Redevelopment of Modernist Plaza Approved after Revisions

Architect rendering of the restored parapet to Chase Manhattan Plaza. Image credit: Fosun

Architect rendering of the restored parapet to Chase Manhattan Plaza. Image credit: Fosun

Plan will make plaza a more accessible and inviting space for public use, adaptively reuse lower levels of former bank building for retail use. On August 4, 2014, The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to allow alterations to One Chase Manhattan Plaza, an individual City landmark at 28 Liberty Street in lower Manhattan. The 1964 tower and two-and-half acre plaza were designed by the firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill, led by partner Gordon Bunschaft, is a significant example of the mid-twentieth century International Style. Landmarks designated the plaza and tower as an individual City landmark in 2009.  Chinese investment firm Fosun acquired the property in 2013.

Landmarks held a hearing on the proposal to reactivate and redevelop the plaza at its meeting on May 5, 2015. The initial proposal would substantially replace the black granite base below the plaza with glass to facilitate new retail use of the space. New lighting would be installed to allow for the nighttime use of the plaza, and to illuminate the retail space. The plaza itself would be restored to its original square footage, and new access points would be created. A sunken garden by artist Isamu Noguchi would be retained and restored, as would a sculpture by Jean Dubuffet installed after the plaza’s construction.

The proposal met with opposition from preservationists, who argued that the black granite base was integral to the landmark’s composition. The Alliance for Downtown New York and American Institute of Architects’ New York Chapter offered testimony supporting the redevelopment. Commissioners also found the replacement of granite with glass was inappropriate, and asked applicants to reconsider the new lighting.

SOM architect Roger Duffy presented the revised plan for the adaptive reuse of the plaza. The new plan would restore the plaza’s parapet to light granite, as it was conceived originally, as opposed to a glass fence and railing proposed initially. He said the area beneath the plaza was originally used for bank operations and now possessed 290,000 square feet of unutilized space, which the owners intended to repurpose for retail use. Incisions in the black granite base below the plaza would allow for the introduction of four retail storefronts, while retaining much more of the granite than the May proposal. Handicapped-accessible entrances to the plaza would be created, but would open to the plaza behind the parapet, so as to not interrupt its continuous face.

Non-original air-intake equipment would be removed from the plaza, and planters, cobblestones, and street trees would be restored to their original condition. “Episodic lighting” would be added to the give the plaza a more “safe and welcoming” environment in the evening. Three new sets of lobby doors would replace existing non-original entries.

Three glass cubes, which Duffy likened to the all-glass Apple stores would enclose entrances to the retail base from the plaza, and would range in height from eleven to 19 feet tall. Duffy defended the starkly contemporary enclosures as being “of a different vocabulary” from the historic plaza, clearly identifying them as later interventions, and serving as a “counterpoint” to the original fabric. He said the transparency of the glass would minimize their visual impact, while serving changed programmatic needs.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan declined to reopen the item for public testimony, but stated that the Commission had received a letter from the Historic Districts Council that commended the project for retaining more of the base’s stone, but argued that the proposed glass cubes would “disrupt the design intent of this space, cluttering up a masterpiece.”

Commissioner Fred Bland said the proposal successfully balanced the restoration and adaptive reuse. Commissioner John Gustafsson found the revised proposal extremely responsive to the comments made by commissioners at the May hearing, but suggested that the size of the glass enclosures be made smaller, and that the amount of glazing at the building’s northeast corner be reduced.  Commissioner Roberta Washington found the revised plan “a hundred times better” than the initial proposal, but objected to the introduction of the glass cubes, which she found “disruptive” and “overwhelming.” Commissioner Michael Goldblum opined that the glazing at the base could be redistributed so that its northeastern corner would remain clad in granite. Commissioner Michael Devonshire commented that the transparency of the glass enclosures would allow for the complete perception of the plaza.

Chair Srinivasan found the revised proposal a “very positive” approach that retained the integrity of the “modern masterpiece.” Srinivasan led a vote for approval for a certificate of appropriateness that would incorporate language asking the applicant to work to reduce the size of the cubes and to work with Landmarks staff to reexamine the apportioning of glass in the base.

LPC: One Chase Manhattan Plaza, 28 Liberty Street, Manhattan (16-8200) (August 4, 2015) (Architects: SOM).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law)

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