B'way overwhelmed with traffic

This week, the millennium arrived 3-1/2 months ahead of schedule. At least, it certainly looked that way, considering the mobs in Times Square.

On Sunday afternoon, the legit community’s annual Broadway on Broadway concert required that Times Square be closed to traffic. Monday evening, a show saluting Fashion Week was the first of several NYC 2000 events leading up to the Big Night; it, too, closed down Times Square. That morning, ABC debuted its brand-new ground-floor TV studio at 1500 Broadway with a number from “The Lion King,” performed live to a street audience. On Tuesday evening, ESPN Zone at 4 Times Square closed a portion of Broadway to stage its celeb-studded grand opening there.

And of course, Wednesday was matinee day.

Is a population explosion about to sink the Times Square success story? Many who work in the theater think it already has.

“We do lock ourselves in the Equity Building (1560 Broadway), and that way we can look down at the masses and gauge when it’s safe to leave,” commented Maria Somma, prexy of the Assn. of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. She recalled that years ago she had to delay her lunch hour to 2:30 only on matinee days to avoid the crowds. Now, “it’s that crowded all the time,” she said.

David LeShay, director of communications for the Theatre Development Fund, bikes to work in Times Square. But it’s become a problem: “When I leave 1501 Broadway at around 6 or 7 p.m., it takes me five minutes just to get from the entrance to the curb with my bike. Five minutes!”

Legit publicist Chris Boneau offered, “Maybe they should just close Times Square down to traffic and turn it into a pedestrian mall.” He was not joking.

Police issue

“It’s a big issue for the police department to deal with these massive crowds, which are separate and apart from the people who simply come to the area or work here,” said Shubert prexy Phil Smith of the current Times Square event mania that closes the avenues to traffic for hours at a time.

Smith went on to offer a historical perspective on the dilemma, however: “In 1950, when I worked at the Palace Theater, these were the kinds of crowds you encountered then. It was wall-to-wall people. Of course, today there is a new dimension with ABC and MTV having those studios on Times Square.”

The occasionally massive crowds attracted by MTV’s “Total Request Live,” which airs daily at 3 p.m., are definitely the most controversial. “They completely block the sidewalk,” said one theater producer. “There’s no control, and someday someone is going to be pushed out into the traffic and killed. I guess that will end the problem.”

Learning from MTV

Brendan Sexton, prexy of the Times Square Business Improvement District, addressed the crowd-control issue created by “TRL,” which launched last September at the MTV studio. “We did learn something from the MTV experience,” said Sexton, adding that it made for a more managed opening this week when “GMA” aired from ABC’s new studio across the street. “There were serious negotiations between ABC, the community board, the police and BID regarding the way ‘GMA’ set up their (elastic band) extensions outside and provided ushers.”

Sexton said that the police department had contacted MTV regarding proper prior notification for such megastars as the Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin. At MTV, production VP Sally Frattini defended her company’s efforts, saying that crowds were kept behind police barricades and that parent company Viacom paid up to 50 off-duty policemen and private security guards to control fans.

The BID prexy also defended the phenom of screaming teens and their idols, saying it had a most popular precedent. “The MTV crowds are astounding occasionally, but that’s the history of Times Square,” said Sexton. The bobby-soxer phenomenon with Frank Sinatra (started) just a block and a half south of MTV, at the old Paramount Theater” at 1501 Broadway.

Although the legit community in Times Square makes sport of badmouthing the hordes of tourists — the vast majority of whom do not buy theater tickets — Sexton pointed out that two new apartment highrises and recently filled-to-capacity office buildings also contribute mightily to overcrowding in the area.

Studying problem

Sexton announced that BID had spent over a year on an unreleased proposal for widening Times Square sidewalks and traffic islands. “We were happy to find out that when we met with the city, they were engaged in a similar study,” he said. “Their remedies are like ours. The pedestrian islands in the middle of the strip have to be made into true pathways. Everyone agrees there has to be some sidewalk widening. Which sidewalks and how much is being debated.”

Obviously, the Dept. of Transportation does not take lightly losing a lane of traffic, which is what will happen when Duffy Square, home of TKTS ticket booth, is temporarily widened and lengthened at its north end later this year.

BID and the department have also discussed a midblock crosswalk with traffic signal on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th avenues, and possibly changing Times Square traffic flow as was done at Herald Square.

One proposal may not endear BID to some theater vets, who use midblock passageways (as exist at the Minskoff, Marriott and Gershwin) to escape the masses. Sexton revealed that there were 11 such midblock sidewalks, and that BID was working with property owners to make them better lit, attractive and accessible to the public. “They are virtually unknown to tourists,” said Sexton.

Which is why so many in the theater find them a last refuge from the crowds. To those who gripe, Sexton says, “You don’t come to Times Square to meditate.”

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