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Modernist plaza at SOM’s 140 Broadway will get new planters, other changes

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The LPC approved replacing planters on the plaza

Changes are coming to the public plaza surrounding 140 Broadway, formerly known as the Marine Midland Building. Today, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved, with some caveats, a series of design modifications to the plaza, which sits at the base of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s 51-story skyscraper.

The skyscraper, designed by Gordon Bunshaft for SOM, opened in 1968, and was heralded by Ada Louise Huxtable soon after as “New York’s ultimate skin building” and “a demonstration of New York at its physical best.” Its plaza was a large part of that, thanks to the placement of Isamu Noguchi’s Cube, a striking piece of public art, as well as its connection to One Chase Manhattan Plaza to the east, and Liberty Plaza Park (now known as Zuccotti Park) across the street.

The plans approved by the LPC today, first unveiled back in January, seek to return 140 Broadway’s open space to something approximating its original state. In the intervening years, elements of that design were replaced; an ill-advised redesign in 1999 added huge black planters on the Cedar Street side of the building, as well as a gaudy marble plaque honoring developer Harry Helmsley. (The building was named a NYC landmark in 2013.)

Under the proposed redesign, spearheaded by architects NV5 with assistance on the historic preservation side by Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, those hulking planters would be replaced by ones that are closer in shape (circular) and size (14 feet in diameter) to the ones from SOM’s original design. The plaza would be repaved with a form of granite that mimics the original travertine, and the Helmsley plaque would be revamped to be more contextual.

At the LPC hearing, both the commissioners and many of those assembled to speak about the project welcomed those changes, particularly the replacement of the current planters. “The approach is very sympathetic and in the spirit of the original design, overall it improves the public space itself,” LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said.

But questions remained about two elements of the redesign: The introduction of stanchions on the Cedar Street side of the plaza, which would add lighting to the public space, and the addition of benches and more large black planters on the Broadway side.

The latter changes technically fall outside of the LPC purview, but they brought some of the strongest comments during today’s hearing—including from the commissioners themselves. (Michael Goldblum said the benches would “junk[] it up at the front.”)

Tara Kelly, a representative from the Municipal Art Society, noted that there’s no clear design relationship between the amendments to the Broadway side of the plaza, and those on the Cedar Street side, and the fact that several city agencies—including the LPC and the Department of Transportation—have a say in how it should be designed is a contributing problem. “We feel strongly that the entire plaza must be considered as a whole,” she noted.

The Broadway additions have also been criticized for adding little to the site while pushing out several food vendors who regularly set up shop there. Two of those men spoke out against the changes, imploring the designers to consider their livelihoods and the needs of area workers—who rely on the carts for cheap eats—before making the proposed changes. (The LPC cannot decide the fate of those changes, since they fall under the purview of DOT.)

Cesar Boc, who works for the Street Vendor Project, also spoke on their behalf. “One of the unfortunate things we see all the time is that vendors get displaced,” he noted. “For us, it’s important that our perspective is considered when these decisions are made. Our vendors are also stakeholders in this.”

The DOT previously told Curbed that “The revised design aims to strike a balance to include vendors, planters and benches while also maximizing views of the Noguchi Cube from directly across Broadway and on diagonals through each corner.”

Ultimately, the LPC decided that with some amendments—namely the removal of those lighting elements on Cedar Street, which were deemed unnecessary by the commissioners, and a reconsideration of the material used for the plaza itself, the proposal could pass.