Historically, this through block plaza roughly 200 feet east of Sixth Avenue connecting West 45th and 46th Streets has enjoyed one of the highest rates of use of any outdoor public space in the city. Its popularity is easy to explain. When a space offers abundant seating, accessible water features, quality landscaping, a choice between sun and shade, and a variety of public and semi-public zones, and when management carefully maintains the space, then there is a strong likelihood that the public will use it. It should be noted that, at the time of this writing, a proposal from the owners is in the works to modify the space.
Outside the sidewalk entrances, street trees and distinctive sidewalk paving signal that something different is about to occur. The frontage is largely occupied by metal fences, trees, and planter ledges that slope downward and prevent seating, so the pedestrian is drawn into the space simply to discover what the fuss is all about. Access is provided from the sidewalk up two steps from West 45th Street and eight steps from West 46th Street, or from an arcade west of the space.
Like many through-block spaces, functions of circulation and destination are both well-served here. For circulation, the arcade provides a covered connection, while the through block plaza’s eastern side provides an open-air alternative. For destination-oriented users, the spaces offer much more. People occupy movable dark-green wire mesh chairs that dutifully line the open corridor’s western edge and continue obediently along the rectangular sides of a quiet, shady sub-area next to the West 45th Street entry. Yet something is amiss. These must be the best-behaved public space users in the city, the movable chairs are in fact not movable, or, as proves the case, management prohibits users from moving the movable chairs. This provokes the only common user complaint: “They’re very restrictive. You can only turn your chair one way, you can’t turn it the other way. . . . If you turn your chair, the guy comes up and says, no you can’t take your chair from here and put it over there. He says that’s the rule.” Asked about the rule, the guard explains that it makes it simpler for management to count the chairs. The special permit authorizing the through block plaza requires 133 movable chairs. The animating idea of a movable chair is that it allows the user to create his or her own social environment, rather than compromising that environment to the fixed location of a chair. Although management may impose reasonable rules of conduct in privately owned public spaces, such rules should not undermine the fundamental nature and extent of a required amenity, raising an interesting question in this case.
Not all of the through block plaza is regimented. The area surrounding the square brick water fountain and pool attracts slightly raucous, densely packed crowds that bask in the sunshine as they eat and socialize. A black aluminum abstract sculpture, entitled Throwback (1976-1979), by Tony Smith, appears to float on the water. The surrounding ledge is barely sittable, especially for women wearing skirts, warns one female user, but other ledges are higher and better. Several additional areas offer different user experiences. A narrow channel of water meanders north under and next to the arcade, ultimately connecting to a small pool and waterfall where greater solitude may be found. Closer to West 46th Street is a miniature forest of trees, a reminder that the host office tower used to be the headquarters for the International Paper Company and this “forest” literally advertised its business. The lunchtime concerts previously sponsored by International Paper are missed. At a recent site visit, the open air café that at one time operated at the eastern side was similarly absent, but the special permit requires a food concession. No record of City approval for this absence has been found. A ribbon of plaza that is no more than additional sidewalk wraps around the rest of the building along Sixth Avenue and West 45th and 46th Streets.