I was surprised by the Times Square casino idea to build a casino at “the Bowtie,” where Broadway crosses Seventh Avenue. It’s already a place of sensory overstimulation, part of New York City’s brand, and a casino’s buzz generator. Casinos like Biloxi, Detroit, and Philadelphia indicate a city desperate for cash and lacking identity. That’s impossible in New York, right?
Caesars Entertainment, Jay-Roc Z’s Nation, and SL Green, New York City’s largest commercial landlord, want to build a Caesars Palace in Times Square. It’s one of many projects bidding for New York’s three gambling licenses for the metropolitan area. Hudson Yards, Coney Island, Citi Field–Willets Point, and Aqueduct Raceway are also possibilities. All proposals were submitted on January 6, and a committee of local leaders will meet to choose later this year.
SL Green owns the 1960s Times Square office tower it wants to turn into an eight-story casino with hotel rooms. 1515 Broadway, now the Viacom building, was the MTV studio where Total Request Live was broadcast for a decade.
It was previously called One Astor Plaza, after the Beaux Arts Astor Hotel that was demolished to create it. The podium’s casino levels will be above the Minskoff Theatre, where The Lion King will continue to be staged.
The Theater District thrives with revivals like Caesars Palace. The latest attempt to save Times Square from itself. The New York Post wrote, “The 1515 Broadway project is needed to help stem a slow, gradual erosion in the district’s fortunes.”
1515 Broadway, built by Der Scutt (who later designed Trump Tower), led the 1960s Times Square revitalization. For decades, the area’s notorious vices—pornography, prostitution, drugs—were replaced by white-collar employment and more wholesome pastimes.
The never-ending attempt to recreate Times Square as an office-tower zone ended out differently than proponents and detractors expected. In the 1980s, Philip Johnson and John Burgee constructed four eerie office towers to turn Times Square into “Rockefeller Center South,” as political analyst Marshall Berman called it (and, maybe, a giant apple sculpture by Robert Venturi).
After the 1987 stock-market crash, it returned in the late 1990s. By then, Empire State Development, the company remaking Times Square, had wised up and issued design regulations that required new buildings to have “glitzy, brilliant lights.”
Thus, Times Square’s radiance mattered more than its inside. Four office skyscrapers, bulkier than those envisaged in the 1980s, were built by the early aughts, but the camouflage—bigger, brighter, and more hypnotic—made Times Square even more of a tourist lure, and the ad-covered façades became a key cash stream for developers.
I had déjà vu talking to SL Green’s executive vice-president of retail and opportunistic investments, Brett Herschenfeld. Times Square needs rescue again despite its megaglitz. The post-COVID crime surge is “absolutely genuine in Times Square,” he says. It’s rough now.”
SL Green blames the demise of national shops like Oakley and Toys ‘R’ Us. Guess what’s returning? Popeyes chicken, Raising Cane chicken, Jollibee chicken, ‘I Heart New York’ gifts.
The casino is his solution to the retail apocalypse, which was already underway (Toys ‘R’ Us left Times Square in 2015) and exacerbated by COVID-19. He didn’t recognize the irony in promoting gambling as a way to get rid of lowlifes and fast-food restaurants in Times Square and attract better tourists.
The Broadway League, which represents hundreds of theater owners, operators, and producers, considers the casino an existential threat. “Whether they come for a day or a week, visitors to Times Square arrive on restricted budgets that would be cannibalized by casino gaming,” League president Charlotte St. Martin wrote to the membership.
Every dollar spent at the craps table, roulette wheel, or slot machine is not spent on a play, meal, or souvenir.” Herschenfeld claims the facility will create a “halo effect.” He claims that a tiny casino will send people to nearby retailers and eateries and bring 400,000 new Broadway theatergoers each year.
Gamblers will leave the building and take mass transit with local business vouchers. “Take the metro and get rewarded,” he advises. Herschenfeld describes a moral casino. Its halo would include $117 million for theater tickets for impoverished kids, “mental-health awareness” for Broadway union members, and education for future actors and stagehands.
Jay-Z-planned outdoor entertainment would be funded by the casino. “Quality,” Herschenfeld said. “No more Elmos.” “New Yorkers will want to return to Times Square,” he said. The Broadway actors and stage managers union agrees. The casino partners are “good neighbors and collaborators,” according to Actors’ Equity Association communications director David Levy.
