11.

SAVING BILLBOARD HELL

THE REDEVELOPMENT OF 42nd STREET, whatever its flaws, was an act of urban planning, a conscious re-creation of a bounded urban space almost from the ground up; but the rest of Times Square, seedy but not pathological, was for many years permitted to develop, or not, according to the fluctuations of the marketplace. No large structure had gone up along the great spillways of Broadway and Seventh Avenue since the 1930s. But the real estate boom of the sixties, which had filled the East Side of midtown Manhattan with big buildings, had made the West Side, with its traditionally low scale, look increasingly appealing as a development site. In 1966, the Astor Hotel, a remnant of Times Square’s age of opulence that occupied the block immediately to the north of the Paramount, was closed, and then demolished, to make way for a fifty-four-story building to be designated 1 Astor Plaza, a fabricated address designed to link a new and thoroughly unloved building to the past represented by the building it had replaced. But 1515 Broadway, as the building was universally known, remained a solitary, and largely empty, foray into Times Square for many years.

A developer named Peter Sharp had been patiently assembling parcels on the block immediately to the north of the Astor throughout the 1960s. By 1970, Sharp was ready to commission a design. He turned to Robert Venturi, the provocative architect who wrote Complexity and Contradiction inArchitecture. Venturi proposed something radically different from 1 Astor Plaza: rather than replace the hodgepodge of buildings with a tower, he proposed to wrap the entire assemblage in huge signs. Venturi described his thinking in a subsequent book, Learning from Las Vegas (written with Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown). “Times Square is not dramatic space,” he wrote, “but dramatic decoration. It is two-dimensional, decorated by symbols, lights and movement.” Thus he concluded that “a decorated shed” would be a more apt homage to its traditions than “megastructural bridges, balconies and spaces.” Venturi was the first architect to propose a new idiom faithful to Times Square’s helter-skelter, mongrelized past; but since he had done so with an almost perverse indifference to the site’s economic value, the developer rejected the idea.

Sharp was, on the other hand, dazzled by the work of John Portman, the architect-developer who had built the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and who was becoming known for his glass hotels with soaring interior spaces. Portman was one of the iconic figures of the age of urban renewal, for he built immense structures which spanned, or simply abolished, the traditional street grid; many of them turned a great, blank concrete wall to the street. Portman was a very busy man; he was then working on the Renaissance Center, in Detroit, and Embarcadero Center, in San Francisco. He proposed to build a two-thousand-room hotel where Venturi had hoped to raise a decorated shed. The plan envisioned two great concrete slabs rising fifty-six stories connected by five-story-high bridges like the rungs of a great ladder.

As the planning went forward, it became plain that two cherished and irreplaceable theaters—the Morosco and the Helen Hayes—would have to be destroyed, as would several less important theaters. City and state officials tried to persuade Portman to take an alternative site farther north on Broadway, or to cantilever the hotel above the theaters; but he refused. By 1980, theater groups had begun to mobilize to stop the project. A group of prominent actors, including Jason Robards, Lauren Bacall, and James Earl Jones, tried to dramatize the impending disaster through performances at the two theaters and with public protests. The debate over the Portman project turned out to be a kind of dry run for the 42nd Street renovation, for here, too, the preservationists took arms against the forces of development. The threatened destruction of the theaters had placed Times Square in an entirely new light, as an endangered neighborhood harboring beloved cultural artifacts. Robards, with a theatrical flair for the apocalyptic, described the Portman project as “the end of everything.” When the city refused to budge, opponents turned to the courts, and lawsuits went all the way to the Supreme Court before failing. The Morosco and the Helen Hayes were demolished on March 23, 1982.

The Marriott Marquis rapidly became the most hated building in Times Square, indeed, one of the most hated buildings in New York. When the hotel opened, in 1985, Paul Goldberger described it as “an upended concrete bunker,” “a sealed environment,” and “a hulking, joyless presence.” While Robert Venturi proposed to celebrate Times Square as it was, or had been, John Portman designed his building to keep the street at bay. “People are still hung up on the goddamn corny image of what’s in Times Square,” Portman was quoted as saying. “There’s not one great thing about it.” The Marriott Marquis, like so many of Portman’s other projects, ostentatiously turns its giant concrete back on the street. The lobby is on the eighth floor, a remote perch that no casual pedestrian is likely to reach; the floors below are low, gloomy, red-carpeted spaces pierced by thick concrete pillars. Even when, after riding up many an elevator, you reach the lobby, a great overhang still blocks the view; only by walking out to the bar can you look up and see the vast atrium that is the building’s central architectural feature.

