The covered pedestrian space at Trump Tower is simultaneously New York City’s most famous and least understood privately owned public space. Most famous, because everyone has heard of it. Least understood, because few New Yorkers appreciate that this space is legally required to be open and accessible to the public. The developer Donald Trump obtained zoning floor area bonuses in return for the covered pedestrian space and two outdoor landscaped terraces on upper floors, as well as for additional retail space. In short, this unabashed, unapologetic, and by any crowd measure popular celebration of commerce is a product of public, as well as private, entrepreneurial esprit.
A sign near the entrance declares, “Welcome to the world’s most extraordinary shopping experience.” And, indeed, hyperbole is the order of the day. The interior at Trump Tower is eye candy, a confection of colors, layers, reflections, movements, and glitz. A doorman in uniform, like that of a royal guard, ushers visitors through the monumental brass-glass-façade of the Fifth Avenue entrance. Red, pink, orange, and beige-swirled marble walls and floors merge to overtake the senses. In gravity’s thrall, visitors are pulled by the corridor’s downward slope past retail stores and two large gold-colored Ts to the centerpiece, a six-story skylit shopping atrium. Physically encircled by overhanging balcony corridors, multistory water wall, and five sets of switchback escalators, the atrium strenuously engages visual and aural senses. Reflections and sounds bounce off the profusion of marble, brass, glass, and mirrored surfaces. People stream up and down the escalators, sometimes to the point of overcrowding, then peer out over shiny railings rimming the precipitous edges of the shopping floors. While many of the stores seem geared to a predominantly tourist clientele, the shopping ambiance, even if vicarious, is almost overpowering.
The covered pedestrian space’s legally required floor area occurs at both street and below-street concourse levels. At street level in the entrance corridor across from the elevators is the first recognizable public amenity, a long marble bench where people plant themselves, bags askew, to gain strength for further Fifth Avenue shopping or simply to relax. The bench has an interesting past. In 1984, an enthusiast of the space wrote a letter to Mr. Trump and the City’s Department of Buildings, with a copy to then Mayor Edward Koch, complaining that management had placed plants and flowers on the bench, thereby obstructing sitting. The plants and flowers were subsequently removed.
At concourse level at the base of the atrium are numerous movable tables and chairs tightly packed on a slightly elevated platform next to the water wall. In the past, nearby food outlets have indulged in episodes of café creep, spilling out into the covered pedestrian space. It is important to recognize that members of the public may sit at any of these tables and chairs without obligation to purchase anything. Public restrooms are located at the end of a corridor leading from the southwest corner of the space.
The two outdoor landscaped terraces on upper levels require a degree of perseverance to find, especially because signage on the street floor where most of the public initially gathers is meager. Reachable by one of the elevators off the Fifth Avenue entrance corridor or by escalators, the fourth floor terrace at the southeast corner of the atrium is a petite garden space with trees, planters, comfortable polished granite ledge seating, and birds-eye views of the iconic post-modern Sony building, designed by Philip Johnson to the east, and Fifth Avenue to the west. The recently renovated and more ambitious landscaped terrace on the north side of the fifth floor is currently less used than its fourth floor counterpart, an irony in that the space is not only more capacious and better appointed, but it is also more easily reached, whether by escalator, by Trump elevator off the Fifth Avenue entrance corridor, by Niketown elevator from street level near the northeast corner of the covered pedestrian space, or from the top floor of Niketown itself. Signs at and within the multiple entries unfortunately tend to confuse, referring to the Public Garden, the Roof Terrace, a location on the fifth floor, and a location on the sixth floor. In fact, the landscaped terrace is on Trump’s fifth floor and Niketown’s sixth floor.
Whatever it is called, the space is an extremely pleasant rectangular roof garden extending to a view of East 57th Street. The street scene is visible though five huge picture windows crowned with four American flags, loosely evoking the New York impressionist paintings of Childe Hassam. A blue-tinged pool with fountains is flanked by fixed metal benches on one side and nine large trees on the other. Stylish movable silver tables and chairs are distributed throughout, and nearest East 57th Street is an elevated sliver with additional tables and chairs and a secluded corner. The only thing missing is the users.
A passageway connects the Trump covered pedestrian space to the indoor spaces at 590 Madison Avenue to the east. Although this marriage of spaces is the City’s only example of connected indoor public spaces uninterrupted by a street, it is hardly a union of like personalities. To the benefit of both, the former’s commercial exuberance is nicely counterbalanced by the latter’s tranquillity. A third covered pedestrian space, at the Sony building across East 56th Street from 590 Madison Avenue, makes this area a high-density showcase for indoor public spaces.