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Troubling modifications proposed for Chase Manhattan Plaza

October 12, 2016

DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State testified at the September 27 full board meeting of Community Board 1 in opposition to a request by the owner of One Chase Manhattan Plaza, aka 28 Liberty Street, to override deed restrictions on new structures within its 2.5-acre plaza. The owner, Fosun International, is seeking to build three glass pavilions for access to partially below-grade retail. However, a deed instituted by the building’s original owner, Chase Manhattan Bank, stipulates that no new structure may rise more than 6 feet above the plaza. The proposed pavilions rise 11 to 17 feet above the highest point of the plaza. The firm leading the design is the original architect, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).

Upon its completion in 1961, the pedestrian plaza of Chase Manhattan Plaza, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM, was acclaimed as an oasis of open space in the densely built Financial District. Its calm, and calming, character was and is epitomized by the sunken courtyard with Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural rock garden and fountain. In 2009, in recognition of its significance as one of the earliest examples of the International Style in the Financial District, the building and plaza were designated an official New York City Landmark.

Fosun, which bought the building in 2013, is supposedly undertaking $100-200 million in renovations, which include updating the tower’s office space, reincorporating historic details lost in prior renovations, and converting 200,000 square feet of disused space underneath the plaza to retail. In August 2015, after a second go-around, the team received approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission for exterior modifications, including the three pavilion additions. The plans as presented to Community Board 1 in May 2015 showed just one pavilion. The board is now being asked to wave the deed’s height restrictions for a design proposal they never reviewed.

As reported in The Architect’s Newspaper last month, “The developers maintain that the glass cubes, or pavilions, are a key part of the renovations. Fosun argues that the three pavilions will improve handicap accessibility to the stepped plaza as well as protect shoppers entering and exiting the retail spaces from inclement weather. The pavilions, along with glass storefronts along Liberty and Williams Streets, are intended to activate street frontage and encourage more fluidity between indoor and outdoor, below-grade and street-level spaces of the plaza, sidewalk, and tower.”

Of great concern to DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State and others is the impact that the three Apple cube-like structures will have on the plaza. Though constructed of glass, they will never be as invisible as depicted in the project renderings once the necessary supporting structure and inevitable signage are introduced, thus abrogating the original intentions of the owner and architect. Also of concern is the future integrity of the deed—and really all deeds in the city—should it be modified.

At the September 27 meeting, DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-state implored the board to retain the original public-spirited deed restrictions and preserve the generous space and non-commercial character of the plaza, as intended by the original owner and architect.

The board voted overwhelmingly to table a decision until Fosun’s team can better demonstrate to them the necessity of its proposal.

DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State’s Letter to Community Board 1

Community Board 1 waits to vote on controversial plaza modifications,” The Architect’s Newspaper: September 28, 2016
Developer wants to put glass cubes on landmarked SOM plaza,” The Architect’s Newspaper: September 26, 2016 
See SOM’s full presentation at the LPC Public Meeting on August 4, 2015

Top to bottom: Proposed new pavilions at Nassau St side of plaza; pavilion at Nassau and Cedar St corner; William and Liberty St corner showing restored parapet and new street level storefronts; archival photo of plaza in the 1970s, courtesy NYC LPC. All renderings courtesy SOM.