The Marriott Marquis came to pass not only because protest failed and public officials took Portman’s side, but because at the time questions of design, as well as the loss of cherished theaters, seemed niggling compared to the imperative of building. As the editors of Architectural Forumnoted in 1973, “Any Portman in a storm (especially that of Times Square) will do just fine.” Prominent figures on Broadway and in the preservation world supported the project. A New York Times editorial observed that “lovers of Broadway should concentrate on what they can gain, not on what they can stop.” And indeed, the Marquis has been one of the most successful hotels in the Marriott chain, bringing tens of thousands of modestly heeled tourists to a secure, exciting environment in the middle of tumultuous Times Square. As the architect Hugh Hardy wryly notes, “The Marriott Marquis is just about the grossest building ever, but you walk in there and there’s forty-three cheerleaders coming out of the elevator. It’s some sort of Middle American refuge where people feel comfortable.”

The fight over the Marriott Marquis implied a choice between a dreadful building that quickened the pulse of Times Square while laying siege to its traditions, and an aesthetically and culturally satisfying one that served no development objective and so could not be built. It implied, in other words, that Times Square would have to be destroyed in order to be saved, just as the General Project Plan implied that 42nd Street would have to be destroyed in order to be saved. That’s no choice at all; and over the next few years, a struggle would be waged to save Times Square in a way that made it worth saving.

NEW YORK CITY DOES not have much of an unfettered market in real estate, or any other commodity. And so it would be a mistake to say that “the market” was transforming Times Square. A combination of state and local incentives had made the Marriott Marquis worth building. The 1982 zoning rules, which conferred tax breaks on new development and permitted extra density in the area, made building in Times Square far more attractive than it ever had been before. What’s more, the rules included a sunset provision: builders had to break ground by May 1988 in order to qualify for the benefits. So a race quickly developed to build along Broadway and Seventh Avenue. By 1984, when the Board of Estimate approved the 42nd Street Development Project, thus making Times Square Center an apparent fait accompli, a few buildings had already begun to rise at the edge of the zoning area, and it was plain that there would be many more to come. Philip Johnson’s colossal suite of gray flannel towers offered an image—a nightmarish image, to many of New York’s urbanists—of how the new Times Square was to be colonized. And so, in the mid-eighties, as the 42nd Street Development Project began to recede into a mist of litigation, the question of Times Square came to the fore.

The widely shared sense of urgency about conditions on 42nd Street, and the prestige both of George Klein and of Philip Johnson, had combined to sway or at least neutralize elite opinion on the redevelopment project. But this would not be so in Times Square. Lawyers and architects and editorial writers still went to plays and restaurants there; the words “Times Square” conjured up much warmer associations than the words “42nd Street.” “Times Square was a place you went to celebrate,” says Hugh Hardy, who had grown up watching musicals from the balcony of practically every theater in Times Square and could still bang out a show tune on the piano. “And here you had the developer talking about turning Times Square into Rockefeller Center.” Klein’s decision to demolish the Times Tower seemed like the worst sort of proof of his earnestness. Hardy was a leading member of the Municipal Art Society, the most venerable of New York’s civic groups and a bastion of preservationist sentiment—the very same elite body that had tried to abolish signs in Times Square back in the day of O. J. Gude. The group had endorsed the Johnson plan, if tepidly; but now it recognized that the northward march of corporate towers could annihilate something precious in the life of the city.

The MAS formed a committee to study the problem, and its members quickly realized that Times Square was not, in fact, 42nd Street—that the movie theaters up and down Broadway sold more tickets for first-run films than the rest of the city’s theaters combined, that the hotels and the restaurants were full of life. The obvious campaign for the MAS was to call for the preservation of theaters, and in this it had the passionate support of a theater community still outraged over the destruction of the Hayes and Morosco. But that would not be enough. The question arose, as it had on 42nd Street, as to what exactly it was, beyond or perhaps besides physical structures, that needed to be preserved; and the answer Hardy and others came up with was that it was the scale of Times Square, the raffish atmosphere, and above all, in a great historical irony, the lights and signs. These were the tangible elements that produced the intangible phenomenon that went by the name “Times Square.” Hardy told the group’s board that the committee’s goal was “to counter the argument that you have to abolish Times Square in order to clean it up.” The group would accept neither preservationist absolutism nor annihilating gentrification.