Other theater groups disagree. “There is no scarcity of stagehands that would necessitate creating a casino,” claimed Local One president Michael Wekselblatt.
He doesn’t think philanthropy will make up for the casino’s Theater District damage: “$117 million sounds nice,” but “the actual physical impact on the region, and what it will do to the adjacent structures and theaters, is the real rift.”
I adore employing an office tower as a casino. While I prefer that outmoded office skyscrapers be converted to cheap housing, it seems cruel to make anyone spend more than a night or two in this hyperraucous area, and recycling an existing building is definitely more sustainable than creating a new faux Parthenon or work of starchitecture.
Even the greatest firms and expansions failed to completely ruin Times Square, according to earlier efforts. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Walt Disney Company was renovating the New Amsterdam, a 1903 theater that once hosted the Ziegfeld Follies, and planning a massive retail store at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue.
The Magic Kingdom’s sugary corporate branding was thought to crush our city’s filth. Disney-fied Times Square. Not precisely. I forgot about Disney-fication until 2015, when the desnudas, women in body paint and little else, appeared in Times Square (which had become mostly pedestrianized thanks to the Bloomberg administration) and made a career by posing for visitors.
It was a flashback to the bad old days and a major tabloid controversy, but it excited me because it signaled that Times Square might withstand Disney’s best efforts and stay anarchic.
Caesars, like the Magic Kingdom, wants to dominate its environment, even the streets outside. The casino promises to improve Times Square security. The Times Square Alliance funds “public-safety police” to monitor the district, which already has concrete bollards to protect people and buildings from maniacs and terrorists.
Security cameras abound. (The Alliance reportedly uses 18 building-mounted cameras to automate its daily pedestrian counts.) A casino would require much more. William Bratton is SL Green’s security consultant.
As Mayor Bill de Blasio’s police commissioner, Bratton last spoke on Times Square’s desnudas scandal. In a radio broadcast, Bratton suggested removing Broadway’s pedestrianized length to eliminate painted ladies and other street entertainers. “I’d rather simply dig the whole damn thing up and put it back,” Bratton said. It made me think Bratton should never run Times Square.
Herschenfeld noted that SL Green’s new office tower One Vanderbilt, close to Grand Central, has a special security crew that keeps the pedestrian plaza clean and safe. It’s also one of those locales that looks better in architects’ renderings.
The plaza’s main attraction is a series of five spherical planters with young honey-locust trees. Passersby often relax on the concrete borders, but they’re too low to be comfortable, so no one stays long. Bratton advises security there too.
Bratton wrote a Daily News opinion piece in December. “A casino will make Times Square safer.” “Persistent criminality will erode the neighborhood’s economic vitality,” Bratton wrote. “This is not hopeless.”
Why? According to the New York Times, Bratton aims to install “More than 50 new artificial intelligence camera systems ‘strategically deployed across Times Square, each capable of watching 85,000+ persons each day.’”
Reports suggest surveillance drones. “A vast area from 40th St. to 53rd St. between Sixth and Eighth Ave.,” Bratton wrote in the Daily News, will get $85 million in security measures from SL Green and its allies. Big halo. Bratton suggests: “The means and technology already exist to stop crime before it happens.”
Most of us are used to being tracked by our devices or others. In Las Vegas, casinos use surveillance to prevent card counting at blackjack tables and other cheating and to watch the Strip for criminal activities. Some casinos utilize Israeli facial-recognition software on the West Bank border to keep cheaters and other undesirables out.
In New York City, MSG Entertainment CEO and chairman James Dolan uses facial-recognition software to expel his perceived corporate opponents from Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, and the Beacon Theatre. An attorney taking her 9-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout troop to Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular was denied admittance due to MSG litigation.
Public surveillance cameras and systems have yet to prove they can deter crime. Studies show they can prevent property crimes like burglary but not violent crime. Finally, companies and law enforcement organizations may exploit or alter the surveillance data acquired 24/7.
Despite repeated makeovers, Times Square remains a cacophony and disorderly. You may hide in the crowd here. But a massive network of cameras and other security equipment deployed to protect casinos from undesired persons and activities could finally tame this shelter of the unmediated masses. After decades of fruitless attempts, I would hate to see anything—even a casino—save Times Square.