NEW YORK — AH, Times Square. Now that was a place - for great theater, cabaret, hotels, or just a stroll with a sweetheart below the neon lights. It was also the site of some the nation's largest and most emotional gatherings, from ringing in the New Year to proclaiming victory over the Nazis. Those were the memories of what is known as the crossroads of the world, and the reason Times Square has been at the top of most tourist itineraries for 80 years - the undisputed pulsating heart of New York.
But Times Square has become an urban wasteland - a dangerous place with open drug dealing, drinking, and crime. The elegant restaurants have been replaced by fast-food outlets and the grand theaters shuttered or showing kung-fu or X-rated movies. Most New Yorkers stay away.
After more than two decades of disintegration, Times Square is scheduled for a renaissance. A proposed $2.5 billion 42nd Street Development Project, first announced in 1981 and aimed at rehabilitating the area at 42nd Street and Broadway, is being readied. The city-state consortium that runs it is awaiting court approval to relocate present tenants so that new construction may begin. The centerpiece will be a large complex of four office towers, a merchandise mart, a hotel, and the renovation of historic theaters and the Times Square subway station.
Although there is virtually unanimous approval for pumping money and new life into the neighborhood, agreement ends there. A mammoth dispute is raging over what the area should become like, and it is in many ways symbolic of larger philosophical differences over the direction that city planning has taken during Mayor Edward Koch's 12-year reign. Opponents are fighting the proposed project in court.
The government's plan is to use the four office towers to bring jobs and economic vitality to the decaying area. Equally important, project planners say, is the plan for the developer to help finance the restoration of the once-elegant turn-of-the-century theaters (considered the finest examples of theater architecture in New York history) and the renovation of the dirty, chaotic subway station.
Critics charge that the development - a truly massive group of towers, even by Manhattan standards - has become the purpose of the project, overshadowing the theaters it was designed to finance. For one thing, they argue, the towers are so huge that they run counter to an attempt to rebuild on a human scale, and to get people back onto the streets.
The four buildings, all of nearly identical design, will house an estimated 50,000 workers. They have been permitted twice the bulk of Manhattan's other large buildings, and critics say their size and design are aesthetically disturbing.
Project sponsors don't apologize for either the central role of the towers, or for their appearance. ``These buildings were designed to be the economic machine of this project,'' says Larry Josephs of the New York State Urban Development Corporation. He says he doubts New Yorkers really even look up at the buildings as they pass, but are more interested in the amenities. ``The average citizen is concerned with `is it safe, is it clean, does it have something to offer me,''' Mr. Josephs says. He promises that many of the stores will stay open until 1 a.m. to keep street life alive.
Among the opponents are builders who object to the $1 billion worth of tax abatements the project's developers - including Prudential Insurance Company - will receive. Douglas Durst, vice-president of the Durst Organization, a plaintiff in several lawsuits, says there is already 8 million square feet of office space under construction in the area, none of it subsidized. He predicts an office glut. As part of its strategy to prevent the city from taking the properties by right of eminent domain, Mr. Durst's firm has bought the leases for seven theaters and is fixing them up.
Brendan Gill, a noted architectural critic and preservationist who heads the Committee to Reclaim Times Square, says the plan is ``a farce.''
``The war to save the theater district has been lost,'' he says, noting that 42nd Street once housed more than 35 theaters. Fewer than 10 remain, most of them cinemas, some pornographic. Mr. Gill charges that the corporations that own many of today's Broadway theaters, most scattered north of 42nd Street, are not concerned with preserving an art form.
Gill insists the city's main interest in revamping the theater district is to encourage developers to move from the overbuilt and congested East Side to the West Side.
Josephs asserts that linking the theater restoration with the office towers is the only possible solution: ``A lot of people don't think those theaters would survive under the free-market conditions.'' He points out that there has been virtually no new building in the area for 50 years.
Among the potential theater tenants whose proposals are being considered are dance troupes, a children's theater, and an indoor amusement park. Gill believes most of the several dozen possible tenants - many of them nonprofit groups - who have expressed interest in running the theaters, will be unable to raise the necessary funds for their leases.
But Gill directs his greatest ire toward what he contends is the consortium's image of a sanitized Times Square. He says that the current crowd hanging out in the area is not all criminals and prostitutes. Over the years, an increasing number have been young black people. Gill charges that a subtext of the plan is that the area will be flooded with white - and white-collar - workers, who will go home at 5 p.m.
``The idea you can solve profound sociological problems by building skyscrapers is transparently false,'' Gill says. ``You don't wrestle with them by putting up buildings for hot-shot corporate law firms to move into. ... [The plan] is a conspiracy to take away the one sort of village green - open place - we have.''
Although sponsors plan to put neon signs on the buildings to recreate something of the old Times Square feel, Gill says it just won't be the same. There was daylight and skylight coming through the original signs, he says.
At this time, the state's Josephs says, the project needs some concrete results to show progress. He is confident the judge will rule in the plan's favor, and hopes to begin condemnation proceedings in the next month or two.
Gill and Durst are equally confident of stopping the plan. ``We have lost the war,'' Gill says, ``but we will win this battle.''