Michael Phillips sounds nostalgic as he tours the dusty confines of what was, more than a century ago, the dining room for The New York Times’ top brass. It is now a hollowed-out construction site.
“Clearly, they thought they were in the centre of the world,” he observes, gazing out the window at Times Square. “And they were.”
Phillips, the president of property developer Jamestown — and a natural showman — wants to restore that sense of wonder and relevance to a slender tower that is a New York City icon and a real estate oddball.
He is doing so through a $500mn, technology-laden renovation that Jamestown hopes will bring the historic building into the metaverse era — both to dazzle paying visitors and to help brands market their goods.
“It’s going to be an interactive portal for where the world is going,” is how Phillips describes his futuristic vision.
Built in 1904 as a headquarters for the Times, the tower occupies a singular sliver of Manhattan where Broadway and Seventh Avenue converge, slicing into the heart of Times Square. It is best known as the place where the ball drops each New Year’s Eve, sliding down a rooftop pole before a global television audience of more than 1bn people.
Another famous feature is the “zipper” ticker tape that was wrapped around One Times Square’s base in 1928, and has been announcing the news of the world ever since.
After the Times left, the tower hosted a succession of corporate tenants, including Allied Chemicals. Yet its true purpose was to become a gigantic, and highly lucrative, signpost. Towering billboards affixed to its exterior have advertised General Motors cars, Cup Noodles soup, Budweiser beer, and a plethora of other consumer goods to the millions of people who wander through Times Square each year.
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By the time Jamestown bought One Times Square from Lehman Brothers, in 1997, it was all but vacant because the billboards — now digital screens — covered most of the windows. Jamestown, known for developments such as Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, began plotting an upgrade five years ago. One Times Square’s digital screens were by then becoming obsolete in a social media era in which advertisers were demanding more dynamic and interactive options.
So the company’s plan for One Times Square was to make the tower a must-visit tourist destination — on a par with Manhattan’s elevated High Line park and other attractions — while bringing its advertising features into a new era.
The result is a multipart redesign. The roof, now a dingy staging ground for the New Year’s production, will be spruced up and open to visitors year-round. They will arrive via an exterior glass elevator that will whisk them up the side of the building to a new observation deck that will extend into the blinking maelstrom of Times Square. The ball, which looked strangely forlorn on a recent afternoon, will now be deployed to do its duty a few times a day.
In the interior, now a hollow shell, Jamestown is creating a museum dedicated to the building and the surrounding neighbourhood. The heart of the project will be 12 floors of installation spaces where advertisers will be able to deploy virtual reality, augmented reality and other cutting edge bells and whistles to try to engage a new generation of consumers.
It is not easy to describe a blend of technology, art and entertainment that is still taking shape. But one source of inspiration Phillips points to is the new immersive Van Gogh exhibitions that use digital projections and virtual reality to submerge viewers in paintings such as The Starry Night. “It’s a good example of how people are creating a more three-dimensional experience,” Phillips says.
In the commercial world, a reference point is Nike’s 24,000 sq ft “Rise” concept space in Seoul, South Korea, which blurs the boundaries between a physical and digital shopping experience.
Other possible uses for the building might be marketing a new film by allowing kids to dance and play games with animated characters inside a virtual world. Phillips wants the spaces to be as engaging as a Disney theme park or a multiplayer video game.
“The idea of these 12 floors is that you can travel through the building and have a variety of experiences with products and brands that are more tactile and also three-dimensional in terms of imaging technology and augmented reality,” he explains. It is a natural evolution for Times Square advertising, he notes — from analogue signs to digital screens and now the metaverse.
While One Times Square is an unusual property, Phillips is hoping that some of the ideas developed in the exhibition spaces will eventually be sprinkled into other parts of Jamestown’s portfolio. They might, for example, enliven traditional retail properties at a time when many are tired and seeking reinvention.
“We view it as a kind of living laboratory,” Phillips says.