IN LATE DECEMBER 1976, Alexander Parker, real estate magnate, gazed down upon 42nd Street and saw a world made new. A reporter for a business magazine wrote, breathlessly: “Alex Parker stands in the large, high-ceiling board room with floor-to-ceiling arched windows looking out over Times Square. He doesn’t see the prostitutes, pimps, molesters, muggers. He says he sees a huge, shining complex where tourists will flock for excitement of another kind in a revitalized Times Square.” Parker was a Times Square arriviste, a developer who owned properties in the Garment District, in the West Thirties. The year before, he had purchased 1 Times Square, the old Times Tower, the fountainhead of Times Square, from the Allied Chemical Corporation; and it was from the old boardroom of the Times that he had launched his dream of a new 42nd Street. The “huge, shining complex” was a convention center, which would stretch from 40th to 43rd Street and from Seventh to Eighth Avenue. The rendering depicted in the article has the sterile beauty of a thing imagined ex nihilo: a plaza with gardens and fountains and walkways leading to a cluster of rectangular granite slabs, which would presumably house the conventioneers. Parker said that he planned to use “a large wrecking ball . . . to crush the decaying structures” of the old 42nd Street. And in fact not only the prostitutes and muggers, but the street itself, and even the street plan, have been eradicated from the picture. This new 42nd Street bears a strong resemblance to the United Nations Plaza.
Parker’s timing wasn’t very good. By 1976, the real estate market, and New York City’s economy, had collapsed; he never managed to raise the $500 million he said he needed for the convention center. He ultimately sold the oft-sold 1 Times Square, and then disappeared from the history of Times Square and 42nd Street. But the dream, as it were, lived on. By the mid-1970s, 42nd Street was understood to be a dead place. Once it had been the very heart of the greatest city in the world; now, like New York itself, it felt like a relic, a reminder of past glories. Yet 42nd Street could not simply be abandoned, like the polluted terrain of an old factory. At the level of symbolism, the block’s predatory environment was disastrous for a city that already had a well-deserved reputation as one of the seamiest and most dangerous places in the country. What’s more, it was located in the heart of Manhattan, at the convergence of subway lines and bus lines and at the intersection of major streets. Here was a wasting asset of colossal proportions. The authors of the Bright Light study noted that “commercial lenders who have business in midtown Manhattan regard the Times Square area as a prime location for investment,” but added: “This mood depends on continuous action on plans to renew the 42nd Street Bright Lights District.” It is worth noting the difference between “Times Square” and “42nd Street” in this calculus: while the entire area was degraded, and in need of rejuvenation, it was understood that the distinctive pathologies of 42nd Street were the chief problem to be addressed. In the process of redevelopment, the destinies of 42nd Street and Times Square came to be seen as linked, but nevertheless separate.
And so men like Alexander Parker stood high above 42nd Street and imagined it anew. Forty-second Street’s very centrality, its antique associations, made it a thrilling screen on which to project visions of an urban future. And yet what a strange tabula rasa! Here was a teeming block in the midst of a teeming city, a block whose glamorous buildings were very much intact, if terribly degraded. Could such a place actually be called dead? Could it be “rescued,” rather than obliterated? And if so, what was to be preserved? The buildings themselves? The “spirit” of the place? Which spirit? The lobster palace society of 1910 or the carny, flea-circus world of 1940? Was the underworld once again to meet the elite? Or was the whole idea of consciously and conscientiously designing a place that for generations had been a monument to the ungovernable appetites of urban man an absurdity, a self-contradiction? Starting in the 1960s, and then increasingly in the seventies and eighties, 42nd Street became a place to be saved, restored, reimagined. The process of redevelopment became a cockpit of competing ideas not only about 42nd Street and Times Square, but about urban life itself.
At the same time, since urban development is a quintessentially political process rather than an aesthetic exercise, these ideas and images were wielded by different individuals and groups with their own interests and their own sources and degrees of power: real estate developers, urban planners, government officials, theater owners, editorialists, urban flaneurs, and, not to put too fine a point upon it, real estate developers. The prize would not necessarily go to the best or most popular idea— Alexander Parker, after all, had no plans to ask anybody whether they wanted a convention center—so the debate over the redevelopment of 42nd Street was also a struggle over who had “the public interest” at heart, and who would be able to impose that vision.
It is quite possible that there were no good answers to the problem of re-creating 42nd Street. There were only answers that would disappoint different people, in different ways.
