architect of redesigned plaza on Fifth Avenue at General Motors Building

There are obviously good and bad plazas and city planners have tinkered over the years to try to create formulas that would guarantee that they would not be "wasted" but usable and desirable public space. Many plazas, however, have been created were none were needed, such as at the General Motors Building, shown above, (see The City Review article on the building) on Fifth Avenue across from the Plaza Hotel, or on Park Avenue at 733 and 900 Park Avenue, shown below, where they broke not only with the avenue's continuous building walls but also permitted their buildings to break above the avenue's traditional cornice, or roof, lines.

79th Street plaza at 900 Park Avenue

79th Street plaza and driveway at 900 Park Avenue

Mr. Hayden's book notes that the plaza at 900 Park Avenue, shown above, "in the half-circle area normally reserved for the ornamental fountain are artworks that render the space imageable to the public," adding that "the current sculpture, entitled 'Cat' (1984), by Fernado Botero, is a bronze of a well-fed, polar-bear-sized cat with great whiskers." The notion of "imageable" space is nice, but the author spends most of his other comments about the shrubbery and refrains from a full discussion of the merits of "imageable" space with regards to plazas.

Many of the city's greatest plazas, in fact, are barren of the amenities so cherished by some planners, but have significant art, such as Isamu Noguchi's great red cube in front of 140 Broadway, that far outweigh other considerations. This, of course, presents a great dilemma to the planners as it is difficult to legislate great art, let alone great architecture. The answer, of course, is that the city should reinforce, rather than abandon, its Arts Commission to give it veto power over the city's planning, zoning and landmarks regulatory bodies. To do so, however, would require that it be recomposed to consist only of New York City-based artists, museum directors, and architects and that it be placed into the city's ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Process) probably at the start, before community boards and the City Planning Commission. Its mandate should be to review major building proposals to see if they have extraordinary artistic and architectural merit that may warrant exemption from the city's labyrinthine and usually archaic regulations. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has usurped this function very often, but its record has indicated that its members are often without expertise, and that its priorities are subject to extreme political pressure by local communities and that its basic premises are historical and creative. The landmarks commission has accomplished many fine things for the city and has a very important role to play in identifying truly worthy structures of historic value, but its historic districts have given it far too powerful a role in determining whether or not projects may be approved. Similarly, arguments that suggest that the variances and special exceptions can by made by other city agencies suffer from the same lack of experience and political pressure.

In some cases, such as 800 Fifth Avenue, builders have created large, landscaped plazas that have been fenced off from the street precluding or at least strongly discouraging public use while provided an added amenity for the building's occupants.


Raised plaza at 64th Street and Third Avenue

Southeast corner at 64th Street and Third Avenue has raised plaza over retail uses

Some buildings have actually created very pleasant oasises with lush landscaping, public seating and, occasionally, a water element. Good examples include 100 United Nations Plaza, and 115 East 87th Street. The book has generally pleasant comments to make about the former, which was designed by Shuman, Claman, Lichtenstein & Efron, Der Scutt and Thomas Balsey and erected in 1985 and is owned by a condominium and the Federal Republic of Germany, but makes the quibble that "Unfortunately, the water is not physically accessible to the user," as the author apparently thinks that any water element that cannot be used for swimming is not great. The book claims that the latter has no amenities, although it does in fact have quite lush and handsome landscaping without spikes and is a good example of a mid-block tower that opens up the "light and air" of this particular street (as well as provide a school that has an entrance on 88th Street).

Third Avenue's Royale's plaza has strange pergola

Pergola at the Royale on Third Avenue has nicely colored stone but strange form

Others have filled their plazas with rather strange "follies," such as the rusticated, pink-stone pergola at the Royale on Third Avenue and 64th Street. In his book, Kayden notes with amusement that "the modest planter at center does not merit the structure that encloses it." Quennell Rothschild Associates designed the public spaces and Shuman Claman Lichtenstein, Efron designed the tower, which was completed in 1987.

The Phoenix on Third Avenue has good art work in plaza but also spiked planter

Sidestreet plaza at the Phoenix on 64th Street has good artwork but spiked planter

The Phoenix apartment tower at 160 East 65th Street was erected in 1969 and was one of the first major new residential towers on Third Avenue to employ plazas. The tower, designed by Emery Roth & Sons, has good proportions and is quite handsome except for spikes on a couple of small planters, as shown above.

