New York landmark is reimagined for the interactive age

Michael Phillips looks nostalgic as he tours the dusty confines of what was, more than a century ago, the dining room of the New York Times’ top brass. Today it is a building site in ruins.

“Obviously they thought they were the center of the world,” he observes, looking out the window in Times Square. “And they were.”

Phillips, the chairman of real estate developer Jamestown — and a natural showman — wants to restore that sense of wonder and relevance to a soaring tower that is a New York icon and real estate quirk.

It’s doing so through a $500 million tech renovation that Jamestown hopes will bring the historic building into the era of the metaverse — both to dazzle paying visitors and to help brands market their wares.

“It will be an interactive portal to where the world is going,” is how Phillips describes his futuristic vision.

Michael Phillips plans to turn the building into an interactive exhibition space © Monique Jaques, for the FT

Built in 1904 as the headquarters of The Times, the tower occupies a singular slice of Manhattan where Broadway and Seventh Avenue converge, cutting into the heart of Times Square. It is best known as the place where the ball drops every New Year’s Eve, sliding down a rooftop pole in front of a global TV audience of over a billion people.

Another famous feature is the “zipper” ticker tape that was wrapped around the base of One Times Square in 1928 and has announced world news ever since.

After the Times left, the tower took on a succession of corporate tenants, including Allied Chemicals. Yet its real goal was to become a gigantic and very lucrative signpost. Towering billboards affixed outside advertised General Motors cars, Cup Noodles soup, Budweiser beer and a plethora of other consumer goods to the millions of people who walk through Times Square each year.

By the time Jamestown bought One Times Square from Lehman Brothers in 1997, it was nearly vacant because billboards — now digital screens — covered most of the windows. Jamestown, known for developments such as Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, began planning an upgrade five years ago. One Times Square’s digital screens were becoming obsolete in the age of social media where advertisers demanded more dynamic and interactive options.

The company’s plan for One Times Square, therefore, was to make the tower a must-see tourist destination—on par with Manhattan’s High Line elevated park and other attractions—while bringing its advertising features into a new era.

The result is a multi-part redesign. The rooftop, now a seedy stage for the New Year’s Eve production, will be renovated and open to visitors year-round. They will arrive via an exterior glass elevator that will take them around the side of the building to a new observation deck that will stretch out into the flashing maelstrom of Times Square. The ball, which looked oddly desperate on a recent afternoon, will now be deployed to do its duty a few times a day.

Advertising screens cover the facade of the building © Monique Jaques for the FT

Inside, now a hollow shell, Jamestown is creating a museum dedicated to the building and the surrounding neighborhood. The heart of the project will be 12 floors of installation space where advertisers can deploy virtual reality, augmented reality and other cutting-edge bells and whistles in an attempt to engage a new generation of consumers.

It’s not easy to describe a mix of technology, art and entertainment that is still taking shape. But one of the inspirations Phillips points to is Van Gogh’s new immersive exhibitions that use digital projections and virtual reality to immerse viewers in paintings such as The starry Night. “It’s a good example of how people are creating a more three-dimensional experience,” says Phillips.

Visitors are seen in the immersive hall of the Hansemesse before the opening of the exhibition
Michael Phillips points to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience exhibition as an example of technological possibilities © Bernd Wüstneck/DPA

In the retail world, a point of reference is Nike’s 24,000 square foot “Rise” concept space in Seoul, South Korea, which blurs the lines between a physical and digital shopping experience.

Other possible uses for the building could be marketing a new movie by allowing children to dance and play games with animated characters in 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’s a natural evolution for Times Square advertising, he notes — from analog signs to digital screens and now to the Metaverse.

Although One Times Square is an unusual property, Phillips hopes that some of the ideas developed in the exhibition spaces will eventually spread to other parts of the Jamestown portfolio. They could, for example, enliven traditional retail businesses at a time when many are tired and looking to reinvent themselves.

“We think of it as a kind of living lab,” says Phillips.

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