On Frozen Pond

Before setting foot or skate on the ice at Bryant Park’s Citi Pond, it’s important to put aside any notions of what skating outdoors should be. This is not the place for nostalgic laps under the open sky, or a chance to clear your head from the hectic hustle of the holiday season. This is something entirely different. The lights, the crowds, the spectacle: skating at Citi Pond is more akin to stepping inside a snow globe – if that snow globe were sponsored by Citibank. Yet far from alienating park goers, Citi Pond has become a wild success. Skating its choppy surface against the iconic backdrop of Midtown is an annual rite of passage for New Yorkers and visitors alike.

Started in 2005, Citi Pond is now in its seventh season. Originally the brainchild of Daniel A. Biederman, executive director of the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC) in the 1990s, the free skating rink was installed not for the pleasure of the park’s constituents but in order to drive traffic to the struggling pop-up holiday market that lines the park for 10 weeks from October to January. According to Biederman, “The business concept is this helps the market and the market helps this.” Because the private BPC, which manages the public park for the city, could not afford the $4 million price tag of installing a portable rink, they sought corporate sponsorship from Citibank, which continues to foot the annual bill in exchange for the right to advertise (heavily) within the park. Rebranded from “The Pond at Bryant Park,” to the more clever “Citi Pond at Bryant Park” in 2010 – this winter wonderland is a model for successful single sponsorship of public space.

The Citibank advertising is so ubiquitous, in fact, it almost recedes from view. The 17,000 square foot oblong rink is framed on four sides by 15-foot-tall banner advertisements for its sponsor. Held in place with elaborate aluminum rigging and framed by blinding banks of klieg lights, the banners don’t advertise Citibank’s services but instead shout friendly encouragements to get out on the ice. “Leave your boredom with your shoes,” reads one, “Skate in circles and unwind,” another. Even the Zamboni, which resurfaces the ice every few hours, carries a small “Citi Pond sponsored by Citibank” banner with the mantra, “If you can read this, you’re the perfect distance from work.” The design of the banners is sparse, a Citi Pond logo at top, large blue rounded sans serif copy below, and silhouetted figures skating against a white snowscape in the bottom third. It’s rather benign as far as advertisements go, and preferable to the loud billboards or non-themed ads imaginable if each space were sold instead to the highest bidder. The ads were designed by specialty development firm Upsilon Ventures, a hybrid marketing, event and production company responsible for the creation not just of Citi Pond, but the entire winter-themed venue including The Holiday Shops, and Celsius, the two-story pop-up restaurant at the rink’s edge.

Once swayed by the advertisements’ call to “Loosen your tie,” and “Tighten your skates,” skaters must queue up on the 40th Street side of the park to gain access to the ice. It is here that the whole endeavor starts to feel less like an outdoor adventure and more like a trip to the airport by way of a Midtown club. The entrance to the plastic and plexiglass structure that houses skate rental, bag storage and concession stands, is guarded by 2 hulking bodyguards and lined with retractable rope. Instead of red carpet, skaters stand in line atop low-pile, speckled, dark blue rugs. Admission is free thanks to Citibank’s sponsorship (unlike most rinks within city limits) but skate rental costs $14, and checking a bag adds an additional $7. As night falls, the structure glows blue from within, and giant white snowflakes are projected onto the carpeting inside and out.

The scene, once you’re safely inside, is strangely familiar. A mash-up of airport, ski lodge and roller rink comes to mind as the circular benches and banks of standard gray lockers come into view. This temporary tent-like construction is ostensibly set-up anew each season, but the furniture looks like its been here for years. The white painted wood benches are chipped, giving them the look of aged concrete, while the red vinyl bench pads are ripped and torn in many places. Rounded fiberglass archways with inset pink lights flank the snack bar and locker area, an oddly futuristic yet dated detail. The rental skates are gray and nondescript and it’s a little surprising Citibank missed this opportunity to brand them with at least a logo or some zippy copy – perhaps when not in use at Citi Pond they travel to some other locale for the off-season? In fact, the interior could benefit from more branding. What works so well surrounding the rink, is the unifying effect of Citibank’s omnipresent ads – the sweet slogans and simple graphics make the space feel cohesive, encompassing, and far from temporary. Inside, static logos play on mounted flat screens, but the mismatched furniture and unadorned walls emphasize the makeshift environs; the overall theme is momentarily lost.

Less crowded during morning and afternoon hours, the pond fills up in the evenings with couples, children, and teenagers. Stepping out onto the ice, lights bright and the jazz standards blaring, there’s a moment of exhilaration as your skates make first contact. Circling the rink in a mess of people who are mostly stumbling or holding onto the sideboards for dear life is more fun than it should be. While impossible to get up to high speeds, it’s still a good time – everyone is smiling, laughing, or shouting. Past the shining lights and the towering blue-lit tree on the eastern edge of the park, stand some of New York’s greatest buildings: The New York Public Library to the west, itself the pinnacle of Beaux-Arts design, Raymond Hood’s American Radiator Building clad in black brick and gold to the south, and to the north the graceful form of the W.R. Grace building.

Glittering backdrop aside, overall Citi Pond delivers an aesthetically pleasing, successfully branded experience. By embracing the single sponsor model in a temporary space, visual cacophony is avoided and a sense of place remains. The Project for Public Spaces points to the park’s good management, and its ability to “develop and implement innovative ideas to attract people during all seasons.” The creative approach of the BPC in making the Citi Pond experience a destination, coupled with its attractive programming provides a rare example of corporate sponsorship done right. As impermanent architecture becomes more prevalent in the city (via pop-up shops or other fleeting endeavors), and the economic climate forces many parks to fundraise for themselves, the template of this park’s success is a useful guide.

Last year Bryant Park was named one of the 10 best “Great Public Spaces” in the nation by the American Planning Association, and after skating around its fake yet enchanting “pond” I’d have to agree. With a deft mix of public and private partnership, tasteful sponsorship, and one frozen surface, Citi Pond succeeds in unique placemaking. Sure, skating here is not the same simple pleasure we might remember from childhood, but a grown-up New York version of the same – keep that in mind and you won’t be disappointed. As the ad says, “A story with a triple axel is one worth telling.”

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