980 Fifth Avenue has extensive and handsome planting

980 Fifth Avenue, at right, has extensive and very handsome seating and landscaping

The news reports implied that many buildings that opted for arcades rather than plazas were among the less satisfactory from a public viewpoint. While arcades are not perfect for catching a few rays of sunlight, they can be very helpful in inclement weather. Arcades, per se, are not a bad idea, nor are plazas. The problem with a great many of the less successful plazas is that they are often not contextual and result in designs that disrupt a street's general ambiance by creating gaps in the building line. But for almost every "bad" plaza, there are some "good" ones despite the fact that they may violate common planning sense. The two apartment towers on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street are not every architectural historian's favorites, but their adjacent plazas are very attractive even though there is little need on a broad cross-town street for plazas to widen sidewalks and even less need to create more "open" space when they are directly across the avenue from the important "open" space of Central Park. In his book, Kayden notes that 980 Fifth Avenue, shown above, "packs a surprising amount of seating into its space," adding that "Along Fifth Avenue and at the corner, four tree-filled granite planters hjave ledges that have been carefully subdivided into individual seating units to prevent anything other than upright sitting." The public space was designed by Paul Resnick and Harry G. Green was the architect of the tower that was completed in 1967. Of 985 Fifth Avenue, the building at the left in the above photograph, Kayden notes that it has a 15-foot high sculpture, entitled "The Castle," by Priscilla Kapel and that the building was developed in 1969 by Bernard Spitzer and designed by Wechsler & Schimenti.

Similarly, Third Avenue is one of the widest in the city and following the demolition of its famous "El" subway line in the mid-1950s it would be developed with many high-rise towers with plazas in the 60s, some of which are good and some of which are strange. The overall effect of these plazas, however, has given this stretch of Third Avenue a rather unique character on the Upper East Side because so many high-rise towers are much more widely spaced than other such clusters and indeed many of these towers have became some of the most expensive post-war towers in the city.

Individually, the plazas there are a mixed bag, but collectively they afford a different street-level experience, one that is beneficial to an appreciation of the high-rise towers, whose individual quality is also mixed.

885 Third Avenue has tall, narrow but fine arcade

"Lipstick" Building at 885 Third Avenue has tall, narrow arcade with great materials

One can site a long litany of plazas that are bland, unattractive, unappealing and badly conceived, but one can also point to some that are creative and exciting such as the fine elliptical colonnade of polished red granite and stainless steel columns at the base of the "Lip-Stick Building, shown above, at 885 Third Avenue (see The City Review article on the tower) that Kayden notes is "noticeably curvaceous", or the triangular plaza with the city's best subway entrance in front of the handsome and bright entrance to the blue-green office tower, shown below, at 599 Lexington Avenue (see The City Review article on the building) just across 53rd Street from the sunken plaza of Citicorp Center.

Large triangular plaza at 599 Lexington Avenue opens up views of Citicorp and has great subway entrance that complements both skyscrapers

Large triangular plaza at 599 Lexington opens up great views of Citicorp and has great subway entrance that complements sculptural quality of both skyscrapers

The 599 Lexington plaza opens up great views of the engineering marvels of Citicorp Center and its angular skylight for the subway station is surrounded by a dark polished granite circular bench for seating.

Plaza at 599 Lexington Avenue

View to the south of plaza and subway entrance at 599 Lexington Avenue

Kayden correctly notes that "although not a public space, the private lobby nonetheless engages the passing pedestrian," adding that "visible through the glass-walled, two-story arcade is a colorful Frank Stella artwork, entitled Salto Nel Mio Sacco (1985), adorning the lobby wall." "Such transparency into normally invisible lobbies and the intent ot display art for passersby as well as building tenants can, as here, greatly enhance the experience of the exterior public spaces," Kayden wrote, making an excellent point. The building was developed by Boston Properties in 1985 and designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes Associates.