ALEXANDER PARKER’S BULLDOZER approach was already becoming passé by the mid-1970s, for the excesses of “urban renewal” had convinced even the most pragmatic that cities could not survive the wholesale destruction of their history and texture. Now 42nd Street began to attract reformers who recognized that the block still had a life of its own, and who thus wanted to rejuvenate rather than flatten it. In 1976, just as Parker was wowing the business press with his grandiose plans, an advertising executive and urban gadfly named Fred Papert was establishing the 42nd Street Development Corporation in hopes of revitalizing the western end of the street. Papert was able to draw on funding from major foundations to create a string of small theaters, now known collectively as Theater Row, west of Ninth Avenue. Papert also had the ingenious idea— or at least is among the half dozen or so people who claim to have had the idea—of offering subsidized apartments in a federally funded project on Tenth Avenue to artists and performers. Papert imagined West 42nd Street as a burgeoning cultural zone. He began to look east, toward the notoriously incorrigible block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and he turned for support to his principal patron, the Ford Foundation.
Ford was then, and is now, not only one of the largest foundations in the country but one of the most prestigious institutions in the city, a charter member of New York’s cultural elite. The foundation’s headquarters, a glittering glass box, was located on the east side of 42nd Street, and the foundation had in no way sought to identify itself with the tawdry block to the west, or for that matter with the world of popular and commercial culture embodied by 42nd Street. But Ford had a large stake in high culture; and, at about the same time as Fred Papert approached the foundation, Roger Kennedy, the Ford official who oversaw arts programs, was looking to buy a theater for the dance companies the foundation subsidized. He had asked Richard Weinstein, an architect, and Donald Elliot, an urban planner, to take a look at the fabled, and long abandoned, New Amsterdam Theatre just west of Seventh Avenue. The two reported back that the block was such a shambles that no one would come to the New Amsterdam, even if it was restored to its original glory. Kennedy gave them a small grant to think about what, if anything, could be done with 42nd Street. This is how the Ford Foundation backed into a peculiar role as the patron and prime mover of 42nd Street redevelopment.
The project began modestly; Weinstein says that the initial goal was to “look for ways to bring commercial development to the block, with the idea that we skim some of the benefits to redevelop the theaters, and in the process get rid of the pornography.” But developers told Weinstein and Elliott that their plans wouldn’t generate sufficient capital to restore the theaters, so they began thinking in far more ambitious terms. By the time the new group, including Papert, met at the Ford Foundation in February 1978, Weinstein had devised a plan as grandiose as Parker’s. “The plan,” he explained, according to notes of the meeting,
includes converting the ten existing second-floor auditoria in the theater buildings into a consumer-oriented exposition center with people moving across 42nd Street by means of pedestrian bridges. The expositions would be sponsored by major corporations for promotional purposes and would create an audio-visual experience similar in technique to that utilized by the Smithsonian’s National Space Museum. The ground floor would be developed for retail and restaurant business designed for the middle-class population (estimated to be between 200,000–300,000 people a day) going through the Port of Authority [sic] Terminal.
Thus was born Cityscape, a theme park in the heart of Manhattan. Customers would buy tickets and circulate among the rides and exhibits. Like any theme park, Cityscape was designed as a self-contained world, two city blocks encased in glass and communicating with each other not principally by way of the street but through aerial walkways. Unlike Alexander Parker’s pastoralized plaza, Cityscape offered an extremely inventive and even playful rendition of 42nd Street’s character, adapting its identity as a rialto of popular entertainment to a new culture and new technology. Weinstein hired the artists and designers who had created the celebrated Czech pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, including Milos For-man, as well as the design firm of Chermayeff & Geismar, which was responsible for the American pavilion—the one with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome—and the accompanying exhibit at Osaka in 1970. Cityscape was not a preservation project: its premise was that 42nd Street needed to be projected forward rather than backward.
The design firm produced a cutaway aerial view of the project which today has about it a Flash Gordon sense of the fantastical. A monorail runs all around the perimeter on an upper floor—the orientation ride. Then, moving from east to west along the southern side of 42nd Street, the plan shows a theater containing “the world’s largest movie screen,” utilizing the then novel IMAX technology to offer a bird’s-eye view of the city’s five boroughs; the restored New Amsterdam Theatre and two other legitimate theaters; a kind of fashion theater in which a narrator, according to Weinstein, explains “the relationship between fashion and the social-cultural-political moment the fashion was created from,” while lights pick out mannequins lined up in niches along the walls (after which viewers would be treated to an actual fashion show); and sound stages and studios where visitors could watch commercials or television shows being made. The northern side of the block included the project’s two most ingenious inventions: a conical theater in which patrons seated around a spiraling rim would look straight down at a movie screen showing a balloon’s-eye view of the world’s great cities, and a Ferris wheel, “The Slice of Life,” in which viewers would appear to rise from the cables and tunnels far beneath the streets all the way to the rooftops of the highest skyscrapers—“to make people understand the city as a sectional reality,” as Weinstein said.
