New York tries to put a shine back on Times Square

Three major projects may soon have their Broadway debut.

Taken together, they could transform seedy Times Square, New York city planners and private developers say.

The projects include redeveloping 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, approving midtown-Manhattan zoning changes, and constructing a 2,020 -room convention hotel designed by Atlanta-based architect John Portman.

The first two changes are widely expected to receive final approval with little or no substantive opposition.

But the hotel project, which many city officials call the linchpin in any radical renewal of this blighted area, still faces formidable challenges.

2 Opposition centers around plans to raze the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters, which stand on the proposed site of the hotel. Both theaters are rich in tradition. Eugene O'Neill's ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' played at the Helen Hayes while the Morosco has provided the stage for seven Pulitizer Prize-winning plays.

Ten judges in four different courts at both state and federal levels have approved the Portman project. This week, the New York State Court of Appeals cleared the way for demolition of the two theaters. That decision has been appealed to the US Supreme Court. Many legal experts say the case may even reach the US Supreme Court.

Actor's Equity's Committee to Save Our theaters, the group spearheading opposition to tearing down the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters, has urged Mr. Portman to consider incorporating the theaters within the hotel. The committee went so far as to commission another architect to show Portman how it could be done.

Emotions have run high in this battle - and the lines-of-battle are by no means clearly drawn. Portman and the banks financing his nearly $300 million project have lambasted Actor's Equity's Save Our Broadway Committee. They argue that the organization has caused countless, needless, and costly delays.

Many actors and writers, including such luminaries as Jason Robards Jr. and Arthur Miller, have fought to save the theaters. Others, equally prominent, favor the hotel. For example, in a letter to the New York Times recently, Helen Hayes made her sentiments plain, writing in part:

''We need certain places of beauty, warmth, grace, and tradition for the theater. Too many of that kind have been destroyed. The two theaters to be swallowed up by the new project are old and charming friends, held in great respect and affection by theater people and generations of New Yorkers. I hope no more of that kind will be destroyed, that the Portman project will bring other important values, a string of them, to Times Square.''

The hotel would provide more than 2,000 permanent jobs in addition to thousands of new, but temporary, construction jobs. But jobs, welcomed as they are, aren't the only issue.

City planners say that once in place, the hotel is expected to be a magnet for theatergoers, conventioneers, and other development projects. Planners say they hope these projects will help displace many of Time Square's disreputable sex shops, ''fleabag hotels,'' and pornographic movie houses.

Thus, for people like Miss Hayes and longtime writer and director Garson Kanin, who knew the ''Great White Way'' in its better days, stopping the area's decay has become more important than saving the theaters.

Architect Portman agrees that it is possible to work the theaters into the hotel design. But he says it would take at least a year to draw up new plans. Another delay after years of delays already, he argues, could jeopardize some of his financial backing, which includes a $21.5 million low-interest loan from the City of New York.

While debate and court action drags on, the two other key facets in the efforts to upgrade Times Square - redeveloping the most tawdry slice of 42nd Street and changing the area's zoning requirements - seem to moving ahead more swiftly and smoothy.

The City Planning Commission soon expects to announce its choice of developers to begin work on 42nd Street. Twenty-six developers submitted bids. Commission sources say the approved bids call for retaining and restoring all nine architecturally and theatrically important theaters on this block.

6 The zoning changes nearing final approval by the city would permit buildings constructed on the west side to be a great deal larger than those built on the same-size lots located on the east side.

Another, more minor actor in the crowded stage of potential Times Square projects is a plan expected to be proposed soon to make the area a special tax assessment district. Under this plan area real estate owners would pay an additional tax to help maintain a proposed mall and upgrade the quality of shops.

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