Don't Fence Me Out

Paula Segal got the barricades around Zuccotti Park removed. Now she has a new target.

It's lunchtime on a Thursday, and Paula Segal wants to go to Chase Manhattan Plaza, a large open space that takes up a whole city block between Nassau and William streets in the heart of the financial district.

The plaza, which was given landmark status by the city in 2009, is a popular lunch spot for those who work in the neighborhood and is home to celebrated public art like Jean Dubuffet's tree sculptures and Isamu Noguchi's Sunken Garden.

But the plaza also sits at the base of J.P. Morgan Chase's massive office tower, and for the past four months, every single access point has been blocked with metal fencing held in place by chains, padlocks, and sandbags.

"How do we get up to the plaza?" Segal sweetly asks a Chase security guard.

"You can't," he answers. "It's closed."

"Closed? Isn't it a public space?"

"It used to be," the guard says.

"What changed?"

"Occupy Wall Street. The bank's a target, so we're protecting the bank."

"Protecting it from who?"

"From outsiders like you."

On September 17 of last year, the first participants in the movement that would become Occupy Wall Street gathered at Bowling Green and planned their day of protests. They distributed maps of Lower Manhattan that marked the spot where the movement's first General Assembly would take place that afternoon.

The location was Chase Manhattan Plaza, whose broad expanse just steps away from Wall Street, right at the base of the offices of a powerful financial institution, made it a perfect target.

But there was a problem. "We had scouts out that day who told us that there were new fences up around Chase Manhattan Plaza, so we couldn't go there," remembers Matt, a protester who was there that first day. "Somebody decided we should go to Zuccotti Park instead."

That decision set in motion a two-month occupation that captured international media attention and refocused the national conversation on issues of corporate power and economic justice. In the following months, the fences around Chase Manhattan Plaza stayed up, even after the protesters were evicted in November and Zuccotti Park was surrounded with its own metal barricades and private security guards.

Segal, who graduated from law school last year, knew the barricades around Zuccotti Park were illegal. As one of the founders of the Brooklyn advocacy group 596 Acres, she has plenty of experience fighting to make vacant public lots accessible to the neighborhoods around them.

"I work to take fences down," Segal says. "That's mostly what I do."

To reopen Zuccotti Park, Segal launched a campaign with the Department of Buildings and solicited hundreds of complaints that the barricades were illegal, a violation of the park's status as a privately owned public space. The city's zoning code is specific and clear about what private owners can do in such spaces, and the fences weren't allowed.

At first, the Department of Buildings didn't respond, so early this year, Segal drafted an open letter and got some big-name institutional signatories, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild, of which she's a member. The response was swift: On January 10, the barricades came down, and joyful protesters came streaming back into the park.

With that victory under her belt, Segal is now turning her attention to the place where it all started—or, rather, the place it was all supposed to start: Chase Manhattan Plaza. This legal case is trickier: Completed in 1964, before the city embraced privately owned public spaces in its zoning code, Chase Manhattan Plaza isn't governed by those rules.

Instead, Segal is pushing on two other fronts. "Because the plaza was given landmark status in 2009, the owners aren't allowed to make significant changes to it without permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission," she says. "They never asked for permission for the fences." Commission spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon told the Voice the commission considers the fencing removable, and therefore outside the commission's purview. Segal is considering an appeal.

"It's been four months," Segal says. "How long does this go on before we can agree it's not temporary? Besides, the last application they made to the landmarks commission was to erect scaffolding to clean the sculptures—that was certainly temporary."

Perhaps anticipating this issue, Chase put up fences that look almost self-consciously temporary, physically unattached to the plaza and held in place only by sandbags. That's where Segal's other tack comes in. She is once again filing complaints with the Department of Buildings and arguing that the fencing violates the department's basic fencing-safety regulations. A DOB spokesman said the department was looking into the complaints.

The real issue for Segal isn't the safety of the barriers. It's that they block public access to the plaza.

"This has been open to the public for 50 years," Segal says. "When the city counts how much open public space is available in Community Board 1, they count this plaza. It should be open."

Segal has some prestigious allies in this fight. Ronald Shiffman, a leading voice in city-planning issues and a professor at Pratt, says Chase can't just wall the plaza off. "The architects designed it to be accessible," he says. "There is an obligation on behalf of the owners to keep these spaces alive and open to the public."

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8 comments
Monique Ross-McCoy
Monique Ross-McCoy

We need voices like Paula Segal speaking out....we all should take a stand for whats right! You give an inch you just might lose a mile.

Cas_eindhoven
Cas_eindhoven

I don't know how you folks remain so positive, but God bless y'all. Can't imagine playing the man's game, if you know what I mean, even if it is the only game in town....

