For two decades, New Yorkers have viewed Times Square as the city’s heart of brightness, a candy-colored hellhole to be avoided whenever possible. At either end of a workday or just before curtain time, we may dart and jostle past slow-moving out-of-towners, but the notion of meeting friends for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe or whiling away a weekend afternoon held rapt by the symphony of screens doesn’t cross our minds.
Starting next fall, workers with jackhammers will tear apart the bow tie, temporarily making it an even less congenial place to hang out. But one major goal of the $45 million construction project is to persuade New Yorkers to love Times Square—to convince them that it’s not just a backdrop for a million daily snapshots but Manhattan’s most central, and most convivial, gathering spot. Architects and visionaries have often addressed that old ambition with high-energy concepts that gave us the current high-tech razzmatazz. Even in this round of ideas, the city has fended off proposals for colored LEDs embedded in the pavement, for ramps, staircases, pavilions, digital information kiosks, heat lamps, trees, lawns, canopies, and, of course, more video screens.
Instead, the city hired the architectural firm Snøhetta to produce a quiet, even minimal design that doesn’t try vainly to compete with the glowing canyons. Its beauty lies in dark, heavy sobriety and a desire to be a lasting pedestal to the frenzied dazzle above. In the most straightforward sense, the new plan enshrines a transformation that has already taken place. Ever since vehicles were banned from Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets, in 2009, Times Square has felt like a temporary art installation. Pedestrians have been able to step off the curb and into the weirdly motor-free street. Rickety red café tables, which replaced plastic beach chairs, dot a blue river painted on the asphalt. Streetlights, lampposts, mailboxes, hydrants, and pay phones remain clustered along the Broadway sidewalk, staying clear of nonexistent traffic.
The new construction will eliminate that feeling of making do. Curbs will vanish. Pedestrian areas will be leveled and clad in tweedy concrete tiles that run lengthwise down Broadway and the Seventh Avenue sidewalks, meeting in an angled confluence of patterns. Nickel-size steel discs set into the pavement will catch the light and toss it back into the brilliant air. Instead of perching on metal chairs, loiterers will be able to sit, lean, sprawl, jump, and stand on ten massive black granite benches up to 50 feet long and five feet wide. Electrical and fiber-optic-cable outlets will be packed into the benches so that, for outdoor performances, special-event crews will no longer need to haul in noisy, diesel-burning generators or drape the square in cables and duct tape. Even on ordinary days, the square will be de-cluttered of the traffic signs, bollards, cones, and boxes that cause foot traffic to seize up. With any luck, crowds will gather and mingle only in the center plain between the benches, leaving free-flowing channels on either side for the rest of us, who have somewhere to be, people!
Originally based in Norway and now firmly ensconced in New York, Snøhetta in 2008 created one of the most successful public spaces in recent memory: the pedestrian pathway that winds its way around, inside, in front of, and on top of the firm’s new opera house in Oslo. It’s a cosmopolitan yet utterly local place, an exquisite juncture of sea, sky, and glacier-like building, which seems to be slipping calmly into the fjord. It suggests that the architects understand the interaction of local culture and public space. “We’re not trying to make an instant photograph of happiness,” says the firm’s co-founder Craig Dykers, explaining that Times Square needs a little grit. “There’s been quite a lot done to make the city feel more delicate, which is good, but we shouldn’t forget its industrial history. At Times Square, there were rivets on the old marquees, the steelwork on the signs was industrial, and the lighting was naked bulbs. We want that whole history to be reflected in the experience of the space.”
That may be a lot to ask of benches and pavers. Toys ’R’ Us isn’t slinking back to the suburbs, and all the happy, shiny logos won’t be dimming anytime soon. But Times Square has always reinvented itself every decade or two, and it may be shifting again. It’s been the epicenter of the media world, but Condé Nast will soon be moving to the World Trade Center, and Google has settled in Chelsea. In the nineties, Times Square lured law firms and financial outfits with the city’s freshest, most technologically advanced office towers, but new models inexorably supersede the old, and this time they’ll be in lower Manhattan and Hudson Yards. This is not to say that the glitter is flaking off, only that the least likely option for the future is stasis, so Snøhetta had to design a permanent platform for the unpredictable.
