“I think it’s beautiful. I’m really overwhelmed . . . I didn’t expect this,” says one middle-aged woman visiting this covered pedestrian space and its four-story atrium at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and East 47th Street for the first time. That is a common reaction among most first-time users who stumble upon it and wonder why they had not known of it before.
The space is a smaller, less glitzy rendition of Trump Tower’s covered pedestrian space 10 blocks north, with similar materials, color palette, and criss-crossing escalators. But that is where the similarity ends. While Trump Tower is a triumph of marketing, making it one of the “must see” places, along with the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, on a typical tourist itinerary, 575 Fifth has yet to be discovered, even by resident New Yorkers who would greatly value its quiet demeanor and uncrowded atmosphere.
The modest entrances off the east side of Fifth Avenue or East 47th Street, through arcade spaces, hardly foreshadow the scene inside. Down a short corridor from the Fifth Avenue entrance, one unexpectedly encounters the part post-modern, part art deco, part streamlined moderne, four-level atrium. The street-level corridors surrounding the atrium core, and the full concourse level below constitute the required square footage of the covered pedestrian space. The public area includes the second floor corridors. Polished red-and-white-swirled marble floors, sienna-hued granite walls, towering lacquered columns, and brass trim aim to communicate luxury. Reflections of light shimmer vibrantly on the high sheen surfaces, and the floor is so slick that placards warn users of slippery conditions when shoes are wet from rain or snow. The atrium is crowned by a 1,600-square-foot stained glass ceiling, by artist Hank Prussing, composed of geometric patterns rendered in vivid blues, purples, yellows, and browns. An elaborate multi-level conveyance system connects level to level. Parallel escalators arrayed east-west link the Fifth Avenue side of the first floor to the second floor. Escalators at the eastern side of the first floor track the same route but descend to the concourse level. Escalators tying second and third floors pass each other in opposite directions along a north-south alignment. A tube-shaped-glass-and-brass-trimmed elevator reminiscent of John Portman-influenced hotel atria rises at the southeast corner, and people enter it as much for the ride as for purposeful transportation. Taken together, these transport devices visually summon forth a tame version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and its pulsating systems of movement.
The concourse level harbors a number of usable amenities. A central court is framed by elegant marble planters filled with colorful flowers and plants. Metal benches are nestled against the inside wall of the planters, between six four-story lacquered columns. Pleasant-sounding small fountains sparkling with uplights flank the escalators. Surrounding the court is an outer corridor meant to be fronted by retail stores and a restaurant to the north. The tables and chairs here appear to be used by the adjacent restaurant, but should be available to members of the public without obligation to purchase anything. Restrooms are located near the southeast corner of the outer corridor, but were locked at a recent site visit. Another public restroom is available off the southeast corner of the public area on the second floor.
With all the accoutrements, the retail promise of the space has yet to be realized. According to marketing literature distributed by the building around the time it opened 15 years ago, “This 55,000 square foot retail phenomenon will be surrounded in all directions by some of the most prestigious stores to be found anywhere.” The plan was for fashion apparel stores to occupy the second and third floors, for small boutiques carrying fashion accessories to be on the first floor, and for everything from a wine bar to a gourmet food shop to stores selling stationery, luggage, and home furnishings to line the concourse floor. Although some national clothing retailers have rented space here, the atrium has not yet achieved the goal set forth in its literature, and storefronts, especially at upper and concourse floors, have suffered from vacancies.
Why has this atrium had a mixed record as a retail space? Retail experts might spotlight the inherent difficulties associated with vertical retailing, the store mix, the design layout, changing retail trends, and the street location. Urban planners and designers might question the validity of an internalized, vertical specialty retail mall on one of the world’s greatest shopping streets. Adopted in 1971, the Special Fifth Avenue District zoning encouraged such covered pedestrian spaces with floor area bonuses, in the belief that the Fifth Avenue sidewalks were becoming too crowded for their own good and that more retail opportunities along the street would be helpful. It was not necessarily endorsing or vouchsafing a market concept, however. In the end, the weakness of retail activity might simply suggest that people prefer to shop at street level, from sidewalks, especially when that street is Fifth Avenue.
How, then, should the success of Trump Tower, itself a vertical mall, be understood? Trump was earlier, bigger, flashier, blessed with a few marquee high-end retailers, and situated at a higher traffic location. Its success may be measured in tourist crowds, although such crowds do not always translate into hard retail dollars. Indeed, much of Trump Tower’s retail is of greater interest to tourists than to New Yorkers. For the public space user, however, the relative underuse of 575 Fifth Avenue augments its allure. Huge retail success here might, ironically, detract from one of the space’s greatest assets.