Public Space as an Office Amenity
Chicago, IL | October 09, 2018
The public plaza at 425 S. Financial Place is currently undergoing a dramatic makeover. Renamed as the Gateway Plaza, building ownership approved this substantial investment to make the building more attractive to potential office tenants and retain those already in lease at the property. Along with the plaza renovation, the building is changing its name from 440 S. LaSalle to 425 S. Financial Place at Gateway Plaza to position the space as the main entry way for the property, a move signifying the importance of this new public space to the property’s overall value. Now tenants, prospective tenants, and their clients arriving at the building will enjoy the convenience of a curb cut and will be routed through an active plaza.
Wolf Landscape Architecture designed the 45,000 square foot Gateway Plaza with the goal to activate the area as a gathering space for nearby office tenants, tourists, and community members. The major renovations include replacing fixed seating with raised patios that feature seasonal planters, movable tables, umbrellas and soft seating, plus increasing visibility across the plaza with updated overhead lighting. A new restaurant, Taureaux Tavern, will be an added benefit, which will include outdoor patio seating. Although the design’s ability to attract people has yet to be seen, these efforts are likely to be successful because they are informed by a long history of research into what makes public spaces attractive to users. This blog will review some of the factors at play in Chicago’s public plazas and what makes them effective or ineffective at attracting people.
Not all public spaces are created equal. Some are full of activity on any given day, while others are typically found empty, except for a few solo users. In the 1970s, urban theorist William Whyte conducted a study of public spaces in large American cities. Whyte concluded that people watching is one of the most important draws of public space. However, in order for people watching to occur, people must actually be present. Through his team’s observations of human interaction in public plazas, Whyte was able to determine seven factors that can lead to an effective public space which he outlined in the 1979 book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (also a 1980 film). So, which design elements make some public plazas more attractive to users than others?
Chicago’s Exelon Plaza, located at the Chase Tower on 10 S. Dearborn, meets all of Whyte’s seven factors. The plaza is situated below street level and offers plenty of movable seating. According to Whyte, in order for a plaza to attract attention, it needs to have a relationship with the street to draw in passersby. Generally, sunken plazas like Exelon negate any relationship to the street and run the risk of becoming desolate areas. However, Exelon is an exception. Its cascading stairs lead all the way up to the street, giving pedestrians easy access and a clear view of the plaza below. Most of the trees in Exelon are at street level. The shade invites people walking on the street to stand and linger with a clear view of the plaza. In this case, the trees work as a lure to entice walkers down into the space. Additionally, the plaza is in proximity to several lunch options, including food trucks that regularly populate the Loop.
One contributing factor to Exelon’s success that doesn’t fall under Whyte’s categories is the plaza’s proximity to the CTA blue line. Exelon is at the center of Chicago’s Central Business District and grants easy access to the train, serving as many commuters point of exit and entry to the city. This gives the plaza plenty of foot traffic, increasing the opportunity for people watching.
The focal point of the plaza is a large fountain with alternating jet sprays that cool the space and offer easy entertainment. Along with the mosaic by artist Marc Chagall, the water feature works as triangulation, a term coined by Whyte. A good example of triangulation is a street performer that gathers a crowd and whose act can spark up conversation between strangers. However, Exelon’s forms of triangulation are not as effective as event programming, street entertainers, or interactive sculptures.
Daley Plaza is another of Chicago’s prominent public places, known for its use as a civic center. Daley is one of the city’s best examples of successful triangulation. The plaza’s Picasso sculpture stands 50 feet tall and was donated to the city by Picasso in 1967. The Picasso’s ambiguous form intrigues pedestrians and doubles as a play structure for children. Families can be seen gathered around the Picasso during the day, watching as their children have a good time on the invaluable piece of art.
The plaza also has comprehensive, year-round programming for community events, bazaars, rallies, and other forms of civic engagement. During the summer months, Daley Plaza holds its popular Farmer’s Market, and in Winter, it is home to the Christkindlmarket. Recently, the plaza became available to rent for private events and weddings.
Daley Plaza also includes all of Whyte’s factors. There is a water feature that contributes to the space’s aesthetic and offers additional curb seating. The space offers plenty of bench seating as well, but the available tables and chairs are attached to each other, which according to Whyte, are not as attractive to people as movable chairs and tables. The area also lacks sufficient shade, with most of its trees located in only one corner of the space. When no events are scheduled, the plaza can feel like a desolate concrete island in the center of the city. Otherwise, there is a rarely a day when the plaza isn’t hosting a performance on the main stage or a scheduled community event where people can be seen coming together as a community.
At 150 N. Riverside, one of the newer buildings in the Central Business District, there is a winding public space on the building’s westside. The park is sheltered from the elements by trees and the property itself. Unfortunately, it is also sheltered from the river, which could otherwise serve as a source of relaxation and entertainment. There are no real opportunities for triangulation at the space, and few food options. Additionally, seating is limited, and the space features a planter instead of something more alluring, such as a water feature.
What’s more, 150 N. Riverside’s public space has no relationship with the street, which is one of the most detracting elements in line with Whyte’s factors. The space is almost a full floor above street level, eliminating any visibility and all street proximity. To access the park, a pedestrian must find one of the two staircases that are somewhat hidden from view, reducing the amount of foot traffic. Less people means less opportunity for people watching, which in turn creates an inactive public space. To the space’s credit, there is quite a bit of tree coverage and greenery, giving the winding path of the park a natural feel, unique to Chicago’s urban environment. Though 150 N. Riverside’s public area may not meet Whyte’s definition of an effective public space, it does have the unique quality of privacy for those seeking a quiet, relaxing atmosphere.
At Michigan Plaza, the street proximity is ideal. The plaza is located on one of Chicago’s busiest intersections and is very visible and accessible from the street, amplifying pedestrian activity. Seating also surrounds the space’s perimeter, facing inward and out towards the street for optimal people watching. However, Michigan Plaza’s table seating is limited to fixed picnic tables, keeping users from making adjustments according to their personal preference.
Trees, and the property’s two towers themselves, effectively shelter users from the elements, and the space is a popular lunch spot close to several restaurants. Likely due in part to the space’s limited size, it does not include a water fountain. Although this is one of Whyte’s seven principles, the feature is hardly missed in a space that hosts weekly live music, an effective opportunity for triangulation. The Michigan Plaza Instagram account often notifies the public of events.
The renovation plan for the Gateway Plaza at 425 S. Financial successfully implements Whyte’s seven factors which have become pervasive in how planners design outdoor public space. With the space’s vast open area, building management plans to implement regular event programming for tenants and the South Loop community. The plaza already had sufficient tree coverage, a water feature, and nearby food options. With the renovation, the designers plan to increase visibility and street proximity by installing monument signage, which will make the plaza more inviting from the Van Buren entrance. Through the inclusion of these tried and true public design factors, the Gateway Plaza at 425 S. Financial will likely become an effective public plaza that will improve tenant satisfaction and will increase leasing for the building and property values in the neighborhood.
Click to see more of MBRE's research here.