The first thing to know about Park Avenue Plaza is that it is not located on Park Avenue. Its valuable address makes sense, however, by operation of zoning rules permitting a “merger” of its zoning lot with that underneath the venerable Racquet & Tennis Club building to the east, a structure that indisputably fronts Park Avenue. The second thing to know about Park Avenue Plaza is that it has no plaza. The third thing to know about Park Avenue Plaza is that its through block arcade is more functionally and visually akin to a through-block covered pedestrian space as conceived by the Zoning Resolution. Although it does connect East 52nd and 53rd Streets between Park and Madison Avenues, its primary purpose is to encourage people to stay for substantial periods of time rather than pass through or stop for a moment.
A potential explanation for the space’s schizophrenia is revealed by its history. The owner originally proposed to provide a public galleria, once defined in the Zoning Resolution as a “continuous covered public space” that is “occupied by multiple uses such as restaurants, boutiques, and specialty stores,” that “at its roof level incorporates skylight areas of not less than 20 percent to allow the access of direct sunlight,” and that “is landscaped with elements, such as trees, flowerbeds, movable furniture, sitting areas, escalators, public toilets, drinking fountains, adequate lighting, water features, displays, works of art, cafés and kiosks. . . .” When the owner determined that its office skyscraper no longer required the extra floor area generated by the bonus rate for a public galleria, it legally switched to a through block arcade while retaining much of the public galleria design and amenities. The result is an elegant, two-story, glass-enclosed indoor space heavily used by an unusually wide spectrum of New Yorkers.
From the outside looking in through the green-tinted glass on East 52nd and 53rd Streets, the climate-controlled space looks enticing in summer and winter. To the east of both entrances are defined seating areas cushioned by small groves of mature ficus trees, green shrubbery, and flowers. Movable tables and chairs are occupied by persons of diverse social and economic backgrounds. Chess games are a regular activity. An occasional bird flies above.
Sandwiched between these two passive activity alcoves is an eating area buffered on its three open sides by two kiosks and a narrow ledge. The food kiosk offers breakfast and lunch, consumed by patrons at rows of café tables and chairs. The admonition on a sign states, “All seating available to public and no purchase of food or beverage required.” Next to the café seating on the eastern wall is a slick two-story, black stone-backed waterfall covered by a skylight. The sound of cascading water modulates the otherwise hard acoustics of this space. The piano music further softens the atmosphere.
Although not legally part of the public space, the adjacent retail shopping arcade past the elevators to the west is worth visiting. Its design is vaguely reminiscent of European shopping arcades, and features outsized glass storefronts for each business. The two public restrooms are located next to the elevators.