For all its imaginative richness, Cityscape was steeped in self-contradiction. Here, after all, was a theme park whose theme was “the city,” which is to say that it would function as a simulacrum of urban life while urban life in all its messy actuality tumbled along the street on the other side of the walls. Here was a controlled environment designed to illustrate the urban creativity that springs from uncontrol. Underlying the Cityscape plan was something of that horror of the streets, and of their culture, which had made Alexander Parker brag about large wrecking balls. And the figures behind Cityscape, unlike Parker, were not moved by calculations of self-interest; they were reacting to what was a virtually con-sensual view of 42nd Street, and perhaps more broadly of the urban street itself. The Bright Light study, which Ford had commissioned, seemed only to confirm the sense of 42nd Street as irretrievably lost, though the authors themselves scarcely took this view. “At the time,” says Fred Papert, “all you had to say was ‘Forty-second Street’ or ‘Times Square,’ and it evoked a groan. So part of the appeal was that you were protected or isolated from the street.” Roger Kennedy, especially, did not view the idea of enclosure as inimical to urban life. Before coming to Ford, he had worked as a banker in St. Paul and had funded a downtown redevelopment that had connected buildings with aerial bridges. Just as St. Paul had arctic blasts, so the streets of New York had obstacles of their own. “If you want to go to dinner or theater without putting your coat on, that’s pretty nice in New York,” says Kennedy. “It’s not a bad thing not to have your pants splashed walking past an ugly puddle. And if someone’s going to put their hand in your pocket, that’s an additional reason.”
The project required the approval of city officials, who would have had to condemn the private property along the block and turn it over to Cityscape. The designers built an elaborate model of the project, and in late 1978 and early 1979 invited journalists, civic figures, potential investors, and officials from the administration of Mayor Ed Koch to come to the Ford Foundation’s splendid headquarters for a viewing. Both the model and the project itself were generally well-received, save by one all-important figure: Mayor Koch himself. The mayor had apparently taken a visceral dislike to the model. In an interview with Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of The New York Times, Koch said, “New York cannot and should not compete with Disneyland—that’s for Florida. People do not come to midtown Manhattan to take a ride on some machine. This is a nice plan and we want to be supportive—but we have to be sure that it is fleshed out in a way appropriate to New York.” And then came the killing, very Kochian bon mot: “We’ve got to make sure that they have seltzer instead of orange juice.” It was an unforgettable kiss-off. “The Disneyland image was so powerful,” Weinstein says, “that no matter how we advanced the substance of what we were trying to do, it was nevertheless perceived as an urban theme park.”
Nor was that all. It had become plain that the cost of buying the condemned property and of building the attraction would greatly exceed the revenues from corporate sponsorships and paying customers. So Cityscape underwent another transformation. What had begun as a modest attempt to revitalize a block had expanded into a theme park; now the theme park expanded yet again, into a giant real estate venture. The organization’s financial advisers concluded that Cityscape, now known by the more corporate-sounding title “The City at 42nd Street,” would have to include substantial office development and then plug the revenue gap with rental payments. Paul Reichmann, head of the Canadian development firm Olympia & York, agreed to build office towers on three parcels at the crossroads of Seventh Avenue and Broadway; in order to make the deal more attractive, the City at 42nd Street agreed to transfer the unused “air rights” available in the middle of the block to the three parcels, thus allowing the developer to build a much larger structure than zoning regulations would otherwise have permitted. Rockefeller Center, Inc., and Harry Helmsley, one of the city’s biggest real estate operators, also agreed to construct a “fashion mart,” which would run from 40th Street to 42nd and would take up an additional 2.3 million square feet. Since the attraction itself amounted to slightly over 500,000 square feet (and the restaurants and retail downstairs occupied an approximately equal space), the enormous tail of real estate would now be wagging the rather modest dog of entertainment. The City at 42nd Street was now a blockbuster project that would transform the street almost as drastically as Parker’s convention center would have done.
Mayor Koch had never actually pronounced a death sentence on the City at 42nd Street; and as the project grew into a juggernaut involving many of New York’s leading foundations, financial institutions, and real estate developers, it seemed that the resurrection of 42nd Street was finally at hand. But it wasn’t. In May 1980, the Koch administration finally rejected the plan. At the press conference at which he administered the coup de grâce, Koch dispensed with orange juice and seltzer in order to discuss the city’s role in development. “We aren’t going to let one group get the inside track,” he said, “no matter how good they are.” For all its avowals of public-spiritedness, the City at 42nd Street was a private project; in New York, with its tradition of strong government, accepting private control over so symbolically fraught a piece of property would have been an abdication of municipal authority.
