The Elevated Acre

2 Sep

So where’s the best place to catch a nap outdoors in the Financial District? Well, who cares? It’s winter again; the answer is nowhere. When the f did that happen? I got to say: I didn’t see it coming—my instincts really let me down. The monarch butterfly travels 3,000 miles to avoid this kind of thing. Your common black bear takes a nap for five months. I look at weather dot-com and say, “Boy, it’s going to be cold the next ten days.” Then I probably say, “Oh well, it’s not really the cold that does it, it’s the fact that it gets dark so early.” Well bullshit! What baloney. I’ll take pitch black and 80 any day. Good napping weather.

A few months ago – what I like to think of as my golden past—I would have said the Elevated Acre, at 55 Water Street, was the spot. Back then I’d pop up there whenever I could find the chance: a slow day on the trading floor, a long lunch break at Deutsche Bank, an informal meeting with American International Group (I have a few jobs—I’m also available for baby-sitting). The Elevated Acre’s dense undulating strips of tall grass and trees provide a nice spot to take off your shoes and hide; its boardwalk stands 30 feet above the East River with its sunny views and helicopters, and its turf lawn is perfect for some face-down napping. The top two floors of the palazzoesque New York City Police Museum (originally the First Precinct Police Station) peeking over the lawn add a nice touch—like you’re passed out on the manor grounds of some old estate in England. Then you roll over and gaze up at the largest office building in the city.

The Elevated Acre was part of the original design for 55 Water Street, though it didn’t have the snazzy name. When the two-building complex was completed in 1972 it had more square-footage than any office building ever built: a monument to the super-monoliths of the 1970s that everybody hates so much today. By providing a public plaza on the property, developers were able to trade-in for an additional six-and-a-half or so floors, a pretty standard arrangement in New York since the 1961 Zoning Resolution. As one New York City developer put it, “Architectural amenities are sheer nonsense. Zoning determines architecture.”

He’s got a point. The 1961 Zoning Resolution was a creature of its day, following in some fashion Le Corbusier’s vision of the future city as “skyscrapers set in parks.” It emphasized very large plots, built uniformly tall and wide, surrounded by or including open spaces. What you generally got were nondescript, oppressive monstrosities, squatting over neighborhoods, removed from the city grid and its street energy by bands of marginal and unused public plazas. 55 Water Street itself replaced four whole city blocks of older buildings and removed some streets entirely from the map. The original plaza followed along the same disappointing lines: built almost as lip service for the traded increase in square footage it allowed. The plaza was hidden away, unmarked from street level, and paved primarily in brick (including a wall at the eastern end that effectively cut off the East River view). The fountains and pools that it included didn’t last long before they were shut down and for long stretches of time the plaza would be closed entirely, unopened to the public. Don’t worry, the owners of the building still got to keep their extra six-and-a-half floors.

The original design has been called the height of “cynicism towards the public”—indicative of the orthodox planning of its day, which consciously or not seemed intent on destroying the very assets that make a city unique (I’m deep into Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities—truly amazing). It seems all the more exciting, then, that the Elevated Acre has been remade. Today the space is inviting, relevant and, most importantly, used—a reflection, in part, of the growing residential character of Lower Manhattan. A park means nothing by itself; it’s pointless if it isn’t frequented. Someone has to be around to feel the breeze blow, to watch the turf struggle nobly towards the sun. Well, we’re that somebody! It’s a small and lovely role to play—it takes like five minutes. Sure it’s winter, but whatever. There are things to do still, we’ve all got minds; we’ve invented layers. Something’s gonna happen. And something can be very small.

(Originally posted Dec. 17th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)

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