The Most Trivial Plaza in Manhattan – Will V

I am currently sitting in the shadow of 101 Park Avenue, wondering what a little triangle of open space can serve to the community. According to one of the doormen, “the owners wanted it this way when they built it back in ‘80” but he couldn’t provide a good reason why. It is an open, marble triangle with some planters and a quaint fountain, providing an extended walkway to the entrance of the skyscraping office building. According to the plaque on the fountain, it offers “9 trees with Ground Cover and Tree Lights, 540 Linear Feet of Seating, 220 Linear Feet of Seating with Backs, 240 Linear Feet of Lighted Handrails, [and] 4 Electrical Outlets, Each 1200 Watts” and it states that “This Plaza is Intended for the Peaceful Enjoyment of the Public. Recreational and Athletic Activities such as Skateboarding, Roller Skating, and Bicycling are Strictly Prohibited.” The absurd and seemingly unnecessary quantification of amenities leads me to believe that it was not built as a gift to the public, but rather as a status symbol of the building, to show off its beauty and attract tourists. Despite all this, as someone who has no connection to the building, I have found a prime location to wait for my dentist appointment where I can observe the traffic approaching Grand Central and the opulence of Park Avenue without being noticed by anyone other than the man in a suit stationed in the building, watching everyone. 

Based on the view that this plaza is a display of wealth, and given the obvious truth that this space was created by and is exclusively owned by the building, it raises the question: where on the spectrum of public to private does this space fall? It is already set aside from a traditional park because it not only has no real greenery, but it also has no public ownership. But because it is a public space, there has to be some relation to the city of New York. The plaque references the requirements of the “NYC Zoning Resolution” and claims to conform to these resolutions, but what are they conforming to? According to Article III, Chapter 7, Section 37-70 of the NYC zoning resolution, the purpose of an Urban Plaza is to “to serve a variety of users of the public plaza area; to provide spaces for solitary users while at the same time providing opportunities for social interaction for small groups; and to provide safe spaces, with maximum visibility from the street and adjacent buildings and with multiple avenues for ingress and egress.” [1] This regulation does not specify whether or not the owner of the public plaza has the right to restrict its use, such as the restriction on recreation the plaque highlights, but since the plaza belongs to the building, and since these restrictions don’t impede on the rules outlined in the zoning resolution, the building is not violating any regulations. But this document does provide some entertaining anecdotes such as the requirement of at least one drinking fountain (which this space doesn’t have), at least two spaces to lock a bike, and very specific criteria for the areas of sidewalk access (50% of the border of the plaza and the sidewalk must be unobstructed, and that unobstructed area must extend into the plaza at least 15 feet). 

While the anti-skateboard clause in the plaque may not violate the above quote from the NYC zoning resolution, I did not see any “opportunities for social interaction” among “a variety of users of the public plaza area…” The plaza was exclusively populated by people in suits or formal attire walking hastily to the lobby, or the errant tourist who was sitting down, basking in the glory of Midtown Manhattan. Margaret Kohn, the author of Brave New Neighborhoods, expresses in her book that the purpose of public space is to create a common ground for interaction between different communities. This seems to be in accordance with the writings of the city, but in practice, this vision is not realized. When standing in the plaza, I could see the eyes of uniformed men in the lobby fixed on the open space as though they were bodyguards, ready to intervene hastily and effectively. With this in mind, I cannot envision homeless people, or any other individual that could cause discomfort among the intended plaza-goers, to be allowed to spend an extended period of time in the park. I also imagine that the idea that this plaza is intended for “peaceful enjoyment” would restrict any campaigning and assembly that could occur in this space, and that the building would take definitive action to prevent anything like that from happening. From my time sitting in the plaza, I infer that this place only serves the people working in the building and sometimes tourists, and by extension, these are the only groups that belong in this space. So given that the plaza is a display of wealth by the owners of the building, and that its exclusive purpose is to give the workers in that building a nice walkway to their office, is this a good plaza? And what exactly is a good plaza?

Kohn recognizes that “A park located in an exclusive neighborhood that is not served by public transportation is not very public”[2]. This idea can be applied to our midtown plaza, but rather than being in a geographically exclusive neighborhood, here there is exclusivity based on income, and anyone here who doesn’t have an office job doesn’t fit in. In this sense, we are inclined to condemn the plaza for being closed off to members outside of its community, but given the small size and lack of recreational use this plaza has, it is possible that there would be no real benefit to the plaza being somehow less exclusive. I have never once visited that area of Manhattan with the goal of playing, hanging out, or socializing because there are countless better locations to spend my time, so can we condemn this plaza for being functionally exclusive? Neither I, nor Margaret Kohn can provide the answer to this question, but the purpose of her writing and my inquiry into this plaza is to incentivize this curiosity and critical thinking into issues such as this one, and to see these issues and controversies whenever you are in a P.O.P.S. like this complex little triangular plaza.

 

1: De Blasio, Bill, and Marisa Lago. Zoning Resolution, Zoning Resolution § (11/8/19) (https://zr.planning.nyc.gov/article-iii/chapter-7).

2: Kohn, Margaret. Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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