And yet the Disneyland factor was never far from Koch’s mind. These many years later, the former mayor vividly recalls his trip to the Ford Foundation to see the model. Koch was seventy-seven years old at the time of this recent conversation, perfectly bald, potbellied and suspendered, but he was every bit as vociferous, as theatrically hyperbolic, as he had been as mayor. “Their exhibit included a Ferris wheel on Forty-second Street!” he cried—freshly amazed, across the gulf of decades, at the sheer gall. “It was shit, to put it bluntly. I don’t pretend to be a city planner, but I know dross from gold. So I said, ‘We’re not going to do this.’” Unlike the Establishment figures who sponsored the City at 42nd Street, Koch viewed himself, and was widely accepted as, a son of the sidewalks, the First Cabdriver of a garrulous, wisecracking town. He was the steward not only of the city’s interest but of its zeitgeist. To him, the Ferris wheel symbolized the intrusion of an alien sensibility. Koch would not, on the other hand, find the corporate identity that was about to descend on 42nd Street out of keeping with the street’s turbulent traditions.
MAYOR KOCH’S DECISION to scotch the City at 42nd Street placed his administration under an obligation it could not afford to ignore. The defunct project, whatever its flaws, had given force to the idea that 42nd Street’s degraded state was not an inevitable evolutionary outcome but a condition that could be changed; city officials could no longer satisfy themselves with the usual halfhearted efforts to improve police tactics. A new stage arrived in the process of redevelopment: now it would be public actors, rather than private ones, who devised a destiny for 42nd Street. But they would be reluctant actors. The city was only just emerging from a frightening brush with bankruptcy. And the very idea of heroic, large-scale development had been virtually discredited with the demise of Robert Moses, a legendary figure who, as commissioner of the city’s parks and head of various development agencies, had destroyed neighborhoods in order to build highways and commercial developments, though he was also very much responsible for the city’s system of parks and public beaches. The only major development project the city had promoted in recent years was an underground highway along the Hudson River, known as Westway, which had been locked in bitter debate and litigation since 1972.
In June 1980, only weeks after Koch consigned the City at 42nd Street to the scrap heap, city and state officials signed a memorandum of understanding to work jointly on revitalizing the block. By February of the following year, officials had produced a “discussion document” to be circulated among developers, urban experts, and the press; and in June the group, now constituted as the 42nd Street Development Project, published the General Project Plan, which laid out the scheme’s rationale and goals: “The principal object of the project is to eliminate the blight and physical decay that prevails in the Project Area.” The city had, of course, been trying to eliminate blight along 42nd Street for years without success; the premise of the new plan, like that of the City at 42nd Street, was that piecemeal efforts at reform or enforcement were bound to disappear into the block’s thriving and dysfunctional economy. The project’s environmental impact statement (which was not issued until 1984) confirmed the view advanced in the Bright Light study: “The continuation of the existing uses in the project area will undoubtedly perpetuate the loitering and criminal activity on 42nd Street. . . . Unless and until this perception of ‘turf’ is changed through the introduction of new uses and new users, crime and illegal activities associated with loitering will continue.”
The elimination of blight was a means—but to what end? After an earlier public relations debacle in which the city had agreed to raze two historic theaters in order to make way for a new hotel in Times Square, theater preservation had become a nonnegotiable issue; and so city and state officials vowed to protect and revitalize the New Amsterdam, the Lyric, the Apollo, and the other great 42nd Street theaters, now being used to show pornographic or Grade Z movies. The city also promised to make improvements to subway stations and other public amenities in a way that would “preserve the unique ambience of Times Square.” But most of all, the plan provided for large new office buildings. The General Project Plan foresaw four office towers at the eastern end of the project, which was one more than the City at 42nd Street had proposed. (The plan also adopted from its predecessor the idea of building a merchandise mart, where wholesale goods are sold to retailers, and a hotel, at the western end of the block.) As in that proposal, air rights would be transferred from midblock to permit developers to construct extra-large—indeed, gigantic—towers. Current zoning laws permitted structures on the four parcels to rise as high as 280 to 370 feet; with the additional air rights, they could range from 365 to 705 feet. The tallest of the buildings, at the northeast corner of 42nd and Broadway, would be one of the most massive office buildings constructed in New York in many years. Why were such big buildings necessary? To make everything else possible. Developers would not build in Times Square without large-scale inducements; and without revenues from development, the planning documents explained, it would be impossible to finance improvements or to preserve the theaters. In effect, 42nd Street’s unique character had to be annihilated in order to be preserved.
Why would the construction of office buildings make it possible to improve the subways and preserve the theaters? Because it was the developer, not the city, who would pay for the renovation of 42nd Street. The developer who won the right to build the office towers would be expected to pay for improvements to subways and the street, for private property that public authorities would seize in the condemnation process, and to some extent for the preservation of the theaters. Had the city chosen to pay those costs itself—as it had in other projects, such as the recent Battery Park City in lower Manhattan—it could more readily have dictated terms to developers. But the Koch administration made the fateful decision to sacrifice a large measure of public control in exchange for private investment. In doing so, it also surrendered pieces of the sky, and of the urban landscape: intangible assets that seemed, at least to city planners, far easier to part with than money. And so the Koch administration preserved public control of the project by surrendering precious public assets.
