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Times Square rebound gathering momentum

NEW YORK – When the ball drops from the top of 1 Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve, Gretchen Dykstra will have plenty of reason to celebrate. As president of the Times Square Business Improvement District, Dykstra has worked tirelessly to make the once-seedy neighborhood cleaner and safer. And her efforts are starting to pay off.

As more than 500,000 revelers gather to greet 1997 at the “Crossroads of the World” – generating some $50 million in revenue for the city, according to a recent Ernst & Young analysis – Dykstra’s group is already planning the festivities for 2000.

The BID held a global contest to come up with the best way to usher in the new millennium (despite the belief held by many that 2001 marks the millennium change). After reviewing 640 suggestions from 21 countries around the globe, the group combined the ideas of five people to devise a 24-hour multicultural celebration that will herald the millennium’s arrival in each of the world’s 24 time zones. Helping to plan the bash is a blue-ribbon committee chaired by New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.

The New Year’s hoopla notwithstanding, Dykstra spends most of her days trying to make Times Square hospitable to tourists, employers and workers the other 364 days of the year.

Times Square renaissance

Thanks to the BID, real estate developers have smelled the whiff of profits amid the often less-than-savory odors of Gotham’s streets. As a result, Times Square is emerging as both a corporate office park and a family entertainment destination. Along with longtime resident the New York Times (for which the square is named), Bertelsmann, Viacom Inc., Hachette Filipacchi Magazines and EMI Records all have U.S. headquarters in the area. Conde Nast Publications will move to 4 Times Square in 1998.

Those who worry that Mickey Mouse is casting a shadow over the newly renovated 42nd Street may take some consolation from the fact that Bugs Bunny will be doing the same in Times Square. In October, Warner Bros. Studios announced it had signed a long-term lease for 1 Times Square. Warners plans to open a huge retail store in the 22-story, 110,000-square-foot tower, but it also is exploring what it terms “other entertainment options” for the space.

Real estate sources say the partnership between Sherwood Equities and Lehman Bros., which owns 1 Times Square, talked to Marvel Comics, David Copperfield, Jekyll & Hyde, Planet Hollywood and the Rainforest Cafe before leasing the space to Warner Bros.

New neighbors

The Warners store will be a stone’s throw from the new 15,000-square-foot Disney store on the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue and down the street from the historic New Amsterdam Theatre on West 42nd Street that the Walt Disney Co. is refurbishing. The New Am is scheduled to open in the spring with a live version of “The Lion King” onstage.

Many credit Disney’s commitment to invest $36 million in the restoration of the New Amsterdam as the catalyst that galvanized a moribund government initiative to revitalize the street of dancin’ feet.

In Times Square, the opening of the Virgin Megastore at the corner of 45th Street and Broadway nearly one year ago has acted as a magnet for many of the 20 million people who visited the area in 1996. Industry sources say that Virgin, which bills itself as the world’s largest music store, is attracting an average of 5,800 people an hour and is far exceeding corporate sales projections.

“There was a lot of activity in Times Square this year that put the cynics to rest,” Dykstra said. “Not all of the new business ventures will succeed, but the tide has turned.”

While social commentators such as New York Times columnist Frank Rich mourn the passing of the old Times Square, anyone who forgets how menacing the area used to be can watch Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” as a reminder.

Like Amsterdam’s famed Milky Way, Times Square was an affordable amusement park of sorts for adults, with its peep shows, porn theaters and pinball arcades. But the fact remains that it was a dangerous place to visit. Since the formation of the Times Square BID in 1992, overall crime has decreased 43% in the district, which stretches from 40th to 53rd streets and from west of Sixth Avenue to the west side of Eighth Avenue. The number of robberies has fallen by 58% and the number of assaults has declined 55%.

Staying above ground

Problems remain: One of the biggest is that the level of investment in the 42nd Street subway station lags the millions that are being spent above ground. Rather than contributing to the improvement of public transportation, some developers are taking the opposite tack.

The Durst Organization, owner of 4 Times Square, has told government officials that it does not plan to open underground entrances between its building and the 42nd Street subway station.

Dan Romanelli, president of worldwide consumer products for Warner Bros., says the studio is studying the creative possibilities for the three subterranean levels of 1 Times Square. “We’re looking at ways that our characters can enhance the entertainment value of the property,” says Romanelli, who declined to confirm speculation that Bugs Bunny will be hanging 10 from the Jumbotron.

The Warner Bros. studio store will open in Times Square in November. Its arrival will come too late to promote the fourth pic in the “Batman” franchise, but it will coincide with the arrival of “Quest for Camelot,” Warners’ first fully animated feature.Perhaps Warners can team with the Metropolitan Transit Authority to use the labyrinthine dungeon that currently passes for a subway station as part of a simulated medieval castle.

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