Saving Times Square

August 11, 1992

News from the North: Times Square in New York has been saved. That is, saved from the plan to save it by obliteration and replacement. What is left is Times Square, the show and tourism center of Gotham, long since gone more squalid and sometimes-scary than Baltimore's Block after midnight.

The plan was to save Times Square from its decades-long descent by an office redevelopment so massive that sleaze would be priced out. This project -- four massive towers, a trade mart, a hotel and renovation of historic run-down theaters -- was announced by city and state in 1981. Developers and architects were chosen the next year, their plan approved in 1984. What's happened since then has been a steady condemnation and removal of small tenants from the real Times Square, and withdrawal from the fantasy deal by the classy big tenants counted on to replace them.

Now city and state are releasing the developer from the timetable and approving piecemeal redevelopment on a market-driven scale. That has been happening north of the condemned area anyway, with a recently opened glitzy hotel. The developers can still build their office towers one at a time if they find tenants, but nobody expects that soon.

This reprieve of the real Times Square, with its small theaters and tiny businesses and dubious entertainments, represents no change of heart. Just realism. It has much to do with the failure of the huge Canary Wharf project in London; the bankruptcy of its Canadian developer, Olympia & York; the distress of big banks, from mad lending to speculative office development; the glut of empty office structures all over Manhattan. "Build it and they will come" is good movie fantasy, bad business philosophy. The first requisite of commerce is assurance that someone wants it.

The moral for smaller cities is obvious. Baltimore's own version of this plan, Market Center, was abandoned as too grandiose. Only the cleared spaces remain. Massive development is not likely in any American city's near future. They will have to save deteriorating downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods with more modest proposals.

Meanwhile, Times Square lives, sort of; still beckons the Amtrak tourist, and still needs cleaning out and fixing up and new attractions. It always did.

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