Sunken plaza at Citicorp Center

Dramatic sunken plaza with waterfall, landscaping and subway entrance at Citicorp Center on Lexington Avenue

Of Citicorp Center, whose sunken plaza is shown above, Kayden notes that this building "is one of a small group of catalyst buildings whose proposed development literally inspired the legal introduction of a new category of bonused public space, the open air concourse, to the Zoning Resolution." In writing of the sunken plaza, shown above, Kayden notes that "water cascades along the face of a primitive, monolithic structure next to the steps, reaching its aural crescendo at the bottom....The views from here are stimulating. Above and east is the underbelly of the cantilevered tower, whose awesome mass and engineering convey the feeling one might have at the base of a rocket." Kayden also writes at length about project's 7-story-high atrium and maintains that "the space features a cornucopia of usable amenities....Thankfully, even at noon when crowds begin to gather, the space is never too noisy or chaotic. Its size absorbs sound, while its muted lighting scheme and natural sunlight intermittently filering through the skylight calm the visual scene. The recent addition of muzak will hopefully be short-lived." "Since its opening 25years ago," Kayden continued, "this covered pedestrian space has displayed a mix of identities molded by private and public aspiratons. For a time, it sought status as a shopping mall, advertising itself through snazzy marketing plaques as the 'Market in the Atrum,' where 'the Sky's the Limit. Boogie Woogie. Rock 'n Roll. And All that Jazz....' Market realities and strategic repositioning eventually altered this approach, replacing it with more modest retail goals," Kayen wrote, although failing to note that in the late 1990s the project's exterior was altered with frilly grills that were trite compared to the project's monumentality as brilliantly designed by Hugh Stubbins.

While the Seagram Building is usually credited with the creation of major plazas in New York, its illustrious neighbor across the avenue, Lever House, was even more innovative a few years before when it created an "open" first floor that consisted of a glass-enclosed building lobby and exhibition space at the north end, and a very spacious arcade with stainless steel columns beneath its low-rise wing to the south that had a large opening over a large street-level planter with pleasant seating around its perimeter with interesting views not only of the pedestrian traffic along the avenue but also of the famous green-glass façade of Lever House (see The City Review article on Lever House) that ushered in a new era of glass curtain wall skyscraper construction in the city and around the world.


Superb through-block arcade at Park Avenue Plaza

Through-block arcade at Park Avenue Plaza midblock tower has fine art, great materials, good retail and waterfall and is one of handsomest in the city

One of the most attractive through-block arcades in the Fisher Brother's Building just to the east of the Racquet & Tennis Club (see The City Review article on the club and its negotiations with the Fisher Brothers) on Park Avenue directly across from the Seagram Building. It is bright and angular and has seating, a food kiosk, a large waterfall and art work.

IBM bamboo atrium had numerous trees removed but has good seating, food kiosk and changing sculpture exhibitions

Bamboo atrium at IBM Plaza on East 56th Street had many bamboo trees removed but has changing sculpture exhibitions, plentiful seating and food kiosk

One of the city's most popular and wonderful bonused spaces is the skylit bamboo atrium, shown above, at 590 Madison Avenue, the former IBM building on the southeast corner at 57th Street (see The City Review article on the building). Kayden writes that this covered pedestrian space has garnered "near universal recognition as New York City's peerless privately owned public space, a tree-filled conservatory and public living room rolled into one."

"When the Minksoff ownership group purchased the IBM building in 1994 and applied to the City Planning Commission one year later for permission to modify the space, alarm bells sounded. Here was someone about to tamper with sacrosanct public space, something that could be tolerated only if it were conclusively cdemonstrated that the changes would improve existing conditions. The owner originally proposed to reduce from 11 to 5 the number of bamboo tree stands and remove the low dish planters to make physical and visual way for the indoor sculpture garden displaying large-scale artworks by major artist sof the twentieth century rotated regularly under the directionof the Pace Wildenstein Gallery. The owner also proposed to increase the amount of seating (albeit with benches substituting for some of the movable chairs), to decrease the number of movable tables, and to relocate the food kiosk from southwest to southeast corners, making it more visibile form Madison Avenue. After hearing arguments for and agaisnt the changes, and after the owner agreed to retain 8 of 11 bamboo stands, install additional movable chairs without benches, and keep the tables, thge City Planning Commission gave its approval. ...While Wordsworth's 'brotherhood of venerable trees' has been diminished, and the planters once filled with brightly colored azaleas, lilies, and tulips that changed with the seasons are sadly absent, sculptures by such artists as Henry Moore, Karel appel, and Alexander Calder have taken their place. Together with the Levitated Mass (1982), environmental artist Michael Heizer's sculpture in the urban plaza at the northwest corner of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, shown below, consisting of an 11-ton stone incised with a coded building address and resting in a stainless steel basin of rushing water...,the public spaces here have become something of a public art magnet....Several other changes have occurred over the years. The IBM Gallery of Science and Art...has been replaced by the Newseum, a media museum funded by the Freedom Forum."

