Volume 18 • Issue 23 | October 21 - 27, 2005

$7 million plaza reaching a higher level reopens

By Ellen Keohane

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert
The new elevated plaza at 55 Water St. reopened Wednesday. The plan features a Beacon, below left, that will be lit at night with different colors.
Walking by 55 Water St. in Lower Manhattan, there’s little evidence that a landscaped open space with trees, benches and a boardwalk exists just 30 feet above street level. But ascend a set of stairs or escalators, and you’ll discover a newly redesigned public park that delivers views of the East River, Governors Island, Brooklyn Heights and the Brooklyn Bridge.

“I think it’s going to be one of the most sought-after spaces in Lower Manhattan,” said Joel Kopel, a Community Board 1 member and resident of nearby 3 Hanover Square, which overlooks the plaza. “We’re very excited about it.”

As of Wednesday, “the Elevated Acre,” a newly renovated privately owned public space at 55 Water St., was officially opened to the public. The $7 million project has been in the works since 2002.

The project started with a design competition three years ago, hosted by the Municipal Art Society. Building owner Retirement Systems of Alabama, which handles retirement and insurance funds for an array of public employees, selected the Lower Manhattan-based firms Rogers Marvel Architects and Ken Smith Landscape Architects for the project out of more than 100 submissions.

When 55 Water St. opened in 1972, it was the largest privately owned office building in the world. Now, it is the second largest in the U.S. The site spans 3.7 acres and includes a 56-story north tower and a 15-story annex. All this space adds up to 3.6 million square feet of office space, which is occupied by eight tenants including Standard and Poor’s, Chubb Insurance and the Health Insurance Plan of New York, said the building’s senior vice president Edward J. Kulik, Jr.

The building’s unusually large size is due, in part, to a zoning resolution passed in 1961. In exchange for incorporating public space within or outside of a privately owned building, developers were granted additional floor space. Since the zoning change, 3.5 million square feet of public space has been produced in New York City. However, much of it is not of high quality, says Jerold S. Kayden in his book, “Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience.”

The resulting public space at 55 Water St.— constructed in 1972 by the building’s original owners — was an isolated and unadorned elevated plaza, rarely accessible to the public. “I’ve lived here since 1986, and I don’t remember anyone being up there,” Kopel said.

“It became a very uninviting space to go. The escalators didn’t work. They let the space deteriorate,” said Jonathan Greenspan, a member of the board of directors of 3 Hanover Square.

In the mid-1990s, Retirement Systems of Alabama obtained the title for 55 Water St. and began more than $400 million in much-needed renovations to the building, Kulik said.

Then, in 2001, when Chase Manhattan Bank vacated the annex and moved to New Jersey, Goldman Sachs expressed interest in leasing the space and building a 15-story structure on the plaza. In exchange, Goldman was going to improve park spaces nearby. The plan was backed by Community Board 1, but Goldman Sachs never signed the lease and the idea was scrapped, Kulik said.

The proposed new building, which would have blocked light and views of the East River, met opposition from residents of 3 Hanover Square. “We spent a lot of money and time and effort to fight the Goldman Sachs building,” Greenspan said.

Now that the 55 Water St. plaza has been renovated, Greenspan said he’s “thrilled.” “It went from totally being ignored, to something the community can be proud of and enjoy,” he said.

The newly renovated one-acre park, which will be open to the public during daylight hours, consists of four central features including an inclined open green space, a boardwalk along the East River, a 7,000-square-foot activity area with a turf field and a lighthouse “Beacon.”

The Beacon, the park’s most unique feature, is a 25-foot-tall glass tower. It contains more than 1,000 feet of programmable L.E.D. lights. “You can make it any color you want it to be,” said Jonathan Marvel, one of the principals of Rogers Marvel Architects. “You can ask the lights to perform any kind of gymnastics operation you want from a laptop in your office. It’s an amazing piece of technology,” he said.

The original plan for the park included an ice-skating rink as well as a 100-person glass elevator, which would take people from street level up to the park. However, due to budget constraints, the architects had to scale back their original design, Marvel said.

The inclined, open green space contains seating and plants, such as sea grass, and locust trees. Landscape architect Smith tried to select species of plants that were indigenous to New York’s estuaries, creating a dune-like quality to the space. “It has the magic of the beach, when you run up a dune and see the ocean,” said Marvel. Instead of the ocean, visitors will be exposed to a view of the East River.

“You’re reconnecting Water St. back to the water,” Marvel said.


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