Bamboozled? Access, Ownership, and the IBM Atrium
At dusk … the snow glistened on the slanted glass panes of the saw-toothed roof above the towering bamboo trees in the new IBM Garden Plaza… . Sheltered and comfortable within, one could observe the cold, gleaming streets and the moving lights of traffic without—a nineteenth-century winter garden revived in modern form.
—Paula Deitz, “Design Notebook,” New York Times, March 3, 1983
Why I was foolish enough to believe that a real estate developer and a commercial gallery would act in a selfless, altruistic manner for the people of New York City is beyond me.
—Member of Community Board Five
The final three chapters examine three of New York’s nearly 530 POPS: the former IBM Atrium, Sony Plaza, and the public spaces of Trump Tower (Figure 4.1). POPS are developed under the Plaza Bonus Zoning Ordinance. First enacted in 1961, and revised in 1975 and 1999, the ordinance allows developers to construct additional building floors if they provide a POPS inside or next to their building. Each POPS is governed by an individual contract between the building owner and the city. The contracts state the size and attributes of the POPS and how many additional floors the owner is allowed to build as a result. The building and the public space are legally privately owned, but the owner gives up the right to exclude members of the public. The Department of City Planning must review any changes that a POPS owner proposes to make to the spaces. If a building changes hands, the new owner is bound by the original contract. POPS, as physical spaces and legal entities, are the result of complex relationships between local government agencies, private corporations, and the public.
POPS have received greater attention in the last five years, in part due to a book titled Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, written by Jerold Kayden, the New York City Department of City Planning, and the Municipal Art Society of New York. The book is a part of a larger project to document POPS contracts and to establish exactly what “kind” of public space each developer was meant to provide—down to the number of tables and chairs, opening hours, garbage receptacles, etc. This was no small task. The team found POPS that had been converted into parking areas, subsumed completely by private retail uses, or simply locked. As a result of their work, more POPS have been brought into compliance. The authors argued that the Department of City Planning lacks funding to ensure that all POPS are in constant compliance.
The next three chapters show that problems with the POPS program run deeper than building owners not living up to their contracts. Even POPS that are in full compliance—those that are the best the program has to offer— reveal fundamental problems with the POPS program. Such problems are inherent in the very idea of a “privately owned public space” and to failures of New York’s program in particular. At the POPS program’s core is the
When IBM consolidated its office holdings in the early 1990s, it sold the office tower, and by default the atrium, to real estate mogul Edward Minskoff. In 1994 Minskoff proposed to transform the atrium into an art exhibition space. This proposal prompted one of the biggest controversies over a privately owned public space in New York. Opposition to changing the atrium was strong because the atrium was, by many accounts, one of the most beautiful public spaces in New York.
The atrium first opened to the public in 1983 and consistently received glowing reviews from architecture critics, arts organizations, and visitors. It was called “exuberant,” “elegant,” an “oasis,” and “a tree-filled conservatory and public living room rolled into one.”2 Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes designed the IBM Building, and landscape architects Robert Zion and Harold Breen collaborated with Barnes on the design of the atrium. Their scheme for the atrium was quite simple: a greenhouse-like structure with eleven stands of bamboo reaching up to the sixty-five-foot-tall ceilings, with tables and movable chairs below (Figure 4.2). A 1991 article, “Strolling Hidden Nooks in Manhattan’s Canyons,” described the atrium as part of a “Northwest Passage through the skyscraper wilderness.” The article proposed an itinerary through “cloisters away from the city’s unrelenting throb.” The itinerary began at the atrium: “Start elegantly at IBM’s glass-canopied public thoroughfare … stroll through a lush public garden of bamboo and pink flowers where idlers read newspapers and drink coffee in a scene evocative of Europe.”3 Bamboo has an intense, almost lime-green color. One can imagine the contrast of this color against the wet, dark-black streets and the