Michael Heizer horizontal fountain at IBM building on Madison Avenue

Fabulous horizontal fountain by Michael Heizer at IBM Building on northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 56th Street

The loss of the IBM gallery is far greater than Mr. Kayden suggests as it was perhaps the finest museum space in the city and had a remarkable fine record of excellent exhibitions and its demise is a stain forever on IBM, which for so many decades had been one of the country's foremost patrons of the arts.

Original columns and open oculi at former ATT building that is now the Sony Building

Former ATT building had tall atrium with open oculi and planters on 56th and 55th Streets that were filled in by Sony with city's approval

One block south of the IBM building is the Sony Building that originally was the A.T.&T. Building, designed by Philip Johnson, at 570 Madison Avenue (see The City Review article on the building) where the city agreed to let Sony enclosed the very tall and impressive arcades, shown above, around the base of the building on either side of its main entrance on the avenue for showrooms, shown below.

Redesigned Madison Avenue frontage by Sony of ATT Building's formerly high, open atriums

Sony enclosed ATT's high atrium and did not retain "Spirit of Communications" statue for which the high central entrance lobby was specifically designed

Since the products shown are made by Sony, the showrooms are by and large well-designed and interesting, but they completely violate the architectural integrity of Philip Johnson/John Burgee's famous design for the building and make a mockery of the city's overseeing and guidance of proper plaza usage.

Kayden, to his great credit, discusses Sony's 1992 proposal at length, noting that it "bluntly raised the question when, if ever, privatization of public space should be formally allowed":

"Specifically, Sony proposed to eliminate 10,560 square feet of arcade, reducing it from 14,102 to 3,542 square feet, and to replace it with 6,050 square feet of indoor retail space, much of it along the Madison Avenue frontage. Were this all to the proposal, the answer would be easy, since Sony not only would be decreasing public space but would also be increasing private floor area. What made this a matter for legitimate public debate was Sony's sweetener: its offer to enlarge its covered pedestrian space, located at the rear of the building and connecting East 55tg abd 56th Streets, from 5,625 square feet to 9,731 square feet and to render it climate controlled. Sony was offering an additional 4,106 square feetof covered pedestrian space and a general enhancement of its qualities in exchange for a reduction of 10,560 square feet of 'as-of-right' arcade. Sony also proposed to eliminate 1,324 square fet of retail space fronting the covered pedestrian space, and to replace the AT&T Infoquest Center with its own exhibit center, called SonyWonder Technology Lab, in the annex. The zoning arithmetic worked out as follows. Reflecting the judgment that, square foot for square foot, a covered pedestrian space is more valuable to the public and more expensive to construct than an arcade, the Zoning Resolution generally authorized a substantially greater bonus per square foot of covered pedestrian space. In the Sony case, at a rate of 11 square feet of bonus floor area for every square foot of coverred pedestrian space, the additional covered pedestrian space would generate a bonus of 45,166 square feet. At a rate of three square feet of bonus floor area for every square foot of arcade, the lost 10,56t0 square feet of arcade would reduce the building's zoning floor area entitlement by 31,680 square feet. Thus, even after Sony would have constructed 6,050 square feet of new retail space in the old arcade space, that would still leave it with an unused entitlement of more than 7,000 square feet of building. And that would be before counting the 1,324 square foot reduction of retail space in the covered pedestrian space. In short, in the arcane world of zoning bonuses for privately owned public spaces, it could be argued, the public woule emerge more than whole, with less, but more valuable, public space. The City agreed with this reasoning and approved Sony's application in 1992, concluding that the public benefit associated with the changes exceeded the public benefit associated with the existing configuration."

Kayden goes on to argue that as completed the spaces work well, but concludes that "As for the lost arcade spaces, it would be a mistake to romanticize them," adding that "during much of the year, they were cold, dark, and windy."

Kayden neglects to discuss the utter prostitution of the building's architecture, nor the fact that perhaps the city gave in to Sony because it did not want to antagonize such an international powerhouse especially when the city was in the midst of a very, very severe recession. The city's decision to grant these changes was and is unconscionable and outrageous and inexcusable even though the Sony retail spaces, designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, are pleasant because of Sony's great products on display.