Commercial development was not only a means to some other good on 42nd Street, but an end in itself. The city had been trying since the 1960s to shift development westward; by the late 1970s, the west side of midtown retained the low scale it had had for generations, while the east side was choking on office buildings. As Herbert Sturz, who was then the city’s planning commissioner, recalls, “You had the AT & T Building and the IBM Building going up on Madison Avenue; you had high-rises in midblock. It was bringing midtown to a halt. We very much wanted to shift development to the West Side.” And so, at virtually the same time that the 42nd Street project was announced, the city also began the process of developing new zoning regulations. The new rules, announced in 1982, eliminated many of the bonuses that had made it possible to build colossi like the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, though that by itself would not have accomplished the city’s goals; parts of the West Side were also “up-zoned,” which is to say that developers would be permitted to construct larger buildings, and would pay far lower taxes on them. The 42nd Street Development Project, like the new zoning rules, was designed to stimulate commercial construction.
So the new project was shaped by the political imperative of inducing private actors to pay for public goods, and by the real estate imperative of fostering the creation of a new business district. Whatever happened to “seltzer”? How, that is, could you “preserve the unique ambience of Times Square”—that precious essence which Mayor Koch had vowed to preserve—if you were erecting a forest of massive high-rises? The answer was that you couldn’t, since that ambience was plainly connected to Times Square’s scale. The city’s second-best answer was to establish design guidelines that would accommodate these conflicting goals as far as possible. Public officials assigned this task to the architectural firm of Cooper & Eckstut, which had created the specifications for the well-regarded Battery Park City development. The highly detailed guidelines required that the buildings in midblock retain their low scale and continue to be festooned with signs and light. But the key requirements applied to the office buildings, which constituted the great threat to Times Square’s traditional character. They were to have a highly reflective skin of glass or metal to distinguish themselves from the old masonry structures of 42nd Street; the skin would stop fifteen feet or so above ground level in order to create a sense of pedestrian scale for shops. Lower elevations would feature “prominent signage and dramatic lighting” to keep 42nd Street from looking like just another office district. Storefronts would be 75 to 85 percent glass. The buildings would be sharply set back at the fifth floor to preserve the area’s traditional cornice line, and then set back again at intervals, while “diversity and contrast in the use of materials, colors and finishes” would “prevent a monolithic appearance.” The Times Tower would be preserved as “a focal point for Times Square.” The entire street would be bathed in brilliant white light from 120-foot-high poles.
Most important, the guidelines offered a guarantee of public control. The city was turning over 42nd Street to private owners—or rather, by means of condemnation, transferring it from one set of private owners to another—but doing so only under stringent conditions. The guidelines, in effect, precluded the kind of privatized decision-making represented by the City at 42nd Street. And they stood for the values that the city’s unofficial stewards held dear. William Taylor, a prominent urban scholar and essayist, described the Cooper & Eckstut plan as an homage to the city’s traditions and “a strong statement for public values” rather than those of the marketplace. Paul Goldberger wrote that the design “emerges out of a strong understanding of the nature of the existing city, with strong architectural ties to what is best in what is already there.”
The detailed guidelines meant, at least in theory, that many of the architectural decisions had been made in advance. The city would not be choosing an architect; it would be choosing a developer, who in turn would supply an architect. In September 1981, developers submitted proposals to the 42nd Street Development Project. The following April, planners offered “conditional designations” for the twelve sites. The most important, by far, involved the four parcels set aside for office towers, which went to a developer named George Klein. This was a surprising choice, for Klein had far less experience, and cut a far smaller profile in the world of real estate, than virtually all of his competitors. Heir to the Bar-ton candy fortune, Klein had started building just eight years earlier, in Brooklyn; he had erected only two office buildings in Manhattan. He was an outsider in the intensely clannish world of New York real estate, politically conservative and religiously Orthodox in a liberal, Reform culture. Klein was a circumspect, solemn, and eminently respectable character who had decided to make that respectability his calling card. “The best way to break into this world,” he had concluded, “was to get the finest architects and put up the kind of buildings that would attract the best tenant.” In his brief career as a developer he had already worked with I. M. Pei, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and Philip Johnson.
