420 East 54th Street
River Tower

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Sited diagonally on a through-block parcel fronting East 53rd and 54th Streets between Sutton Place South and First Avenue, this residential tower generates three distinct areas of residential plaza, two of which offer contrasting, but equally pleasant environments. The capacious, brick-paved triangle west of the building’s East 54th Street frontage produces a welcome sensation of openness on a side street otherwise characterized by dense residential fabric. The public sidewalk and plaza flow seamlessly into one another, employing the same paving, trees, and grade level. This effectively enlarges the plaza by the size of the public sidewalk.

Photo: Kayden et al. (2000)
Photo: Kayden et al. (2000)

The space unfolds to the south, with west and east sides converging at a false horizon point at the back. The massing of buildings at off-site locations is thankfully sympathetic, assuring that sunlight reaches the plaza at various times during the day. The western edge is settled by a tall wall, a foreground planter filled with trees, shrubs, and flowers, and a lineup of six wooden garden benches. The vertical presentation of landscaping is well done, with greenery skillfully arrayed at tree canopy, under-story, and ground levels. The eastern edge is formed by the edge of the building and its nonrequired arcade. In the middle of the space, but without the dominating impact associated with artwork located at other public spaces, is an unidentified sculpture fabricated from three black metal vertical strips. What does dominate here is the openness, perfect for the wide variety of users ranging from parents and other caregivers with babies to teenage skateboarders and skaters seeking the wide-open range. Building residents use the space. Indeed, as with many of the better plaza designs, the location of the tower’s primary entrance assures that residents, as well as members of the public, will at least walk through the space, and such common “ownership” by private and public interests helps assure higher-quality maintenance and less of an “us versus them” attitude.

The second area of residential plaza wisely provides a different experience. Located east of the tower and its arcaded drop-off driveway, this landscaped terrace is designed for quieter activities of reading and relaxing. The space is almost completely overlaid with tree-and flower-filled planters, making the remaining usable space all the more valuable. Nestled between two planters at back are three benches, isolated, it would seem, from everything but a person’s own thoughts. The background noise of the driveway fountain is soothing, the planting fragrance delightful. If there is no room here, and the contrasting openness to the west is not preferred, then the St. James Tower residential plaza directly across East 54th Street furnishes a similar, if less intimate, landscaped setting.

The third and final area of residential plaza, located on East 53 rd Street at the back of the tower, comes closest to leftover space. Planters, trees, and sittable ledges do not automatically create a pleasing physical environment. To get from here to the better portions on East 54th Street is not easy, however. Although the spaces are physically connected by way of arcades under east and west sides of the tower, they are not legally connected because the arcades are not part of the public space network. Thus, the pedestrian theoretically would need permission from the owner to traverse its private arcades. In the early 1990s, the City and owner engaged in litigation over how this residential plaza had been provided. The case was eventually settled and the result has been an important neighborhood asset.


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