While the IBM Atrium may be the most successful result of the POPS program, ironically its design and its most outstanding qualities had nothing to do with the program. The atrium fulfilled almost all of the planning department’s new regulations for POPS. It had movable chairs, a food kiosk, entrances at street level, and clear views in and out of the space. However, these are only a few aspects of what made the space “magical.” Nowhere in the contract with IBM did the planning department specify that there should be a grove of bamboo trees that canopied the space. Nor did it require that the atrium be made almost entirely of glass, so that in the evening, visitors could look up at the lights in nearby office buildings. This is not to say that the design was accidental. IBM chose one of the most respected architectural and landscape architectural firms to design the atrium. Edward Larrabee Barnes designed the atrium in collaboration with the landscape architecture firm of Zion and Breen. Zion and Breen are perhaps best known for Paley Park, regarded as the best small park in Manhattan, and widely imitated.6
The atrium was unique in the city, and perhaps in the country, because of its twelve stands of towering bright green bamboo. The removal of even a few of the stands of bamboo would therefore destroy the unique tranquility of the space. Opponents to Minskoff’s plans to transform the atrium into an art exhibition space argued that he was bringing a corporate venture into a public space. In the end, a compromise was struck. Only three of eleven stands of bamboo would be removed, and more seating would be added. But the impact on the atrium was substantial. What was once a thick grove became a few stands. The light entering the atrium, no longer filtered by layers of leaves, gave the space a washed-out gray look, or, as one commentator noted, “[o]n a recent spring day, with the outdoors brisk and the sky bright blue, a visitor to the sculpture garden was greeted instead with a pale wintry environment, as if Snow White had just bitten into the Queen’s bad apple.”7 Instead of providing a sense of intimacy, greenness, and enclosure, the new atrium was stark and exposed (Figure 4.3).
Minskoff’s renovation went ahead without a public hearing. Even though the proposed changes would completely alter the atrium, according to the legal structure of the POPS program and decisions made by the Department of City Planning, there was no way for people who used the atrium to block Minskoff’s proposal. For this reason, the atrium stopped being a dynamically public space before the bamboo came down. It was never public because, from its inception, decisions over how it would be managed over time were out of the hands of the public. Access is a matter of ongoing input into processes of change and maintenance. Put differently, physical access is of course crucial to public spaces being public. But equally important is access to and agency within the processes that govern public spaces.
The IBM Atrium was a wonderfully designed public space. The story of the atrium reveals the insufficiency of the legal structure of the POPS program to protect well-designed spaces. However, the story also shows that the program has almost no legal provisions for ongoing participation of those outside government and business in the processes that change these sites. Arguably, the atrium would never have been changed if the decision-making process were set up to address public concerns as strongly as it protects private concerns.
This chapter relies on archival materials, including letters of complaint to the Department of City Planning, articles in local newspapers, correspondence between the building owner and the Department of City Planning,
The Original Contract and the Original Design
Architectural critic Herbert Muschamp said, “With its tall, airy bamboo stalks set off by walls of charcoal granite, the atrium of the IBM Building … resembles a cross between a public park and a corporate lobby.” Muschamp’s description of the former IBM Atrium as a cross between a park and a lobby referred to more than the atrium’s appearance. POPS are the material result of a legal agreement between the city and private building owners. While the IBM Atrium does not contain all the functions of a corporate lobby (its switchboard and elevator area are separated from the atrium by a glass wall), the lobby is attached to the building physically, legally, and economically. Its hybrid appearance, part corporate and part public, bespeaks the complex contract that generated its form and function. The contract between IBM and the city was individually negotiated prior to the building’s construction and according to standards set out in the Plaza Bonus Zoning Ordinance. In return for constructing and maintaining the atrium and a plaza in front of the building,8 IBM was able to build an additional 147,600 square feet of office space.9 The exact value of this bonus is difficult to determine. A 1982 New York Times article noted that rents in prime locations such as midtown and the financial district ran between $30 to $40 per square foot, per year. The square footage in this case could have meant an extra $5,166,000 in annual rental revenues for IBM.
But a comparison of what is actually called for in the contract between IBM and the Department of City Planning under the POPS program shows that to a great degree the success of the initial atrium design had little to do with legal leverage and everything to do with thoughtful design. This thoughtfulness was not just about the inclusion of the bamboo grove. It also related to large-scale design decisions about the relationships between the private spaces of the corporate tower and the public spaces of the atrium.