Klein was, in his quiet way, a man of very large aspirations, much larger than those of the old-line families whose status he hoped to share. Klein wanted to change the face of the city—for the better, of course. His very first real estate venture had been an urban renewal project which he felt had spurred the revival of downtown Brooklyn. And in the redevelopment of 42nd Street he had been granted, he felt, “the opportunity to do something on a grand scale.” Klein would never have accepted the distinction between the real estate dynamic and “public values”; he saw Times Square as a blighted area which, like downtown Brooklyn, could be restored to life through development. “Times Square was a real mess,” he recalls. “Children were falling into this den of drugs and crime. It was not a place that was correct for New York to have.” Like Alexander Parker, Klein aspired to erase the old 42nd Street and put a new one in its place. What Times Square should be, and could be, he felt, was something like Rockefeller Center—a tasteful home for large corporations and elegant shops. He even dubbed the project “Times Square Center.”
Klein offered the architectural commission to Philip Johnson, who he felt had “the prestigious image that was important to attract corporate tenants.” At the time, in fact, Johnson had a reputation among corporate clients that very few American architects, if any, have ever enjoyed. The headquarters he had designed for AT&T, half-affectionately known as the Chippendale Building, had become the emblematic postmodern structure and had landed him on the cover of Time magazine. And like Klein, Johnson was unambiguous about the virtues of erasure. As a young man in prewar New York, he had loved the Astor Hotel. But the Astor was gone, and now Johnson, like Klein, thought of Times Square as a place to avoid. He thought of it, really, as no place at all; he and his partner, John Burgee, felt that their role was to impart a sense of place to an urban wilderness. Times Square Center would be not merely an array of buildings but, like Rockefeller Center, a place in and of itself, an urban settlement made of office towers.
In late 1983, Johnson and Burgee unveiled their design for a suite of four buildings, varying in height and bulk but identically designed in glass with a sheath or screen of light pink granite. The buildings were topped by glass mansard roofs with iron finials—like the nearby Knickerbocker Building, Johnson pointed out, though they also bore a strong resemblance to a building he had just finished in San Francisco. The complex was a true center not only aesthetically but physically, with individual buildings linked to one another and the subway by underground passageways. Corporate tenants, like theatergoers in the City at 42nd Street plan, could be spared the indignity of the street. And there was no sign of the Times Tower, which for eighty years had been the pivot around which Times Square rotated. Bedizened with signs, the Times Tower had become an embarrassment, a ludicrous street person of a building. As Klein says, “Rockefeller Center had a skating rink with a tree as the center. Here was a building with signs all over it. What statement did that make?” Johnson planned to substitute a fountain with a laser light show. He had, all in all, created precisely the image for Times Square that George Klein had craved.
In recent years Johnson had enjoyed, at worst, an equivocal reputation among architecture critics; the Chippendale Building had been praised as lavishly as it had been mocked. But when the critics saw Times Square Center, they came down on him like a ton of bricks. The Times’s Ada Louise Huxtable, a qualified fan in years past, derided the proposal as “enormous pop-up buildings with fancy hats.” The New Yorker’s Brendan Gill described the structures as “great gray ghosts of buildings, shutting out the sun and turning Times Square into the bottom of a well.” Critics in both the popular and the professional media lamented the massiveness, dullness, homogeneity, and overwhelming corporateness of the proposed buildings; only Paul Goldberger suggested that “they could cut a sharp and lively profile on the skyline,” though he added that “it is difficult not to be concerned” by their bulk. And the idea of demolishing the Times Tower provoked an additional bout of horror.
What had happened? Had public tastes changed while Philip Johnson was sketching out his granite cliffs? This is the view of Paul Travis, who as vice president of the city’s Public Development Corporation played a major role in implementing the project. “Johnson’s view,” Travis explains, “was that historically Times Square had these sober buildings, like the Paramount Building, along the avenues, and that’s what he was trying to create. What he missed was that everyone’s view about what Times Square was was beginning to change. We decided which Times Square we wanted to create. And the mythical moment we wanted was V-E Day, with the honky-tonk and the crowds.” But it is also true that Johnson and Burgee themselves crystallized this new view of Times Square. Though many New Yorkers had spent years thinking of 42nd Street as George Klein did, as a nightmare to be banished, the idea of four colossal slabs towering over the street reminded them of what that street was, or rather, meant. You could put up anything you wanted on Sixth Avenue, or Third Avenue, and the worst it could be was ugly, because these corporate thoroughfares had no past to violate and no soul to corrupt. Even on Broadway and 45th Street, where a hideous new Marriott Marquis was rising, the imperative of development outweighed matters of aesthetics and preservation. But 42nd Street was different; it was a tangible repository of the vivid, racy culture that had been blotted out by the abstract world of the office tower. The Johnson/Burgee buildings felt like an act of profanation, and a terrible challenge.
