Plaza renovations can cover a multitude of sins. Years ago, when this was the JC Penney building, much of the plaza in front of the tower on the west side of Sixth Avenue between West 52nd and 53rd Streets was sunk 21 steps below the sidewalk, reachable by stairwells on north and south ends. At the bottom was a narrow, rectangular pit with fixed benches, planters, and a metal fish sculpture. The space was dark, dreary, and, understandably, rarely used. Ironically, it was occasionally closed off by metal chain, as if to keep out the hordes seeking entry. The intrepid few who ventured below would be looked down upon, literally, by street-level passersby, or perhaps even forgotten entirely.
Although the original 1961 Zoning Resolution permitted sunken plazas up to 12 feet below street level, few have been produced and none has proved successful. As discussed elsewhere in this book, planners have concluded that, as a general rule, active street-level pedestrian activity is a significant contributor to the economic and social health of an area, and that sunken or elevated spaces have a strong tendency to enervate such life. To thrive on their own terms, sunken spaces would have to offer activities such as food service and subway access that draw the user into, as well as through, the space. Remaining examples of sunken outdoor spaces in the city include the McGraw-Hill space several blocks south on Sixth Avenue, and the Paramount Plaza space on Broadway to the west, and the open air concourse at Citigroup Center.
The renovated plaza on Sixth Avenue is totally on the level, with no evidence whatsoever of the former pit. Three Jim Dine sculptures, collectively entitled Looking Toward the Avenue, present verdigris bronze renditions of Venus De Milo, at heights of 14, 18, and 23 feet, emerging from water pools at north and south corners. Planters with benches provide comfortable seating in the West 52nd and 53rd Street extensions of the plaza.
Arcade spaces are provided in long strips and short bursts along much of the side street frontages. At a recent site visit, restaurants and retail facilities operated in much of the space on West 53rd Street and some of the space on West 52nd Street. No record of City approval for such uses has been found.