IBM hired two excellent designers to develop the public spaces. As a result, the atrium’s configuration, from the large to the small scale, worked
The distinction between the atrium and the office tower is clearly distinguishable by passersby at ground level. The building’s footprint is complicated. It is not a simple slab. It does not fill its lot. Nor is it pulled back from the sidewalk evenly. It can be seen as two buildings: an office tower and a greenhouse (Figure 4.4). The two nest against each other as more or less triangular portions of the same square. Tips of each triangle are cut off to create entrance plazas. What is interesting about the public spaces, particularly the atrium, is the degree to which they stand on their own. The atrium is clearly attached to the office tower, but only along one wall. The southern wall faces onto the sidewalk of Fifty-sixth Street. The southwestern wall is an interior wall with a connection to the public spaces of Trump Tower. The northeastern wall is a clear glass wall with doors through to the lobby of the office tower. And the eastern wall, the shortest of the walls, is glass, and leads out into the public plaza on Madison Avenue. The roof to the atrium is also glass, reinforcing the feeling that it is almost its own structure. The IBM Atrium’s tranquility, at least the auditory tranquility, comes from being physically separated from the sidewalk and street by glass walls. These transparent walls serve to privilege the atrium’s proximity and relationship to the outside over and against its relationship to the indoor lobby on the other side of the atrium (Figure 4.5).
Zion and Breen consulted William H. Whyte on the design of the atrium. Whyte was the public-space guru of Manhattan, the author of revisions to the POPS program in 1975, and a relentless activist for more and better public spaces. His influence on the design of the atrium is clear. The atrium seemed to be the physical manifestation of Whyte’s public space ideals as published in his The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. The atrium is clearly visible to and from the street on the sides bordering East Fifty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue. Glass walls rise four stories to the atrium ceiling, which is topped with serrated trusses.10 When it was first constructed, eleven stands of bamboo divided the atrium into smaller spaces and filtered the light as it fell to the granite floor. Giant concrete dishes of flowers were changed seasonally and added color to the otherwise gray and green space, which included a food kiosk, at-grade entrances, clear visibility between the inside and outside, and movable chairs.
New Owner, New Agenda
Privately owned public spaces remain public even when a building is sold to a new owner. New owners are able to change an existing public space as long as the changes do not come in conflict with the original contract. The early years of IBM’s ownership of the building coincided with a peak in IBM revenues. In 1984, earnings were $6.6 billion. Not surprisingly, IBM’s sale of the building about ten years later to a New York City real estate company coincided with one of its biggest revenue downturns. During the five years prior to the sale, IBM had cut thousands of jobs, and in 1991 it reported a net loss of $2.8 billion. Developer Edward Minskoff, in a joint venture with Odyssey Partners investment group, purchased 590 Madison Avenue from IBM in 1994 for $200 million. In 1995, during a dip in the office rental market, Minskoff was still able to rent space in the building for about $45 per square foot, per year. The year before, rent had been closer to $50 per square foot.
When the building changed hands, the atrium was almost exactly as it had been initially built, despite some reports that IBM had not been maintaining the space at as high a level as it once had.11 One year after purchasing the building from IBM, Edward Minskoff applied to the Department of City Planning to make alterations to the atrium so that he could install a rotating exhibition of contemporary sculpture. Minskoff would manage the exhibitions jointly with PaceWildenstein, a commercial art gallery. Minskoff proposed removing almost all the bamboo, changing the movable chairs and tables to benches, and hiring security guards to protect the artwork. Minskoff’s application for changes to the atrium set off a controversy that involved the art community, realtors, designers, and commercial galleries. Despite the controversy’s high public profile, it highlighted the fragility of government-guaranteed public space.