There are two distinct approaches to public-space renovations: the grand design and the perpetual tweak. If Snøhetta is pursuing the first path, the apostle of the second is Daniel Biederman, who led the fabulously successful renovation of Bryant Park in the early nineties and has been managing it ever since, filling it with activities, temporary structures, and retro details. “If I were the czar of Times Square design, I would do the traditional stuff: plants, kiosks, movable seating, games, programming—small touches,” Biederman says. “Most people look down as far as two feet from the ground and up to fourteen feet off the ground, so at Times Square they have a chance to waste a ton of money on a surface that nobody’s going to see.” Yet Bryant Park’s charms don’t constitute a recipe. Times Square is not a graciously bounded piazza, and it shouldn’t be a verdant oasis. It’s an accidental wedge formed by two major avenues. Seventh Avenue will keep its traffic, and so will the cross streets. Even below ground, ancient water mains, electrical lines, telephone cables, subway tunnels, and long-buried trolley tracks tangle chaotically. The square’s getting a face-lift and major surgery at the same time. Quaintness has no place here.
Every bit of this area acts as a showcase of some kind. The new design is to the street what the M&M’s store is to candy and Good Morning America is to television: an urban launchpad for a global commodity. In this case, the product is the philosophy of public space preached by the Bloomberg administration’s impassioned transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. For decades, American cities have treated their streets as traffic conduits meant to speed cars along as efficiently as possible (which is often not very efficiently at all). Instead, the new thinking goes, they should be a flexible network equally comfortable for drivers and dawdlers, parents with strollers, cyclists, truckers, and anyone who would rather just sit for a while and rest. Until 2009, the theater district embodied the disjunction between the way streets were conceived and the way they were used, as Sadik-Khan points out with data-driven fervor.
“Times Square had 137 percent more accidents and crashes than any other avenue in the area,” she says of the way she found it when she took office in 2007. “It was a hot spot of congestion. You had 356,000 people coming through on foot every day and less than 10 percent of the space allocated to pedestrians. It wasn’t working, and it was a problem that had been lying in plain sight for 200 years.” You remember: Crowds spilled over the curbs into the street, gridlock stranded taxis in the triangular crossroads, and hurried theatergoers battled through the stationary herds.
The Times Square Alliance, which represents local businesses, suggested an incremental solution: Widen the sidewalks a little bit. Sadik-Khan one-upped them and completely closed five blocks of Broadway to traffic. The result was a harvest of happy data: fewer accidents, cleaner air, more satisfied survey respondents, and popular events like the Summer Solstice free yoga classes that last year attracted 6,000 people. (The 2012 edition takes place on June 20.) Clearing out cars also brought a surprising economic roar. Before, annual commercial rents in the area averaged about $800 per square foot. Last week, the eyewear emporium Oakley opened a new store, paying about $1,400 per square foot.
Everyone in the Bloomberg administration is watching the countdown to the end of the mayor’s term, and Sadik-Khan’s Department of Transportation seems to be rushing to set her revolution in concrete so that her successor can’t merely paint it over. Times Square is only the most visible representative of a program that spans all five boroughs: Another 50 permanent plaza renovations are completed or in the works, from Madison Square to Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn and Roberto Clemente Plaza in the Bronx. Uncharacteristically for a city agency, the DOT is resisting uniformity, trying to gear each project to local desires, so the Snøhetta design won’t be an archetype, but it will be a much-scrutinized example.
Tourists already make the crossroads of the world an obligatory visit, but Tim Tompkins, the president of the Times Square Alliance, wants to change both the composition of the crowds and the reasons they come. “Ten years from now, we want people to want to see what public art is happening here,” he says. There is of course the possibility that a rejuvenated Times Square will appeal to New Yorkers so intensely that it will once again become as unbearably crowded as it was before. That’s a risk the city is willing to take.