For biz, street closure is work in progress

This summer, Broadway has been radically different.

The street itself, that is.

Since Memorial Day, five blocks of Broadway, stretching from West 42nd Street to West 47th Street, have been closed to traffic in an effort to ease congestion and to turn a significant chunk of Times Square into a pedestrian promenade. And with those newly established semi-piazzas right in the heart of the theater district, reviews from legiters have been coming in all summer.

The more serious logistical obstacles raised as possibilities by the theater industry when the plan was first announced in February seem not to have materialized — at least not yet — while many of the hassles associated with the area have been alleviated.

Take, for instance, the annual Rialto promotional performance Broadway on Broadway. This year the event, which attracts an estimated 50,000 people, will occur Sept. 13 in its usual prime outdoor spot in the center of Times Square, without requiring the same organizational hoops formerly necessary to shut down the area to vehicular traffic. Some spectators might now even get the unprecedented luxury of a seat.

But legiters still hold other concerns, which the orgs that maintain the area are working to address.

The official report card on the $1.5 million transformation (which also occurred on a few blocks of Broadway in nearby Herald Square) isn’t due until December from the Dept. of Transportation, the city org that masterminded the project. Then at the end of the year, based in part on the finding in that report, the mayor will decide whether the change should be permanent.

At least so far, the plaza-fication has, surprisingly, not seemed to have much effect at all on area business, positive or negative. Nonetheless, the move has stirred its share of controversy among those who make their livelihoods in the area, including legiters.

Many cab drivers will tell you they hate the new set-up, and in recent weeks the addition of sun umbrellas prompted alarm from the neighborhood’s outdoor sign industry, worried that their billboards, many of which advertise Rialto fare, would go unnoticed with too many umbrellas blocking the view. (In light of those fears, the number of umbrellas was reduced.)

Transportation snafus, involving buses attempting to deposit masses of group ticket buyers in front of their theater, have not occurred as originally feared, although it remains to be seen whether this will hold true in the fall, when group theatergoing generally picks up momentum.

Still, this summer, it hasn’t been uncommon to hear grumbling from legiters who must now wade through new swaths of lounging humanity to get to their Times Square offices. Many of them rolled their eyes at the cheapo lounge chairs placed in the area temporarily while the more permanent seating was on its way. But since the sturdier but aesthetically unimpressive plaza furniture was installed a couple of weeks ago, legiters now fret that the area still looks like more like a dirty street than an enticing piazza.

Those responsible for the promenade respond that the current configuration is still just a pilot version, which will stick around until the mayor’s office gives the go-ahead to make the pedestrian areas permanent, and presumably more appealing.

And as business development org Times Square Alliance points out, the plazas aren’t any dirtier than your average Gotham street — it’s just that now people look at them in a new light.

“People’s expectations for it are different,” says Alliance prexy Tim Tompkins. “They expect it to be cleaner and nicer, and we’ve got to meet that standard.”

No matter how it looks, the plaza’s effect on sales at area businesses appears to be largely neutral, according to the Alliance — although those polled have noted the difficulty of making a direct comparison year-on-year given that the economic downturn hadn’t yet hit at this time in 2008.

The boom in walk-up sales, formerly seen as a possibility by some in the theater industry, didn’t seem to happen, at least not at the Marquis Theater, situated right on Broadway. The show in that venue, “9 to 5,” has never managed to take off at the box office and will shutter Labor Day.

The same holds true at the TKTS booth, the long-established but newly renovated discount ducat outpost located on the north end of the pedestrian zone. The remodeled booth, unveiled last fall, includes attention-grabbing illuminated red steps that also contribute to the new public-space feel of the area.

“I don’t think the pedestrian zone has had too much of an impact either way,” says Victoria Bailey, exec director of Theater Development Fund, which runs the TKTS program. She adds that according to TDF surveys, a surprising number of people lounging on the booth’s steps or sunbathing in the plaza don’t actually know they can purchase theater tickets there, too.

“We’re thinking about how we can educate and engage people who are coming to the square and not thinking about buying tickets,” Bailey says.

Some of those people will be attracted by promotional events, which seem likely to increase in frequency now that planners have begun to take note of the new, more user-friendly layout.

In June, the Tonys were simulcast on giant screens in Times Square, and a few weeks ago the season preem of AMC skein “Mad Men” was broadcast there to drum up attention.

“The plaza has made a lot of event promoters look at Times Square in a new way,” says Tompkins.

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