As of this writing, the privately owned public spaces at 622 Third Avenue, formerly the Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield headquarters, are undergoing a resizing, reconfiguration, and renovation under the terms of a zoning modification granted by the City Planning Commission in October, 1998. The newly approved plan is meant to produce superior clarity, functionality, and amenity to what has been a challenging and challenged effort of multilevel outdoor public space design.
Although the building has a one-story frontage and an address on Third Avenue, the bulk of its square footage is concentrated in the mid-block through-block tower located between Third and Lexington Avenues, with entrances on both East 40th and 41st Streets. From here, the public spaces radiate outward and upward in a highly complex, three-dimensional galaxy. The proposed alterations will not change most of these basic spatial alignments. “As-of-right” plaza will continue to be located west of the East 41st Street building frontage, with new planters and bike rack, and “as-of-right” arcade spaces will still grace the East 41st and 40th Street building entrances. Previously, two through block arcades formed a T-junction mid-block at the eastern edge of the tower, one running north-south between East 40th and 41st Streets, the other connecting Third Avenue to the midpoint of the north-south through block arcade. Now, the north-south through block arcade will be enclosed at both ends, while the east-west through block arcade will have its roof removed and be legally reclassified as plaza space.
An urban plaza will replace and functionally upgrade what had been an obscure, terraced “as-of-right” plaza running through-block between East 40th and 41st Streets adjacent to the north-south through block arcade. The linear space will be reconstructed to be completely at grade, with three areas of landscaped planters down the middle, plentiful ledge seating, and tables and chairs. Most significantly, the Escher-like erection of outdoor escalators and stairs next to East 40th Street that provided entry to the landscaped terrace one level up will be removed. Although theoretically useful for easy access, the escalators were often out-of-order and the overall structure made the mid-block part of the plaza feel trapped and disconnected. By opening up the southern end, more light and air and a greater sense of openness and freedom should prevail.
The escalators have been traded in for an elevator at the northwest corner of the landscaped terrace to ferry individuals mechanically to and from the space, while stairs will continue to provide access from Third Avenue north of the corner at East 40th Street. Hopefully this combination will adequately handle user traffic to the newest incarnation of the landscaped terrace occupying the rooftop of the tower’s one-story extension at the corner of Third Avenue and East 40th Street. That space has always had promise, with its southern exposure and remove from the street, but the original design and amenities never matched the promise. Mushroom-domed tables, molded plastic seats, and planters with trimmed hedges proved perfunctory at best, depressing at worst. The new design upgrades everything, including the seating, tables, landscaping, trees, and surface materials, and requires a food service kiosk which must be operated in good faith at reasonable times. If all works as planned, this landscaped terrace should prove a substantial lunchtime competitor to the elevated public space at Murray Hill Mews three blocks south on East 37th Street west of Third Avenue.