One day I'll be inspired to join in and take action, too.

Paula Z. Segal
Paula Z. Segal

The phone number for Landmarks is 212-669-7951. Tomorrow is a great day to give them a ring to talk about whether a fence that has been up for 4 months and seems to be staying up indefinitely is "temporary." You might want to use the below language from the Landmarks Designation Report (available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/do..., which also contains photographs of the places we can't get to now.

"Not only did it stand out sharply from its older masonry neighbors, but the planning of the site, incorporating an irregularly shaped 2½ acre plaza, established a welcome break from the narrow, twisting streets that characterize much ofthe neighborhood."

"The plaza was intended to be one of the project’s most dramatic and distinctive features. It isolates the tower from its older masonry neighbors and the empty space functions as an elegantly minimal forecourt or, as Architectural Forum described it, a 'front yard.'"

"As originally built, the raised plaza was reached from three marble staircases, each with a different design. The widest and most elaborate stairs is located to the south and adjoins Pine Street. Due to the sloping site, it was designed with a second set of deep cantilevered risers to the east. The west stairs is located near the intersection of Nassau Street and Cedar Street and consists of two elements: a staircase that narrows slightly as it descends to the concourse level and behind it, a wider staircase, which rises onto the plaza. The east stairs descend to where William Street meets Cedar."

"The south plaza’s most conspicuous feature is Isamu Noguchi’s “Sunken Garden"... this unique sculptural work was commissioned for public view. This type of patronage was not uncommon in the late 1950s when large, often colorful, pieces of abstract art were frequently introduced into office building lobbies, bank interiors, restaurants and airline terminals."

"The plaza’s “Sunken Garden” is sited in a circular well between the south stairs and a raised cantilevered marble planting bed that is original and adjoins the east facade of 20 Pine Street. The 60-foot diameter garden is well preserved; it was designed to be viewed from the plaza..."

"On the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture and other features of this building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission finds that One Chase Manhattan Plaza has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York City."

See http://whownspace.blogspot.com... for further updates.

Richie Shakin' Nagan
Richie Shakin' Nagan

I have just sent this email to the First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Buildings:

Dear Commissioner:

The Manhattan Construction Division has responded to the complaints I filed.

As to the complaint that the egress is blocked they respond that it is not blocked. The plaza that the exit doors from the lobby egress to is blocked by fences and as we all know, egress must continue to the street. People exiting into the plaza cannot get to the street. While there may be other egress from the building that is adequate in size and number it is not for the building owners to decide. The change must be filed and approved by the Department of Buildings.

As to the complaints that the fences were erected without a permit and that they were not properly erected they respond that there is no construction fence at the site. The complaints were not about a construction fence and anyone can clearly see that fences, held down by sandbags have been erected at the top of the stairs along the perimeter of the plaza. No plans were filed for the erection of the fences and no permit issued to erect them and, fences being held down by sandbags is not according to the Building Code and are a danger of being blown over in a high wind and injuring, maiming or killing people. After all, a huge billboard being supported by a huge steel pole embedded in concrete below the ground toppled a couple of weeks ago in a high wind.

Please reinspect and issue the proper violations for the safety of the citizens and visitors of this city.

Richard NaganNagan Ex, Inc.1028 Neill AvenueBronx, NY 10461Tel (718) 892-0917

Richie Shakin' Nagan
Richie Shakin' Nagan

The DOB has responded to the complaints that I filed at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, The claim the egress is is not blocked, which is false as the egress has to continue to the street and that there is no construction fence at the site. The complaint was not filed for a construction fence. I will be calling the Manhattan Chief Inspector tomorrow morning.

I am a Building Department expediter and a Building and Zoning Law Consultant. When I saw the pictures of the barricades around Zuccotti Park I knew that it violated the Zoning Resolution as to the arrangement and operation of the plaza and immediately called in several complaints and contacted the National Lawyers Guild about it. I then called the Commissioner's office repeatedly until Deputy Commissioner Tom Farrielo called me back and we discussed the issue. They assigned the complaints to the Special Operations Unit and they sent an inspector out and decided that the two entrances were sufficient and noted a large police presence. I emailed the Chief Inspector of Special Operations and quoted the applicable sections of the law. They resent an inspector out and decided that the owner's were not liable as the barricades were NYPD property. At the same time the DOB got the letter from the lawyers and, viola, the barricades came down.

Richie Shakin' Nagan
Richie Shakin' Nagan

I have filed three complaints with the DOB:1) The fences were erected without a permit.2) The fences block the approved egress of the building.3) The fences are dangerous as they were not installed as per the Building Code.

I am keeping after the DOB to inspect and issue violations on these complaints.

 
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