View of base of Sony Building showing filled in public spaces and oculi

View looking north at base of Sony Building, formerly the AT&T Building showing filled-in public spaces and oculi

This building's use of two arcades enabled it to be significantly taller and indeed it is the most vertiginous tower on Madison Avenue as a result since its tower rises without setback from the avenue. The new Bear Stearns tower further south on the avenue is even bigger as a result of various zoning incentives and air-rights transfers, but at least its tower is setback and angled on its large but not too tall base. As tall of the new Bear Stearns tower will be on its completion in 2001, it is still considerably shorter than what had been proposed some time ago by Ware Travelstead in a very elegant design by Kohn Pedersen Fox that utilized a great deal more air rights transferred from Grand Central Terminal (see The City Review article on the terminal). The plan was eventually aborted because the city went to great, extraordinary and probably egregious lengths to prevent any new building from using most of the available air rights in an apoplectic fit of fear of tall buildings and a very mean-spirited interpretation of the intent of the famous and very controversial ruling on the landmark status of the Terminal by the United States Supreme Court that clearly sided with the city only because it felt that the desirable air rights could be transferred without much more further ado to assist the economic straights of the terminal's owner at the time, Penn Central.

View of planters at 270 Park Avenue

View of great Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed skyscaper at 270 Park Avenue showing attractive planters and flagpoles

One of the most beautiful plazas that would fail most planners' tests is that in front of the tall skyscraper at 270 Park Avenue that originally was the Union Carbide Building (see The City Review article on that building) and now is used mostly by the Chase Bank. The stainless steel mullions of the tower and its bright red second-story lobby are extremely dramatic and expressive and the plaza permits them to be more easily appreciated.

View of entrances to Grand Central Terminal at 270 Park Avenue on Madison Avenue

View of 1999 entrances to Grand Central Terminal at 270 Park Avenue on Madison Avenue

The building, incidentally, has also had a through-block arcade that nicely aligned itself with the north end of Vanderbilt Avenue to slightly lessen the visual impact of the tower's large bulk when seen from the south. The building, which was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, had a low-rise structure along Madison Avenue in an urbanistic gesture to not overwhelm that avenue that at that time had mostly medium-size hotel and store buildings.

Lalique windows at 712 Fifth Avenue

Lalique windows in preserved Fifth Avenue building part of 712 Fifth Avenue tower complex

The study specifically attacks the Bendel store at 712 Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article on that tower) for using much of the atrium on the avenue for retail purposes. The development of the building by Edwin Minskoff and the Taubman Companies was a major preservation controversy that resulted in the saving of the fronts of several attractive low-rise buildings on the avenue including one that had several stories of Lalique carved windows. Mr. Kayden notes that "legal instruments governing this space expressly prohibit retail sales activity in the atrium, and no other record of City approval for this commercial takeover has been found," perhaps his book's strongest comments and ones picked up by The Times. Even if Mr. Kayden is correct in his attack on the misuse of this space, he fails to mention the enormous controversy that this development had that resulted in the preservation not only of the windows, but the low-rise Fifth Avenue facades and the fact that the retail user, Bendel's, is a major retail attraction for Fifth Avenue and moved into this project from 57th Street and that its space is relatively small and that its presence in the space makes the public much, much more aware of the presence of the Lalique windows which are nice, but not extraordinary. Mr. Kayden seems to be suggested that Bendels remove itself entirely from this "atrium" thereby giving up a considerable amount of retail space, retail space that in fact is extremely attractive as the public is able to walk around the atrium behind the windows on many levels. It would be preposterous to close down the retail uses here, although a fine might be plausible to justify the costs of rewriting the "legal instruments" to permit the existing usage.

Raised plaza at 345 Park Avenue

Raised plaza at 345 Park Avenue obscures some vistas of Seagram Building's plaza

Great buildings are wonderful to work in and often even better to look at. The office tower at 345 Park Avenue, designed by Emery Roth & Sons, has a small low-rise base at 52nd Street that obscures many vistas from the south of the famous Seagram Building onthe north side of 52nd Street. Mr. Kayden does not mention the Seagram Building in his short essay on 345 Park Avenue in which he writes that its sidestreet plaza on 51st Street provides "fine views" of St. Bartholomew's Church across the street. He describes the raised plaza of this building, shown above, as a "plain, half-acre slab of plaza." The developers were The Rudin Company and according to one of their competitors the Rudins thought that the low-rise base would help enclose the space of the Seagram Building and was designed to complement it rather than compete with it.