When Minskoff’s plans were released in early 1995, the eight-month battle over the future of the atrium began. Not surprisingly, two camps
The fact that a major real estate developer was also involved in collecting and selling fine art, and therefore wanted to show it in his building, is not all that shocking. Nor is the fact that the pro-art letters were from people in the art business. What is interesting is the way in which Minskoff and the pro-art camp argued that the renovation of the atrium was actually in the public’s interest. A very short letter from Ivan C. Karp of OK Harris, one of the oldest commercial art galleries in SoHo, called the existing atrium “rather stark” and cited the “paucity of public evidence of the vast resources of fine art in this city.”13
Diana D. Brooks, then president and chief executive officer of Sotheby’s, wrote: “this project would be a unique opportunity to heighten cultural awareness through the public display of art work. Additionally, the creation of a sculpture garden in the IBM Atrium takes on added significance due to the diminishing federal support of the arts and the lack of funding available for any project of the same scale. It would be a shame to deny so many New Yorkers an occasion to enrich their lives through aesthetic appreciation. The appeal of New York City depends in great part on the richness and availability of the visual arts to the general public.”14 Brooks’s quote asserts that the lives of the people who use the space would be unconditionally enriched by the display of art. She implies that there is a dearth of art on display in New York City. She also implies that the public’s awareness of culture needs to be heightened. It is hard to accept the recommendations of the director of Sotheby’s as representative of “so many New Yorkers,” and I don’t think this was her intention. The assumption embedded in her words is that, as a cultural leader, the art world needs to provide culture for the consumption of the masses. She also argued that because the federal government has cut funding for the arts, public space programs should help take up the slack.
The Parks Council also argued that none of the bamboo should be removed. In a letter sent to the City Planning Commission prior to their final vote on the proposal, the Parks Council argued that “the original special permit issued by the City Planning Commission described the space as an ‘enclosed sky-lit landscaped park.’ In other words, from its inception this was intended to provide an interior garden respite in midtown … the unusual qualities of the bamboo plants have come to be uniquely identified with the atrium over the years.”16 They suggested that all the bamboo be retained and that artwork be added to the existing configuration. They noted that “keeping all the trees may mean that certain very large sculptures could not be exhibited, but this seems a small price to pay for holding on to one of the success stories of the bonus plaza program.”17
A statement from the Municipal Art Society (MAS) on September 14, 1995, came to the same conclusion and added some additional items for consideration. It noted that during the review process regarding the atrium, Minskoff had argued that the presence of sculpture would increase public use of the space. MAS argued that while this might be the case, there were other factors that needed to be addressed. They noted that the atrium was too hot in the summer because IBM wasn’t running the air conditioning, that there were no services other than the food kiosk to draw people to the space, and that the western corridor was temporarily closed because of the construction of Niketown. “Each of these conditions contributes to a temporary decline in visitors,” they concluded, “not the design which indeed has enjoyed many years of success and heavy usage.”18
As a result of the review process, Minskoff came back to the Department of City Planning with an alternate proposal. The new proposal removed three of the eleven bamboo stands and retained most of the original movable seating. The proposal was approved, and the sculpture garden opened
Statements from the planning department emphasized that the outcome of the process of review was, in the end, positive. City Planning Commissioner James B. Rose said, “This is a very good thing for the city… . Only three trees came down, and there’s more seating than there was before.” This sentiment was not, however, widely held. In “Requiem for an Atrium,” Ken Smith of the Project for Public Spaces said, “The once powerful ambient effect of the bamboo garden is now gone, as is most of the magic the space once had. The altered atrium, even with the addition of colorful sculpture, is a pathetic alternative to the original, and a sad loss of public space in New York City.”20 The bamboo that is left does not give the sense of being a grove. The seating areas bleed into one another. The sense of being in an intimate canopied place is lost. The summer sunlight that was once filtered now gives the atrium a kind of gray pallor. One has less a feeling of enclosure and more a feeling of exposure. In short, the most beloved POPS—lauded by design critics, journalists, the Department of City Planning, public-space scholars, and the people who used it everyday—was transformed into something that none of them had asked for and in a way that completely destroyed its initial qualities. How was this possible?
The destruction of the atrium was possible because of the legal structure of the POPS program. The review process that allowed Minskoff to make the changes is still in place today. According to the POPS legal structure, owners may make changes to bonus spaces. There are two basic categories of changes, each with a different review process. “Major” changes require a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).21 The process ends with a
City Planning Commission staff members have confirmed that the difference between a major and minor change is not laid out in the zoning code. Rather, major versus minor is thought to be “intuitive and obvious.” Those exact words were used in an interview with a planning department staff member. The example the staff member gave was that if the overall square footage of the space doesn’t change, it is not a major renovation. In cases in which the difference between major and minor is not intuitive, Department of City Planning counsel is consulted.23 The controversy over the renovation at IBM and the final compromise reached between Minskoff and the planning department show how even minor changes can have major effects.