The Municipal Art Society now began a crafty and relentless public relations campaign. In March 1984, the MAS staged a competition to design a replacement for the Times Tower—an event that proved architects were a great deal fonder of that misbegotten building, and thus of the degraded urban texture surrounding it, than were George Klein and Philip Johnson. And then it went to work dramatizing the idea that bright lights were indispensable in Times Square. On a Saturday evening in the fall of 1984, when the debate over 42nd Street was about to come to a head, the group arranged to have all the lights in Times Square turned off at 7:30, when the place would be jammed with theatergoers. The one sign that remained blared, “HEY, MR. MAYOR! IT’S DARK OUT HERE! HELP KEEP THE BRIGHT LIGHTS IN TIMES SQUARE!” This cheeky scare tactic garnered tremendous publicity.

In 1985, the society commissioned a design firm to build a model of what Times Square would look like if every available parcel were built out to the maximum height and density permitted by the zoning rules. The model, which could be easily manipulated to demonstrate various hypothetical outcomes, became the centerpiece of a short film narrated by Jason Robards. This may have been the most effective gimmick of all, in part because it was not merely a gimmick. The film described Times Square, in rather oddly pastoral terms, as “a tremendous, well-proportioned outdoor room,” a neighborhood whose character was defined by its low scale. The new zoning law, it warned, would permit the addition of sixteen million square feet of space. The model, shot from above, showed the tiny slit of light that would reach the street level were the zoning law to be fully exploited. “Instead of a bowl of light,” Robards admonished, “we would be offered canyon walls.” The theaters would remain, but only as “curiosities of a bygone era.”

The MAS had adroitly raised the stakes so that Times Square itself seemed to hang in the balance. And they succeeded in altering the consciousness of New Yorkers—or at least those few New Yorkers who actually played a role in the planning process. After seeing the MAS film, Paul Goldberger, who only a few years earlier had found something good to say about the George Klein project for 42nd Street and even about the Marriott Marquis, wrote that “the light, the energy, the sense of contained chaos that have long characterized Times Square are essentially incompatible with high-rise office buildings, or with stark and harsh modern hotel towers like the Marriott.” The MAS simulation, Goldberger wrote, proved that the effect of unchecked construction on Times Square would be “devastating.”

The MAS and its allies on the local community board, and among architects and signage professionals and others, understood that the 1982 zoning law could not be abolished; development would have to be shaped rather than blocked. So the actual purpose of the relentless publicity campaign was to get the city to reopen the planning guidelines for Times Square in order to prevent developers from putting up the same glass slabs they would have built on Sixth Avenue. The developers themselves opposed this movement to a man (and virtually all of them were men). Among them, it was a matter beyond debate that the law firms and investment banks and even entertainment companies who were their most prized tenants do not like buildings with signs. Scarcely any of them currently occupied such buildings. Signs violated the modernist taboo against ornamentation; even the eclectic buildings being designed by Philip Johnson and the other postmodernists had an unblemished façade. More to the point, signs were tacky. As David Solomon, a developer who was counting on Morgan Stanley to occupy the new tower he was building on Broadway at 47th Street, put it, “Investment bankers and lawyers don’t want to work in an environment of flashing lights. They want trees and clean streets . . . museums and sidewalk cafes.” In short, they wanted Fifth Avenue, or perhaps the Faubourg St. Honoré—just as the MAS itself had three-quarters of a century earlier.

But the destruction of the theaters and the decision to approve the George Klein plan had mobilized community, civic, and theater groups as they had not been mobilized before. The public relations campaign had changed the balance of opinion; and in late 1984, the New York City Planning Commission agreed to reopen the design guidelines. Perhaps more important, the commission retained as consultants several experts who were committed to a very different vision of Times Square, and of New York City, than were the city’s chief developers. In order to advise it on issues of signage and lighting the city hired Paul Marantz, a specialist in theatrical lighting and a lifelong devotee of Times Square. Marantz considered the very idea of planning antithetical to Times Square, and said so when city officials first approached him. “My feeling was that it should happen as a force of nature, not as the result of some fiat,” Marantz says. But planning officials persuaded him that the Times Square he loved would cease to exist if nature had its way. His job, he was told, was just “to start the engine.”

Marantz and his colleagues at Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz, Inc., set about trying to understand the Times Square–ness of Times Square— what it was in the juxtaposition of light and signs and buildings and sight lines that gave Times Square its inimitable look. They spent hours wandering around the denuded Times Square of the mid-eighties, poring over old photographs, and studying the design of the neon precincts of Tokyo, Hong Kong, London. “We decided it had a lot to do with scale,” Marantz says; “what was on the first floor, what was on the second floor.” The Times Square look was, in effect, vertically tiered: regulations would have to distinguish among retail or marquee-type signs at the ground level, larger signs above, and then “super-signs” at the roofline or the setback. This was in effect Marantz’s recognition that the chaotic energy he loved about Times Square could be provoked, or at least ignited, “by fiat.” Marantz also made a list of the different types of signs in Times Square— billboards, neon, Plexiglas sheets over lightbulbs—and proposed that every new building wear a collage of such signs.