Big Red Swing at 777 Third Avenue

"Big Red Swing" by Theodore Ceraldi, a swing seat in the shape of a piano lid graces one part of the arcade at 777 Third Avenue

"Big Red Swing" by Thedore Ceraldi, a swing seat, shown above, in the shape of a piano lid graces one part of the arcade at 777 Third Avenue, one of many buildings developed by the William Kaufman Organization that showed the urbane wit of one of its partners, Melvyn Kaufman. The building was designed by William Lescaze and completed in 1963. Mr. Kayden notes that "a triangular patch of trees and shrubs grows out of the paving on Third Avenue near East 49th Street," but apparently was unaware that the city's regulations do not permit the clustering of trees on sidewalks and that Mr. Kaufman thought that was absurd and violated the regulations, for which he should receive a medal for his superb design creativity and sensitivity and impatience with the legions of not bright planners.

Handsome seating and plantings at 777 Third Avenue

Handsome seating and plantings at 777 Third Avenue

Kaufman's wildest midtown building is 747 Third Avenue, which has undulating sidewalks, shown below, a plastic phone booth, a wooden platform entrance, a statue of a naked woman between the revolving doors and exposed ductwork in the lobby.

Undulating sidewalks at 747 Third Avenue

Undulating sidewalk and wooden platform entrance and plastic phone booth at 747 Third Avenue

Unconventional sidewalk at 747 Third Avenue

Unconventional sidewalk at 747 Third Avenue

The building at 747 Third Avenue was designed by Emery Roth & Sons with the same clean-cut crispness of two other major Kaufman buildings in Lower Manhattan, 77 Water Street and 127 John Street, that were the most innovative public spaces in the city.

Unconventional sidewalk at 767 Third Avenue

Unconventional wooden entrance and large chessboard at left at 767 Third Avenue

At 767 Third Avenue, shown above, Kaufman again experimented with public spaces by enclosing the lobby in wooden-paned glass walls, by putting footprints on sidewalk grates and erecting a large chess board whose pieces are regularly moved on a wall facing the building. This building also was the first Kaufman building to have rounded corners and was designed by Fox & Fowle. It was completed in 1981. Kayden writes that "Spaces developed by the Kaufman organization usually may be relied upon to project unique personalities," adding that "Memorable spaces, like this one with its gigantic chessboard, become points of orientation and association that connect people to their physical environments." Mel Kaufman has been the city's greatest pioneer for creating a humane, interesting, surprising public environment and he did it against the grain not only of the city's regulations but also of the real estate industry's wisdom.

Base of 780 Third Avenue is spartan but handsome

Base of 780 Third Avenue is spartan but handsome

Of course, if all buildings were Kaufman buildings, the pedestrian might get a little giddy, if not dizzy. Just as there are good foreground and good background buildings, sometimes an empty plaza can focus attention on the building, especially when it is a bit different. The tower at 780 Third Avenue is a sheer tower of dark red polished granite with a fenestration pattern that reflects its complex engineering. This slick and handsome tower was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1984. The major public benefit of this plaza is a widened sidewalk, which is always nice but was not necessary here since Third Avenue is quite wide. Third Avenue, however, in midtown has quite a diversity of plazas and buildings and quite, simple elegance is quite welcome whether or not it supplies every item on the city's shopping list of plaza amenities.

Tempietto occupies curved plaza at 135 East 57th Street

Tempietto occupies curved plaza at 135 East 57th Street at Lexington Avenue

The concave curve of the office tower at 135 East 57th Street (see The City Review article on the building) at Lexington Avenue, shown above, has been widely praised as one of the handsomest designs of its era in the city. Mr. Kayden observes the following:

"The plaza is grandly theatrical, a large quarter circle left over bythe concave front of the office tower base. Situated near the street corner is something that, located in a romantic country landscape, might be called a folly. Here, it is an eye-popping, pseudoclassical pergola composed of four sets of two marble-clad columns. The owners call it a 'tempietto.'"

The tempietto at 135 East 57th Street

The "Tempietto" at 135 East 57th Street

Mr. Kayden does not note that while the quality of the facade of the office tower is very fine, the tempietto is less so. The ring atop the columns hides the many lights that illuminate the building at night. The concept of the overall design here is wonderful, but the tempietto is a bit awkward, a bit drab in materials. Kohn Pedersen Fox were the architects for the developer, Madison Equities, which also built the Galleria at 115-7 East 57th Street, shown below, designed by David Kenneth Specter.

