Surrounded by Water Street, the southwest side of Old Slip, and South Street, this building has two of the largest outdoor public spaces in the city and some of the best views of Brooklyn and the East River. The plaza at street level is a long, rectangular, windswept sea of brick extending from Water Street to South Street along the southwest side of the building. Near Water Street is a stairwell leading to a defunct below-ground shopping mall. A channel of water used to flow from the plaza toward and down the stairwell.
Visually, the plaza looks much larger than its legally required size, because it is seamlessly joined to the City-owned triangular Vietnam Veterans Plaza, formerly known as Jeanette Park, to the southwest. The owner of 55 Water Street was required by a City special permit to rebuild and maintain Jeanette Park, and the privately owned and publicly owned public spaces appear to function as one space.
Against the foreground of the plaza’s open brick surface, and just across the invisible border between privately owned and City-owned space, is the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial, an upright rectangular slab composed of translucent greenish-glass blocks etched with the contents of poignant letters and other writings from American soldiers in Vietnam to their families and friends back in the United States. The wall is pierced by two portals, framed in granite, that symbolically allow the viewer to “enter,” however briefly, the soldier’s world before passing safely to the other side. At night, the monument is lit from within, creating an eerie, ghostlike sensation befitting the subject matter. The memorial was a product of a design competition initiated in 1982 by a City-established commission, and the winning entry was conceived and completed by architects Peter Wormser and William Fellows, and writer John Ferrandino, in 1984 to 1985.
On the Vietnam Veterans Plaza side of the memorial is an amphitheater with stepped brick seating chiseled out of the grade change. At the top of the brick steps are stubby black-metal bollards strung with lights, which create a necklace effect in the evening. The remaining area southwest features round concrete benches that sprout like mushrooms under a forest of tall trees spreading their protective green canopy.
Three stories above Water Street, the elevated plaza is one of only six substantially elevated outdoor spaces in the city. The others are at One Bankers Trust Plaza, Trump Tower, Murray Hill Mews, 622 Third Avenue, and 300 East 59th Street. Unlike the others, it is the only elevated space expressly created under the Zoning Resolution’s specific provision for elevated plazas. Entry is from Water Street, up the escalators or stairs, or from South Street, up a narrow stairwell. In past years, the space has been closed from time to time because, among other things, repairs to the escalators had to be made. While repair, renovation, and construction projects may legitimately preclude public access for a limited period, they cripple public use when such projects linger for months or even years, or recur on an all-too-regular basis. In this case, the City and owner have exchanged numerous letters in the past about lack of access, most recently addressing the issue in 1997.
The space itself is interesting, especially for the views it permits of the East River and Brooklyn, with its skyline redolent of 19th- and early 20th-century New York. To the northeast across Old Slip is a bird’s-eye view of the building that is home to New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The elevated plaza measures close to an acre, divided between an empty flat brick surface and a curving raised terrace composed of planters, water pools, sittable ledges, and wood benches. Here are semiprivate and private areas, protected from the wind, that are particularly pleasant during hot summer days.
In the outdoor public space lexicon, “elevated” and “sunken” are controversial qualifiers. Such spaces, especially the elevated ones, can be remote, inconvenient, even scary, removed from the familiarity and security of street eyes and ears. They can also harm the vitality of the sidewalk itself, by creating a lacuna in the adjacent ground plane. At its inception, the zoning definition of the “as-of-right” plaza precluded the “elevated” or “sunken” plaza, requiring that all plazas be no more than five feet above or more than 12 feet below the curb level. In part to accommodate this space, the City in 1968 enacted a zoning amendment allowing elevated plazas, following a discretionary review by the City Planning Commission. The City approved this space in the hope that it would become one component in a second-level pedestrian circulation network extending east over the F.D.R. Drive to the river. Like the effort in the Special Greenwich Street Development District, which attempted to create another second-level pedestrian circulation network on the other side of downtown, this one never came to fruition. The profile of public spaces at One Bankers Trust Plaza discusses the Special Greenwich Street Development District plan in more detail.
The remaining public space at 55 Water Street includes an arcade that wraps around half of the Water Street side of the building and continues along the full southwest side. Additional plaza area that is effectively more sidewalk may be found on Water Street between the entrance to the elevated plaza escalators and Old Slip.