At the Top of the Escalator
Can a plaza two stories up really attract the public?
By Susan Hines
© Peter Mauss/ESTO
In August of last year, I visited the elevated plaza that
Ken Smith, ASLA, designed for 55 Water Street in New York City’s financial
district (see “All This Useless Beauty,” Landscape
Architecture, November 2005). At that time, the concrete was just beginning
to cure and the plants and soil had yet to arrive. But the magnificent
waterfront view was there, and even on a warm day, a nice breeze was blowing
off the East River.
This public space was created in the 1970s, a “bonus plaza” that resulted
from construction of what remains the largest privately owned office building
in New York City. (The city allows developers to build “bonus” floor space
if, in exchange, they add such publicly accessible plazas to their buildings.)
In the 1990s, the New Water Street Corporation renovated 55 Water Street (see
The building sits on 3.7 acres and includes another plaza, rededicated to
Vietnam veterans in 2001. In 2002, the New Water Street Corporation hired
Rogers Marvel Architects and Ken Smith Landscape Architect, the team that
won the competition to redesign the plaza.
Last summer, Smith talked about his ideas for the one-acre
site, which sits two stories above street level and is hemmed in on three sides
by tall office buildings. The space was invisible from the street, accessible
only by steep stairs and escalators. The original design made the sweeping view
of New York Harbor from the Brooklyn Bridge to Governor’s Island barely visible
to users. Smith solved that problem by gradually raising the plaza’s grade on
the approach to the river so the plaza seems to be cantilevered over the
sidewalk, street, and highway below, creating a promontory from which to view
the Brooklyn skyline. A typical bare-bones public space from the 1970s, with
trees sprouting from pits in the pavement, the plaza lacked space for
performances and organized gatherings.
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