Why does a public program to provide public spaces pay little or no attention to the idea of public involvement in decision making? First, when the code was initially written in 1961, it was not to provide new public spaces. Rather, the initial policy’s sole stated purpose was to bring more light and air into the city. The policy was altered in 1975, but only to require amenities like seating, food concessions, and on-grade connections to the street. Second, while these alterations to the policy regarding amenities were carefully spelled out, and indeed spelled out on signs in each space and on the Department of City Planning Web site, there is little or no information in the current policy regarding who has the ability to dictate or enforce rules for conduct in the spaces or to conduct or block alterations to the space that fall outside what is spelled out in the contract. In other words, the bonus program as it is legally written and therefore enforced by the Department of City Planning focuses on providing a specific set of physical amenities. The assumption is that if these amenities are provided, the resulting spaces are public spaces. The policy does not detail who has the ability to control physical access to a space or who has access to decision-making processes. As de facto third parties in the contract, members of the public are legally guaranteed, for example, a certain amount of seating, the presence or absence of a food kiosk, and specific opening hours.
[a]n effective enforcement program consists of five elements: up to date documentation, broad public knowledge, periodic inspections, meaningful remedies, and promotion of public use… . With quick and easy access to such information—what policy makers sometimes refer to as transparency—the public can know what is expected of an owner and serve as supplemental “eyes and ears” to a more formal inspection protocol.24
The authors go on to argue that the key to members of the public developing an active proprietary interest is encouraging greater public use of a space. Referring to the ideas of William H. Whyte, the authors maintain that “use begets more use” and if a space is of “sufficient quality to make people want to use it in the first place … people will take a proprietary interest and help safeguard its continuing provision according to the applicable legal mandates.” Further, the role of the city and interested private nonprofit groups is to “facilitate the use of public space, by describing them, as in this book, and by adopting a curatorial mentality.” In order to increase public use, the authors encourage events such as “[r]oving art exhibits and traveling concert series.” Such events would then “enable the public to conceive of these spaces as part of a larger system offering great value to the life of the City.”25 They presume that when the public develops this kind of proprietary interest they will be moved to check up on the provision of amenities and the opening hours listed on the plaques, and to report any discrepancies to the Department of City Planning. The authors conclude: “it is up to institutions of government, the private not-for-profit world, and the private sector as well as members of the public, to assure that this physical space is provided in its most alluring form.”26
After the Bamboo
The month before the atrium reopened, Minskoff violated the provisions of the special permit by closing the atrium from November 3 to 7, 1995. In a letter reminding Minskoff of his contractual obligations, Nicholas Fish, then chair of Community Board Five, added that “[s]ince Community Board Five strongly supported your application to modify the public space, I feel it is my duty now to express my grave concern.”28 Minsksoff claimed that the closures were necessary to the installation of the artwork. He also admitted that he held a private event in the space during this time. Unauthorized closures are nothing unusual in the scheme of the POPS program. What is unusual about the post-renovation conflict over the IBM Atrium is the level of disappointment expressed by those involved in the decision-making process. Even those people who had a voice in the negotiations over the space expressed disappointment in the process and its results. Minskoff not only violated opening hours, but also failed to comply with provisions for the management of the sculpture display.
For example, part of the agreement was that there would be an advisory committee that would “help to ensure the broadest possible participation of
An advisory council, with Community Board Five as a member, will be established to ensure both the broadest possible participation of major Twentieth Century sculptors in rotating exhibitions and the inclusion of artists represented by and in a diverse group of galleries and museums. This council is not intended to serve in either a controlling curatorial or bureaucratic manner.30
Between 1995 and 1999, the advisory board met only once, or at least Community Board Five was involved in only one meeting. In a 1996 memo, one member of the advisory committee who was also a member of Community Board Five stated that she felt “duped” by Minskoff and PaceWildenstein:
I believe that it [the Sculpture Garden at 590 Madison Avenue] is both a disappointment and a sham. You cannot imagine how it saddens me to say this, as I feel so duped, and like I misled the Board. The biggest fear, addressed very clearly in the Board’s resolution, was that the space would be perceived as a commercial extension of PaceWildenstein Galleries. Not only is this the perception, but it is, in fact, close to the truth.31
The writer pointed out that the only show to run between June 1996 and November 1996 was Alexander Calder, who is represented by PaceWildenstein. She also noted that the opening show was dominated by PaceWildenstein-represented artists, that a sign for the exhibition had PaceWildenstein’s name on it, that PaceWildenstein had not returned calls regarding the scheduling of advisory committee meetings, that in 1996 the advisory committee had met only once, and, finally, that none of the outreach or educational programs discussed during advisory board meetings had been developed.
