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American Society of Landscape Architects


July 2006 Issue

At the Top of the Escalator
Can a plaza two stories up really attract the public?

By Susan Hines

At the Top of the Escalator © 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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