Public spaces and their surrounding neighborhoods are inevitably interdependent. Sometimes a public space can help define a neighborhood; sometimes a neighborhood overwhelms a public space. This half-acre, slightly elevated rectangular plaza at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and West 43rd Street dramatically illustrates the interdependency.
Although Bryant Park, the City-owned park one block south, is a stunning success, and nearby Times Square is a sizzling commercial address, it was not long ago that the two were havens of drug dealing and related street crime. Spillover of these activities to large privately owned public spaces at such buildings as Grace and Bell Atlantic was hard to fight. In 1985, 21 persons were arrested and many more made to line up, hands on planters or against the Grace building wall, in a police raid on drug use and sales in the space. An audit of the bottoms of planters at the Grace plaza in the late 1980s would yield dozens of empty multicolored crack vials in the dirt as continuing evidence of a losing battle.
It must first be observed that the initial design of the space hardly encouraged general public use. Produced under the lenient “as-of-right” standards of an earlier zoning era, the space was characterized by a vast emptiness wrapped in expensive marble tiles, a sun-deprived northern orientation, and a paucity of functional amenities that discouraged the broad public use that is the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for combating problematic users. The arcade space on West 43rd and 42nd Streets contributed little to the mix.
Still, the owner did employ management and design initiatives to fight the criminal takeover. It hired private security guards and off-duty police officers to patrol the space, with little success. One guard recounted, “You can get killed if you don’t know how to deal with [the dealers]. Don’t let them get to know you, don’t get friendly with them.” In 1981, the owner erected a spiked six-foot-high iron fence along the public sidewalk perimeters, claiming publicly that construction and demolition issues related to an adjacent building required that the public for its own safety be excluded from the space. As the fence lingered, however, it became evident that the owner had something else in mind than construction-related safety issues, and the City forced it to remove the fence.
The owner also developed a number of plans to renovate the space. One plan included a two-story retail arcade, another involved a food kiosk, water feature, and other amenities associated with urban plazas that would be provided in return for permission from the City to close the space at night. Unfortunately, a dispute on final terms for the nighttime closing doomed this plan.
One may wonder whether the plaza at Grace could have ever turned the tide on its own. After all, it took a bold mixture of out-of-the-box thinking, significant investments of public and private money, and invention of innovative public-private development and management vehicles to reinvigorate Bryant Park and Times Square. Today, the plaza here stands more or less as it was originally conceived and constructed. A double row of tree planters occupies the northeast corner. A stretch of benches along the northern edge and one long marble bench along the southern wall provide seating hardly conducive to socializing in that they make face-to-face contact difficult. A small utility building is found in the center. With the sea change in the neighborhood’s environment, the time is ripe for imagining once more a renewed Grace plaza.