By 1991, after more than a decade of sustained effort, the 42nd Street Development Project was well on its way to being labeled a "great planning disaster" as put forth by the British geographer and planner Peter Hall. By millennium New Year's Eve 2000, which drew a crowd of revelers estimated at a dubious two million, the transformation throughout the 20-plus-block core of Times Square district was visible, surprising, and worth understanding, regardless of whether one looked favorably upon the reshaped landscape or considered it in terms of nostalgic loss. How did this all happen? How is it that a high-profile development project well on its way to being labeled a "great planning disaster" turned into an internationally recognized symbol of urban redemption?
The story is long, complicated, and, in several respects, counterintuitive. Played out over two decades, the policy-driven transformation of West 42nd Street became a dual test of political power and market imperatives. Left solely to its own dynamic, the market could not have effectuated physical and social change on such a large scale, within a time frame deemed acceptable by most mayors, especially New York's Edward I. Koch. The transformation had to be invented, and even the first invention failed before the planner moved away from their initial over-ambitious program for commercial development—ever unpopular and tortured for ten years. Lawsuits, long delays, and market reversals defined the 42DP's every key episode. Yet the high-profile public controversies significantly shaped the rescripting process and gave the new vision for West 42nd Street much of its acclaimed character. What one sees in Times Square today is the result of successful public intervention, testimony that runs counter to the prevailing notion that cities do not have the capacity to effect large-scale change.