Why I was foolish enough to believe that a real estate developer and a commercial gallery would act in a selfless, altruistic manner for the people of New York City is beyond me… . Unless we can change the current situation, I would recommend that we take action against any and all future approvals regarding PaceWildenstein, as represented by Marc Glimcher, and 590 Madison, as represented by Edward J. Minskoff.32
The problem with categorizing renovations as major or minor when there is no definition to work by is that the decision of what requires review and what doesn’t can be arbitrarily assigned by the City Planning Commission on a case-by-case basis. All the control over what can and can’t be changed in a POPS falls in their hands. They may, of course, decide to include some kind of review process, but they are not required to do so. What is most shocking about this lack of clear definition and the way this can be used to prevent public input is that it is anything but a bureaucratic oversight. While it is difficult to say that the law was originally intentionally vague so as to give this latitude to the City Planning Commission, it is possible to argue that the law is being kept vague for that reason.
Just two years prior to the controversy over the IBM Atrium, a similar controversy erupted across the street at the AT&T Building. In 1992 the Sony Corporation took over the former AT&T Building, and proposed to enclose what was an exterior space as an interior atrium. This change was even more drastic than the change at the IBM Atrium, and it was considered minor. Richard Schaffer, former chair of the City Planning Commission, received complaints about the commission’s handling of the review process. Ruth Messinger, former president of the borough of Manhattan, argued that “the community should not have to depend on an applicant’s goodwill to obtain meaningful input into a project modification.” She stated, “the absence of clear criteria establishing thresholds for the distinction between major and minor modifications” is “unacceptable” because it “allows the City Planning Commission and the Department of City Planning to make
In light of these serious concerns that were shared by the borough president, the chief elected official of the entire borough of Manhattan, and every member of Community Board Five, the response from Schaffer, the chair of the City Planning Commission, is astonishing. He simply explained the legal structure surrounding modifications to POPS as the structure stands. He states that modifications to POPS are subject to a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure “unless they require new waivers, authorizations or special permits under additional sections of the Zoning Resolution, or propose additional waivers or authorizations under the same sections but beyond the scope of those originally granted.” He said that this legal structure works because it “allow(s) modifications to proceed by the most reasonable method possible, consistent with the nature of the changes requested.” He argued that “imposing elaborate procedures” would in many cases be “wasteful of administrative resources.” He further argued that the best approach is for the City Planning Commission and Department of City Planning to set up “additional procedures” on a case-by-case basis when proposed changes “involve more than routine details of design or function.”35
The process Schaffer describes is exactly the process that both Community Board Five and the borough president criticized as being too open to arbitrary decisions. Schaffer did not address the concerns over or even acknowledge the possibility of such serious problems. Nor did he address the fact that changes might be made to a POPS that require no new special permit but that significantly change the quality of that space. Schaffer’s description of public processes as “additional procedures” that may be “wasteful of administrative resources” indicates a belief that efficient bureaucracy is more important than opening the review process to broader scrutiny. His response also indicates a very particular stance to the legal foundations of the POPS program. He describes the law as it stands, and does not engage in a discussion of how it might be changed to reflect the real concerns of members of the public and their elected representatives.
However, even if this important link between POPS and the public spheres that govern them is mended, there are other fundamental problems with the program’s policy and the specific spaces it has created that also prevent them from being dynamic public spaces. These problems arise because of the clash of values brought to these spaces by private developers, the planning department, and the people who claim them. The next two chapters examine spaces adjacent to IBM: Sony Plaza and Trump Tower. Whereas at IBM, changes in the plaza’s design revealed underlying problems with the POPS decision-making processes—problems that preclude these spaces from having active public spheres—design at Sony and Trump acts upon the public itself.