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.
“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.”
Regardless of how the Chase Manhattan Plaza is resolved, Segal and her partners say it’s just the beginning. Working with a collective of urban-design experts and public-space advocates called #whOWNSpace, she has lined up dozens of other supposedly public spaces in New York that are actually closed to the public.
“Our goal is to tackle one of these a month,” Segal says. “This is an issue throughout the city.”