Like the special permit plaza at One Liberty Plaza downtown, only more so, a substantial section of this plaza is geographically estranged from its parent building. Over half of the total plaza area associated with the Sheffield is situated roughly 300 feet west of the building, occupying the full blockfront of Ninth Avenue’s east side between West 56th and 57th Streets.
For about 15 years, the northern portion of this plaza space has hosted a popular year-round outdoor greenmarket, sponsored by the City’s Council on the Environment, on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Residents and out-of-towners alike have made their way along the vendor stalls lining the public sidewalk and the space, seeking moderately priced fresh fruit and vegetables, baked goods, flowers, honey, and maple syrup, mostly originating from New York and surrounding states, as well as books and records. A particular favorite has been a woman selling dramatic, immense sunflowers. Vaguely reminiscent of outdoor Parisian markets, the greenmarket has become a neighborhood gathering place where relationships between regular customers and long-time vendors have been cemented.
In recent years, however, aspects of the space, especially in the non-market eastern and southern portions, have deteriorated. Some of this has been due to the natural aging process experienced by all privately owned public spaces, while some has been due to the materials, particularly the concrete and shrubbery, that require aggressive maintenance and cleaning if they are not to look worn over time. Another reason is the existence of the stepped concrete amphitheater in the middle of the eastern portion of the space, never animated by consistent programming necessary to make such elements work. And finally, the space was a geographical orphan, so far removed from its parent to the east that it would always be difficult to receive the type of oversight that large spaces require.
That situation is now ending. As this book is being written, the space is undergoing a substantial renovation. The greenmarket along Ninth Avenue will be retained, but everything else will change. As a result of cooperative efforts of the part of the owner, the Department of City Planning, and community representatives, the space is being physically reinvented under a new design that features usable landscapes and varied functional amenities. A generously sized stepped lawn will replace the amphitheater, and a garden and trees bordering the eastern boundary will enhance the naturalistic qualities. In addition to the lawn, seating will be available on a curving ledge, on benches, and on movable chairs matched with movable tables. A food kiosk and café terrace at the corner of Ninth Avenue and West 57th Street, a bookseller on West 57th Street, and a tot lot in the middle will help assure a diverse mix of users at different hours of the day. At night, the space will be authorized to close, at 9:00 pm during the summer and at 7:00 pm during the winter. In an enlightened and unusual show of respect for its designer, the space will be named after Thomas Balsley, whose landscape architecture firm has designed or redesigned more privately owned public spaces in the city than any other firm.
Several hundred feet to the east, the remaining plaza space runs through-block between West 56th and 57th Streets, immediately west of the Sheffield. A through-block driveway uses the eastern portion, while usable space, including a small area hidden mid-block, occupies the western portion. Here are six wooden benches alongside planters with trees and bushes, and a surprisingly open view to the west over the wall. An empty pedestal is the only reminder of a modernist polished metal sculpture by D. Durst. In the past, this tiny area has been used by young bicyclists taking advantage of the slight elevation changes to perfect “freestyle” tricks.
Benches and planters are located under and near the slightly elevated arcade on West 56th Street. More arcade space is found at the main entrance and on West 57th Street.