The Johnson/Burgee plan not only contradicted a collective sense of Times Square but also flagrantly ignored the guidelines. The buildings rose straight up from the ground, with no setbacks at the fifth-floor level to provide an illusion of low scale; they included neither signs nor lights, save for formal lanterns to play across their own grandiose surfaces; and their skin consisted principally of granite, rather than metal or glass. The guidelines were meant to be binding, but Klein understood that they were, in fact, negotiable. Richard Kahan, then head of the Urban Development Corporation, a state body that had the lead role in the redevelopment process, recalls, “George Klein came to me and said, ‘What am I supposed to do with these guidelines?’ And I said, ‘You know exactly what you’ll do. As soon as I’m gone, you and Herb Sturz will throw them in the garbage.’” Though self-serving, this explanation seems to be more or less true. Klein argued that setbacks would create upper floors too small to rent to the kind of corporate tenants the project was designed to attract; and the city officials who were managing the project accepted his claim. They also agreed to waive the requirements for signage and lighting, which Klein insisted prospective tenants would consider vulgar.
Of course, it was the guidelines that had reassured architecture critics and civic groups that the project would be carried out according to public values rather than the dictates of the marketplace. But it was now plain that if public authorities had to choose between the real estate imperative of fostering orderly growth by shifting development to the West Side, and the civic imperative of creating a Times Square with which New Yorkers could identify, growth would trump aesthetics and culture. At the press conference where the Johnson/Burgee plans were unveiled, a reporter asked Mayor Koch why the buildings so blatantly violated the guidelines his own administration had established, and he snapped, “I, for one, have never felt it necessary to explain why we improve something.” What was there to explain? The buildings were the answer. As Vincent Tese, who succeeded Kahan as head of the UDC, later put it, “The buildings may be big and ugly, but the numbers work.”
As the plan moved closer to approval by the Board of Estimate, a body that consisted of the presidents of the five boroughs and three other leading officials and that governed all land-use decisions, journalists, academics, urban experts, and lovers of the city began to leap to the defense of this embattled piece of turf. Was the Deuce really so very blighted that it needed so drastic an overhaul? Was it dead, or just somewhat ill? New York Times reporter Martin Gottlieb wandered around the block and found no shortage of families, most of them black or Hispanic, enjoying themselves at inexpensive restaurants and movies. “If you come here looking for trouble, most likely you’ll find it,” said one young man. “But if you look for a good time, you’ll find that, too.” Gottlieb quoted William Kornblum, the City University professor who had headed the Bright Lightstudy as saying, “People go there for the same reason they did when we were kids. You come in from another borough or from uptown looking for some fun. You grab a burger and you go to a movie.” This was, of course, the same street where, according to The Times, bored teenagers had chased a man to his death on the subway tracks a few years earlier; but now it was seen in a different light.
To the critics, the 42nd Street plan was an urban nightmare they thought had long since been put to rest—“a back-from-the-dead example of the thoroughly discredited bulldozer urban renewal of the 1960s,” in the words of the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. Thomas Bender, an urban historian at New York University, wrote in The Times that Philip Johnson’s “gargantuan office towers” would turn 42nd Street into the equivalent of downtown Washington—“and everyone knows what kind of frightening urban space that becomes after 5 o’clock.” Brendan Gill, a writer of suave and lapidary essays on architecture at The New Yorker, the president of the Landmarks Conservancy, and one of the city’s great boulevardiers, fought the project at every turn, arguing at a UDC hearing that the “four million square feet of conventionally dreary office space” would kill Times Square, not revitalize it. Martin Gottlieb of the Times raised a series of disturbing questions: “Can a buoyant street life be designed without seeming contrived and lifeless? . . . Would the sense of place of Times Square be ruined by the demolition of the curved Rialto Building at 43rd Street and Broadway, which houses Nathan’s, or of 1 Times Square Plaza?” The answer to the first question was no, and to the second, yes.
The critics did not, on the other hand, have a convincing answer to the question of how one could eliminate the predatory street culture of 42nd Street without making the large-scale changes that would alter the character of the place beyond recognition. Some of them, like Gill, seemed perfectly happy to accept the predatory street life as the price to be paid for preserving 42nd Street’s roguish charms, whatever they were. There was a much more plausible argument for smaller buildings, or for less grimly uniform ones, than there was for no office buildings at all.
But it scarcely mattered. This was a public process, but not a plebiscitary one. And the plan had too much political momentum to be stopped in its tracks; both Mayor Koch and the new governor, Mario Cuomo, were committed to it, as was much of the city’s corporate and media elite. The New York Times, which considered 42nd Street its front yard and which had become increasingly disturbed over the years about the deterioration of the neighborhood, strongly backed the project, even going so far as to accept the proposed demolition of the Times Tower. The Board of Estimate hearings, in late October and early November 1984, were an elaborate formality. Public officials praised the project, while local politicians, community board members, scholars, and gadflies grandiloquently denounced it. The Board of Estimate heard one and all, and then voted unanimously to approve the project.