Dramatic entrance to the Galleria

Dramatic midblock entrance to the Galleria on 57th Street

The Galleria is one of the world's most complex mixed-use buildings. It has a through-block arcade, an atrium, shown below, several floors of offices, a health club with swimming pool atop the low-rise base on 57th Street, and a setback tower with condominium apartments. Mr. Kayden writes that "the inconspicuous street entrances and the awkward passage down multiple steps hardly foretell, psychologically or visually, the presence of an eight-story atrium inside." Perhaps, but one could hardly call the entrances "inconspicuous" as they were the most dramatic of their day. David Kenneth Specter, the architect, "sucked in" the entrance here with a rakishly angled glass planter that divides the commercial and residential entrances, the former to the west and down a few steps and the latter to the east and up a few steps. The low-rise base is handsomely framed and much more formal than the tower, which is chunky but interesting. The interior of the atrium is very spectacular and the residential lobby, which encircles part of the atrium, shown below, is very elegant. The building was completed in 1974 when the city was in a recession.

Dramatic atrium at the Galleria

Dramatic atrium at the Galleria

Trump Tower was completed a few years later and took the mixed-use atrium that the Galleria pioneered with to more flamboyant and successful heights. With mirrored walls and a very beautiful red marble waterfall beneath an angled skylight, shown below, that is flanked by two terraces, Trump Tower is one of the city's most spectacular post-war developments and would be further enhanced by its open connection to the great bamboo atrium of the former IBM Building that occupies the Madison Avenue half of this block. In between the two towers, developer Donald Trump had originally created a new store for Bonwit Teller's, the fashionable department store he demolished on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. That store, unfortunately, eventually failed and was replaced by Galleries Lafayette, which, unfortunately, failed, and was rebuilt by Nike.

Spectacular atrium at Trump Tower

Spectacular atrium at Trump Tower

Although Mr. Kayden's book should have been bigger, longer and had color photographs and had more criticism and suggestions, it is an important study that deserves very careful, close reading by all those who care about the city and about tinkering with its regulations regarding public spaces.

The city's inventory of privately owned public spaces is very diverse, as is its inventory of publicly owned public spaces, which deserves a separate book. One of the subjects that gets scant attention in Mr. Kayden's study is the question of the transferable of air rights. In many instances, a building may not need a public space, but its unused development rights could be used to create public spaces and amenities at other locations, not necessarily adjacent to them. The city has long resisted created an air-rights development bank, but that, of course, is another, complex story.

The Waterfall with a Hole behind Exxon Building

The Hole in the Waterfall in the through-block arcade behind the McGraw-Hill Building is one of the more pleasant surprises in midtown

The Hole in the Waterfall, shown above, in the through-block arcade behind the McGraw-Hill Building on the Avenue of the Americas is one of the more pleasant surprises in midtown, which Mr. Kayden has described a bit too poetically as a "contemporary evocation of Moses and the Red Sea."

"Lapstrake" by Jesus Bautista Moroles is one of city's great outdoor sculptures

"Lapstrake", a 22-foot-high granite sculpture by Jesus Bautista Moroles, is a wonderful foil between the Deutsche Bank building on the left and the CBS Building on the right in this through-block plaza.

"Lapstrake", a 22-foot-high granite sculpture by Jesus Bautista Moroles, is a wonderful foil between the Deutsche Bank building on the left and the CBS Building on the right in this through-block plaza. Mr. Kayden found this plaza "formal, even austere," but it is really quite fine and the sculpture is better than both the buildings.

When one reviews the hundreds of plazas in the city, one comes away annoyed at many, and impressed with some. Surprisingly, arcades, which make the Rue de Rivoli in Paris so marvelous, are very much underused here. Through-block arcades were conceived partly because some planners felt the blocks between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas were too long and while some have been done extremely well such as at the former Equitable Center on Seventh Avenue, others have been fairly superfluous. As much as most critics have derided the Rockefeller Center West plazas, they are intensely used as witnessed by the hordes of food vendor carts. While New York has some good atriums and galleries, none are as startling and awesome as Helmut Jahn's great Illinois Center building in Chicago, or some of John Portman's atrium hotels in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit. Atrium buildings have a long and fairly glorious history because they generally make for interesting architecture. New York needs more great architecture and exciting spaces and anything that encourages and promotes them should not be dismissed because of a knee-jerk reaction to past mistakes.


Home Page of The City Review