A Sealed-Up Midtown Arcade Opens Back Up to the City


Dianna Budds, 11.14.2022

With a lush new Snøhetta-designed garden, 550 Madison finally has an exceptional public space.

The new public plaza at 550 Madison, the Philip Johnson and John Burgee–designed pink granite skyscraper that looks like a Chippendale cabinet on top, is incredibly green, with fir trees, tall leafy shrubs, and delicate ferns cascading down a two-story-tall living roof that slopes into a hill. It’s almost like someone took a sliver of Central Park and stuck it in the heart of midtown. That abundance is meant to be an invitation. “Something as simple as seeing vegetation pushing out beyond a wall of buildings tells us that this space might be public,” says Michelle Delk, a landscape architect at Snøhetta, the firm heading up the renovation. If you venture inside the garden, it reveals a landscape that appears to fulfill that promise: hundreds of places to sit down (from built-in benches to white wire chairs at Saarinen Tulip tables), gender-neutral bathrooms, and a rock garden tucked under a portico. Standing by the plaza’s fountain, inspired by the one at nearby Paley Park, the sound of rushing water nearly drowns out the drone of traffic.

The new plaza is one of the most dramatic changes in a $300 million revitalization of the postmodern building led by the Olayan Group, which bought the building in 2016, and the architecture firm Snøhetta. It is, like many other plazas in midtown, a privately owned public space (POPS). For 30 years, it looked very different than it does today: It was enclosed and indoors. Between the bad art, fake-looking plants, and crowded seating, it was barely more than a glorified hallway between the building and the 10,000-square-foot Sony retail store and museum that took over the west side of the plaza. The decision to turn the POPS into a garden was part of plans dating back to 2017 to open the base of the skyscraper back up to the city around it. But the redesign isn’t just a goodwill gesture to bring more park space to midtown; it’s a real-estate play tailored for a moment when people are reluctant to return to the office and to the neighborhood itself. There’s a 16 percent vacancy rate in midtown offices, and developers and companies have loaded up on amenities to bring people back, from outdoor terraces to bike rooms with showers. Besides the interior redesign, Olayan is betting that fresh air, natural light, and trees will draw tenants to 550 Madison. “Buildings that focus on the health and wellness of the people in the building and energy efficiency tend to do better,” says Erik Horvat, the head of real estate at Olayan, referring to how well the building leases and the price per square foot that tenants are willing to pay. “It was super-important before COVID, and now it’s a must.” So far, it has drawn in Hermès, the investment firm Corsair, and the insurance firm Chubb, which all signed on as tenants before the building’s renovation wrapped up.

Read the full article on the Curbed website