The argument over 42nd Street redevelopment, like virtually all issues involving planning, was largely a debate among elites. And it was the pro-growth elite, not the preservationist elite, that held the balance of power. But there could be changes at the margin. Neither George Klein nor Philip Johnson wanted to put up buildings the public hated, and the outcry forced them back to the drawing board. Johnson, in particular, seems to have had immediate second thoughts. He told an interviewer in 1994 that he had “never liked the big towers.” Asked why, then, he had designed them, he said, “Because I wanted a reminiscent thing that would look like the Pierre Hotel. I thought it would look natural. You have to have a top on these things. I was totally post-modern at the time, and I wanted to get that going.” This offhanded self-dismissal is vintage Johnson; he is a profoundly ironic character who has long protected himself from his own absurd cultural authority with a bulletproof irreverence. In a recent conversation, Johnson, age ninety-five, raised an amused eyebrow at pictures of his design and murmured, “I must have been out of my mind.”
Back at the drawing board once again, Johnson produced a new set of buildings—sleeker, more abstract, and less referential. The towers were now made almost wholly of glass, as the guidelines foresaw, and they no longer formed a wholly matched set; but they still lacked setbacks as well as signage. In a final design, executed in 1989, John Burgee, by then separated from Johnson, produced far gaudier buildings, with busy surfaces and with extensive electronic signage incorporated into the structure; these came closest to satisfying critics’ wishes, though the setbacks that had been so integral to the guidelines were now a mere memory. None of these designs, in any case, were destined to be executed.
It turned out that in the new, post-Moses world of planning, the political process had become vulnerable to outsiders in all sorts of ways. Opponents had learned that even if you couldn’t outvote the party of growth, you could peck it to death through a combination of bad publicity and litigation. And the pecking process over 42nd Street began right away. Indeed, the first lawsuit came even before the project was approved; and then came the deluge—forty-seven suits in all. This was an astounding number even by New York standards. And though they alleged violations of free speech or due process rights, or of antitrust or eminent domain statutes, all but two of them, according to one tabulation, were filed by those with vested interests, principally developers who hadn’t been awarded—or hadn’t even sought—a piece of the action, or property owners who hoped to force public officials to pay them more in exchange for their property. These included such families as the Milsteins and the Dursts, who had been playing the game of real estate for generations, and who understood very well how to get things done, or blocked, in New York.
The biggest potential loser in the development process was the Brandt family, which operated a near monopoly of the movie theater mini-district on and around 42nd Street. Running eighteen hours a day, the fourteen theaters in the project area controlled by the Brandts and a partner generated enormous amounts of revenue even if most of their seats were empty at the average showing. The Brandts also owned two office buildings on Broadway between 42nd and 43rd Streets, and another on 43rd between Seventh and Eighth. If it was an empire of sleaze, it was an empire nonetheless, and the Brandts were not about to surrender it without a fight. The Brandts had bid for the rights to develop the five theaters that were to be restored to use as private legitimate theaters, but the real game always had to do with compensation. “They were using the development designation as a carrot to try to get us to agree to the low values,” says Robert Brandt, who directed the family’s real estate operations. “The numbers they were putting on the table for our properties were grossly inadequate.” The Brandts fought back in letters to the editor and op-ed articles; they hired a prominent social scientist to trumpet the evils of urban renewal; and they ended with a fusillade of litigation.
The implacable opposition of the Brandts and other powerful real estate forces demonstrates why it was so difficult to use urban renewal laws to revitalize Times Square: the state was seizing property with great current economic value and even greater potential value. If the state had to pay what the owners considered fair value, the project would never happen. But the battle also proved why forceful state action was necessary. The businesses that catered to Times Square’s population did very well; they had no more incentive to enter a more respectable line of work that would draw different customers than opium farmers have to grow wheat. As long as 42nd Street was dominated by porno theaters and sex shops and liquor stores, good restaurants and retailers weren’t about to lease space there. Current uses would continue drawing current users. “The perception of turf,” as the environmental-impact statement put it, could only be changed by force majeure: the urban renewal laws.
The lawsuits dragged on for years, just as the complainants had hoped. And while Klein might have been able to build in the mid- to late eighties, when the real estate market was strong, by 1990, when the last lawsuit was dismissed, the market had gone into a tailspin. The banks and white-shoe law firms that Klein had carefully cultivated as anchor tenants had long since given up, and the entire project went into the deep freeze. Litigation offered a force majeure of its own. The aesthetic and intellectual critique of the project had hit home, but produced only modest changes, whereas the lawsuits had been shaky, even frivolous; yet the suits had succeeded where criticism had failed.