It was plain that not just signs but light would have to be mandated. If signs gave Times Square its look of gorgeous disarray, its epic higgledypiggledy, then electricity was what made the place magnificent. When you thought of Times Square, you thought first of a riot of light. But how much light was enough? And how could you possibly quantify that amount? Marantz wanted lighted signs at least as brilliant as the few, mostly Japanese ones, that remained in Times Square. “It’s very hard to stand on the street and measure the actual impact of a sign,” Marantz says. “You could measure the amount of light coming from the sign, but not the impact that one sign makes on the viewer.” That was what Marantz wanted to measure: the sign’s actual effect. He drilled a hole in the back of a 35-millimeter camera, mounted a light meter on the back, pointed it toward a sign, and took readings. In this way, Marantz invented a new unit, christened the LUTS: “light unit Times Square.” His team compiled a book of LUTS readings from current signs.

The new zoning rules, eight pages of extraordinarily specific and demanding requirements, were approved by the City Planning Commission in 1986 and finalized after a tumultuous, late-night session of the city’s Board of Estimate in February 1987. The regulations required new buildings along Seventh Avenue and Broadway to be sharply set back after sixty feet—a stricter version of the principle the city had set for 42nd Street in 1981, and that it had permitted George Klein to flout. And Marantz and Fisher’s proposed guidelines were adopted in the form of minimum LUTS readings, to be measured by the contraption Marantz and his team had devised. The guidelines required, as well, minimum numbers, sizes, and types of signs, as well as minimal levels of illumination. A block-long building would thus have to provide at least 16,800 square feet of lighted signage, or about as much as already existed on Times Square’s brightest blocks.

Here was something absolutely new in New York history: until this time, zoning rules had been used to prohibit, or sharply limit, lighting and signage, never to require it. Fifth Avenue couldn’t have lighted signs, and Times Square could; but now Times Square would become a kind of protected neon enclave. Here was preservationism designed to protect precisely the phenomenon that had, in years past, constituted the preservationists’ greatest target.

FORTY-SECOND STREET HAD to be drastically transformed, for the street had swallowed up all the piecemeal solutions that had been tried before. The rest of Times Square, for all its seediness, was a functioning entertainment district. And so whatever was lost of Times Square in the process of development did not have to be sacrificed for the good of the neighborhood. Indeed, the angriest critics of the new Times Square felt that the very act of “developing” such a place was a profanation, a blow against urbanness itself. Writing in The New Yorker in 1991, Brendan Gill described Times Square as the heart of a new urban Disneyland. In place of “a gaudy, tawdry medley of theatres, restaurants, rehearsal halls, hotels,” and so on, Gill wrote, public officials and private developers had fostered “a cold-blooded corporate simulacrum of an amusement park, designed to contain millions of square feet of offices filled with tens of thousands of office drones.”

The Municipal Art Society’s simulation had persuaded Paul Goldberger that Times Square’s spirit of “contained chaos” would evaporate amid the office towers. This might or might not prove to be true, but there could be no question that development had eliminated Times Square’s defining sense of scale. In The Experience of Place, published in 1990, the journalist Tony Hiss, who had worked closely with the MAS and contributed the image of the bowl of light, evoked the last moments of Times Square as a place of human scale. Standing in the afternoon sunlight, he wrote, “I took a good look at the low buildings along Broadway and realized that from the center of the Square, these small buildings seemed to be much farther away than just across the street. At this point, one part of what I was experiencing began to make better sense to me: Although Times Square isn’t as big or as open or as carefully planned an open space as, say, the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, it used to have an unusual feeling of welcoming spaciousness that wasn’t to be found at the Brooklyn plaza or at any other New York intersection. It gave you the sense of being protected, because it gave the sense that there was room enough here for all.”

And so something irretrievable, something precious, was lost when the floodgates of development were opened in Times Square. Gill, in fact, prophesied that the resulting horror would become so manifest that it would undermine the very idea of the skyscraper—a prospect he heartily welcomed. That, of course, hasn’t happened. And it would be terrible if it had, for no truly modern city can accept the retrograde notion that office buildings, and the white-collar economy which they make possible, are inherently philistine. The argument may work in Florence, but not in New York. Does this require the remorseless destruction of the old? Perhaps it does. But that’s what cities do: they build the new right on top of the old.

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