Looking Up at 55 Water Street

New York City is filled with privately owned public parks and plazas provided by real estate developers in exchange for permission to build taller skyscrapers. More a business tactic than a public service, these exchanges are often grudging concessions, the price of building huge amounts of rental space on a crowded island. No wonder, then, that the city’s public spaces are often hidden and inaccessible to the public.

A good example of a public plaza that is there, but isn’t there, is 55 Water Street. Designed by Emery Roth & Sons and opened in 1972, the two-level plaza is wedged between a 56-story tower and a 15-story annex. It is almost an acre, but its 30 feet above street level and accessible only by an inconspicuous escalator. The space is largely ignored.

How do you announce an acre of open space that hovers above the heads of office workers, tourists, and residents? And how do you redesign that acre so that people will want to visit—and return? The New Water Street Corp., the current owners of the 56- and 15-story buildings, with the Municipal Art Society, staged a competition for renovating and bringing attention to the site.

The six finalists’ designs are on display in “An Elevated Acre: 55 Water Street Design Competition” until December 10 at the Urban Center Galleries in New York. Many of the designers’ remedies are conceptually similar, if stylistically different. Here are some of the show’s overarching themes.

Integrate the park with the street front. As the William McDonough + Partners and VMDO Landscape Studio entry states, “A rooftop plaza is, in fact, not a plaza at all. The word plaza originally meant ‘broad street,’ and it still connotes a place on or around thoroughfares, a concentration of street life. Lifted two stories from the sidewalk, the rooftop terrace is a destination, for pedestrians must leave their path in order to reach this place, which acts like a hidden or secret garden.”

A beacon would advertise the new 55 Water Street to potential users on the street. That requires a big gesture, which is either taller or wider (or both) than the plaza itself. McDonough and VMDO imagine four perforated aluminum and polarized polymer fabric panels suspended from the side, announcing themselves and, thanks to the sail-like materials, creating chiming sounds in the wind and a continuous wash of light in the “slip/garden” above.

Diagonal steel cables are suspended from the buildings surrounding the plaza in Architecture Research Office’s entry. The cable system does not reveal the park it encloses, but signals that something is going on upstairs and compels a closer look. Lighting design by Hillmann DiBernardo & Associates envisions up-lighting the cables, the glow from which would delight the paralegal working overtime, or the tourist riding the Circle Line cruise ships.

A beacon may pique the interest of passersby, but folks won’t be able to satisfy their curiosity without knowing how to get up to the plaza. The competition’s entries propose new, large, or better marked entrances. Chan Krieger & Associates and Carol R. Johnson Associates chose the latter, but opted for something more ethereal. This team participated with lighting designer Leni Schwendinger to create an entrance that shimmers. The effect is an analog to the scrim that is suspended from the top of the entrance, and together, they create a sense of being lifted through space. A nearby escalator conveys visitors to the elevated plaza.

Big public spaces typically offer equal parts contemplation and recreation. Krieger and Johnson create an L-shaped border of elevated walkways, surrounding a garden, to provide opportunities for setting a pace or for doing little at all. ARO’s entry, however, is based on multiple interpretations of play. Play tag or play the violin, the firm’s meadow scheme includes three arc-shaped mounds that gather by the cables’ pulls, and its center is bowl-shaped for concerts. Regular mowing makes it easy (and cheap, a landlord’s dream) to maintain.

No construction project is complete without serving people of varying ambulatory capabilities. Elyn Zimmerman and Gensler of New York, with Cheryl Barton of San Francisco, focused on providing access for people with disabilities. They devised an elevator shaft, located inside a large cylindrical volume that also includes a stairwell. The elevator glows with light, striking an abstract form that beckons visitors upward and shows them how to get there.

Weisz and Yoes, Judith Heinz, Michael Singer, and the Sam Schwartz Company of New York show a complex design solution—planting trees along the step-backs of the adjacent tower (office workers need their privacy, too)—can be simply maintained too. This “canted forest of river birches and the green grassy floors and boardwalks” will be fed by a gray-water recycling system, the team writes.

While most of the entries take advantage of the site’s history (be it through nautical themes, or creating sight lines to nearby landmarks), the winning design, by Rogers Marvel Architects and Ken Smith Landscape is inspired by history. The landscaping of the park, for instance, recalls the glacial moraine of early New York, dunes and all, and includes native plantings. And a lighthouse, home to a 75-person elevator, recalls a commercial lighthouse previously on the site. But if it differs stylistically—lighthouse instead of lighting design, ice skating rink in lieu of boardwalk—the spirit of truly enlivening bricked, mortared, and foliated public space is the same, point by point.

Categories: Cities