The privately owned public and private spaces framing the three street sides of this brownish-red, polished granite-clad building, formerly known as the Wang building, are elegant, understated, and effective. There are no extravagant gestures here, just a compelling unity of design, materials, color, and geometry that calmly serve their apparent intention. Indeed, such unity makes it difficult, even for the trained eye, to determine, without the legally approved site plan in hand, the precise allocation of open space into urban plaza, sidewalk widening, and private property categories.
The spaces occupy most of the setback from the front lot lines on the west side of Third Avenue, on East 48th Street, and on East 49th Street. The sidewalk widening is adjacent and parallel to the public sidewalks along Third Avenue and East 49th Street. Because the public sidewalk and the sidewalk widening use the same granite and brick paving, however, the best visual clue for establishing the boundary line is south, where the eastern face of the Buchanan apartment building occupying the Third Avenue blockfront between East 47th and 48th Streets is built to the front lot line of that property. The northern boundary of the sidewalk widening is likewise discernible by glancing west to the nearest building facade. The southern boundary on East 48th Street matches up with the southwestern edge of 780 Third Avenue. Although installed by the building owner, the 14 trees growing out of the pavement on both Third Avenue and East 49th Street are located on the publicly owned sidewalk, and thus are designated street trees. Ironically these trees tend to undercut the value of the sidewalk widening, in that pedestrians appear to veer to the outside of these trees rather than taking full advantage of the widened space.
The other public space here is the L-shaped urban plaza wrapping around the building at the northwest corner of East 48th Street and Third Avenue. Five trees along the southern edge create a sense of enclosure. In the middle is a long rectangular polished granite slab, allowing seating on exterior and interior edges. Movable tables and chairs associated with the adjacent café are laid out between the granite bench and the building. The movable sign announces, “Outdoor Seating for Burke & Burke Customers Only. Thank You” and the open air café, indeed, has been approved by the City. Another granite bench built into the building wall to the west provides additional seating, next to the public space plaque and a swanky built-in litter receptacle. Another long rectangular polished granite slab and built-in wall bench are located on the East 49th Street side of the building, apparently satisfying the linear feet seating requirement attached to the urban plaza and sidewalk widening without, it seems, being located in either the urban plaza or the sidewalk widening. So where is the privately owned private space at 780 Third Avenue? It extends out from the building on much of its Third Avenue frontage and all of its East 49th Street frontage to the sidewalk widening.