THE Grand Central Terminal area was once the midtown hub of Manhattan. Glamorous travelers arrived by train from all parts of the country. There was even a radio soap opera named after it: ``Grannnd Cennntral Staaation!,'' called the announcer. It was a center for gracious hotels like the long-gone Commodore (now the Grand Hyatt), the Biltmore, where sophisticates met under the clock, and the Roosevelt, where couples danced to Guy Lombardo's music at the fabled Roosevelt Grill. But the old hotels closed, and the area became soaring office towers, interspaced with small shops and fast-food joints.
Now Grand Central Terminal and the area surrounding it are due for a major face lift and general revitalization.
This ambitious renewal plan is proposed by the Grand Central Partnership, which represents corporate tenants and property owners in the area. It will include opened vistas, new caf'es and restaurants, parklike places to stroll and sit outdoors, lighted building fa,cades, and new plantings of trees and shrubs.
It will also feature widened walks (to relieve pedestrian congestion), upgraded shops, and better signs.
This 50-block urban heart of Manhattan stretches from Fifth Avenue to Second Avenue, and from 39th Street to 48th Street. It has been the subject of a year-long study by Benjamin Thompson & Associates of Cambridge, Mass., the planning firm also responsible for such successful urban ``festival'' developments as Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore, and South Street Seaport in New York.
The Thompson master plan promises to give the Grand Central District, in Mr. Thompson's terms, ``a distinct urban charisma and a sense of place that is welcoming and pleasurable.'' Its aim is to restore vigor and diversity to the area through a reworking of the total street environment.
The plan is also intended to improve pedestrian life with street amenities and services. It will involve the highlighting of historic buildings, including Grand Central Terminal an imposing 1913 landmark built in beaux- arts classical style. More than 500,000 people a day flow through the handsome station.
As the city business locus has moved uptown to the north and east (chiefly to the area surrounding 59th Street and Park Avenue), the ``bypassed'' Grand Central District has slowly declined. The quality of stores and restaurants has fallen, and the sidewalks have become clogged with street vendors and food carts.
In his study, Thompson also discovered that the district had no city parks, little open space, or places suitable for spontaneous street events or celebrations.
So one highlight of his master plan is the proposed development of Pershing Square Park, south across 42nd Street. The park would act as a two-block-long foreground area that would give more perspective to the grandness of the station's south fa,cade. There would be trees and benches, good lighting, and space to stroll.
The area under the viaduct arches (now enclosed) would be opened and include a caf'e/restaurant for indoor and outdoor dining. Most of the traffic on two small streets would be diverted. The new park, according to Thompson, ``would have a sense of unity and serenity, and the feeling of a whole new environment.''
Thompson envisions the now rather unattractive but sunny Vanderbilt Avenue as a ``sort of front yard all the way from 42nd up to 46th Street, with sidewalk caf'es, wider pedestrian walkways, and trees and benches that would invite leisurely strolling and sitting.''
And 41st Street, connecting Fifth and Park Avenues and majestically presided over by the New York Public Library, he sees becoming a promenade, called ``Library Way.'' Lining this ``way,'' he envisions a future enclave of book-related retail establishments, such as important bookstores, rare-book dealers, outdoor Paris-style book stalls for secondhand volumes, old print shops, and a bookstore caf'e and coffeehouse.
The planner sees intriguing possibilities of reclaiming some wide alleyways, enabling them to become part of a network of well-lighted pedestrian routes to the a station, the post office, and other buildings in the area.
Another effect of his plan, Thompson hopes, will be to help reduce such urban blight as litter, crime, graffiti, and deteriorating public structures. In an effort to help the homeless people in and around the station, the partnership plans to open a ``drop-in'' center that will offer food and drink, clothes distribution, counseling, and remedial services of many kinds.
``We are concerned with the way a city works and with the elements that give it vibrancy,'' Thompson explains, ``and we try to plan projects that can be sustained year after year. We think that when the effects of this program become visible, and a lively street life and retail quality are restored, residents and visitors alike will be drawn back to this gateway district.''
After a recent press tour of the district that will be revitalized, Thompson declared, ``We feel we are giving something back to the city for people to use, a place to come and gather and enjoy.'' He also predicted that cleaner, safer streets and sidewalks and good restaurants will attract more evening and nighttime activity.
These exterior plans will coordinate with those for major interior renovation of Grand Central Terminal by Metro-North Commuter Railroad, which holds a long-term lease on the terminal. This will include the replacement of 50 miles of steam pipes, an overhaul of electrical and plumbing systems, and opening the north side of the station with new entrances and exits.
The Metro-North program hopes to utilize the terminal's spaces for more exhibitions, an information service, displays, concerts, receptions, celebrations, and a wider range of retail activities.
``We'd like to transform this civic space into a citywide cultural resource,'' says Peter Stangl, chairman of Metro-North, who also announced an initial budget of more than $50 million.
Initial operating expenses for the not-for-profit Grand Central Partnership, headed by chairman Peter L. Malkin and president Daniel A. Biederman, has come from ``seed money'' ($470,000) contributed by neighborhood owners and tenants. The City of New York also contributed $50,000 to the partnership to help get the project under way, and the improvement plan has had the cooperation and support of Mayor Edward Koch.
Improvements will be funded by the private sector through the vehicle of the nation's largest ``Business Improvement District,'' under which property owners or tenants will be assessed at the rate of about 10 cents per square foot of space owned or occupied.
The time schedule will run something like this: Final planning will take another nine months. Then an additional three to six months will be required to get city approvals. It will likely be mid- or late-1989 before any part of the construction begins, and work will proceed slowly so as minimize disruption. Completion could come in 1991.
The Grand Central Parnership was founded in 1985 by a coalition of property owners, corporate tenants, and city officials, including the Philip Morris Companies, the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Olympia & York, Penn Central, Chase Manhattan Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company - and real estate owners such as Bernard Mendik and Harry Helmsley, who own interests in hotel, office, and residential buildings in the district.
Neighborhood support has been extremely strong, says Mr. Malkin, because all the participants understand the ultimate effect - the knitting together of a healthier business district as well as an identifiable midtown business neighborhood of memorable spirit and urbanity.