Times Square: Countdown To New Career

February 26, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau of The Sun

NEW YORK -- Since becoming famous 100 years ago as the heart of Broadway shows, Times Square has had a spectacular career that ended in failure. Now it's working on a second.

In playing the role of the city's pulse over the first half of this century, Times Square was the glitziest, most frantic intersection in the world's most famous city.

But by the 1950s, this role was failing, and Times Square began to deteriorate quickly -- even faster than the city itself.

As television and the suburbs sucked away the audiences from its rows of theaters, porno flicks took over and crime ruled the streets. Although still the site of the televised New Year's countdown and a magnet for 20 million tourists each year, the area became a run-down, seedy parody of itself.

Ten years ago, city and state officials decided to end Times Square's role as the city's symbolic sewer and launch the district a new career -- as a model of urban redevelopment. Now, that effort is slowly bearing fruit, as the city and state have thrown out most of the porno shops, freeing the area of red-light business and driving down crime rates.

Help also has come from private enterprise: A 2-year-old business improvement district raises $4.5 million a year to clean sidewalks, pay for 39 extra security officers and jazz up the famous billboards.

This has paved the way for a growing tide of businesses to return to the famous district of Broadway and Seventh Avenue between 40th and 53rd streets. Restaurants have opened and retail stores are rumored to be moving into the area.

The biggest coup came earlier this month, when Walt Disney Co signed a contract to restore the ornate New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street for $29 million. Disney plans to have live performances in the landmark theater by September 1996.

Even the bankrupt office towers that ringed the area are now showing signs of life. Investment bank Morgan Stanley decided last fall to move its 3,800 employees from Wall Street to one empty tower that it bought for $175 million, while German giant Bertelsmann AG, which owns publishers Bantam and Doubleday well as recording company RCA, bought another.

That has allowed the property market to rebound: Rents have stabilized at $100 to $175 a square foot -- comparable to rents on Madison and Fifth Avenues.

"This is more than just redeveloping 42nd Street and Times Square; it's also about helping this city's morale. What does it say when you have the sewer of the city right off Times Square?" said Rebecca Robertson, president of the New York State-sponsored 42nd Street Development Project.

At the core of Ms. Robertson's efforts are special powers that enable her to take title to many of the porno shops, evict the tenants and invite private developers to renovate the grounds.

Over the past decade, the development project has gained control of nine of the district's 13 acres. Of the 150 porno shops and triple-X movie theaters in the area, about 100 have been closed down. Another 23 are scheduled for closure later this spring when the city spends $35 million to acquire a 1.3-acre parcel between 42nd and 43rd streets.

That leaves the central part of Times Square -- the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue -- free of red-light business. The remaining ones are on the fringes of the district toward the west.

Although the progress has been remarkable, even its boosters concede that the new Times Square is still swimming against the latest trends of popular culture.

The current wisdom has it that people will be spending even more of their time watching television thanks to new technology that would have homes connected to entertainment and

information companies by fiber optic cables. Instead of going to a first-run movie or the theater, viewers could use their remote control to call up movies, games and books.

"One of the things we're trying to do is go against the 'information highway.' Instead of cocooning yourself in your house, we're betting that quite a few people will want to get out and see something live," said Peter Kohlman, special events director for the Times Square Business Improvement Dis trict.

One of the companies betting on this future is Disney, which will commit $8 million of its own money and borrow the other $21 million from the city to renovate the New Amsterdam.

In return for lending the money to Disney at just 3 percent interest, the city will get 2 percent of revenues up to $20 million and 3 percent of revenues over $20 million for the life of the 49-year lease. Those revenues are more than just ticket sales, Ms. Robertson said. They include Disney's hot-selling merchandise, so the city will likely get a fair return on its investment.

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