The New York Times

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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 December, 2006, 12:00am

In just over two weeks, 750,000 people will gather in Times Square to mark the arrival of 2007. Around the world, as many as 1 billion people will watch a giant orb decked out with hundreds of light bulbs, Waterford crystals and rotating mirrors drop from atop a Manhattan building to mark the event. But that iconic building - One Times Square - has been empty for almost all of the past five years.

Walk around the building now and it looks tired and grubby, more like an abandoned government office than the site for a major brand name in one of the world's most expensive entertainment and retail corridors. Its upper floors are plastered with giant billboards, and a famous Dow Jones news ticker wraps around it.

The recently built skyscrapers that surround it have new stores and restaurants, as well as huge electronic screens carrying advertising. They are like brash and arrogant newcomers staring the old survivor down.

In the time since the last long-term tenant, a Warner Bros Studio store, moved out, there has been a lot of talk of new uses for the narrow, triangular building which was once home to The New York Times. It was going to be a 7-Eleven convenience store, a showcase for Microsoft, and a museum devoted to Pepsi-Cola. For brief periods it has been occupied - by movie crews, by department store group J.C. Penney with a pop-up store, and by a government anti-drugs campaign that tried to persuade visitors that every puff of cannabis was funding the world's terrorists.

The building's estate agent says it is currently talking to a big financial institution, a clothing company and an entertainment company about moving in. 'They all have really great plans for the building to include retail, showroom, office and entertainment,' said Jeffrey Roseman, a principal at the brokers Newmark Knight Frank Retail. 'It is arguably the most famous building in the world.'

Still, don't be surprised if it remains empty for another year. After all, some have described this shell as a landlord's dream because, even without tenants, it is making tonnes of money. Some say it generates more than US$10 million a year from the advertising alone.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros is still paying the rent on the interior, while advertisers are still being charged an arm and a leg for the billboards.

Mind you, much of the 22 floors of One Times Square would be of little use to any modern office tenant, as the signs block out many of the windows. There is also concern among some potential tenants that Times Square's growing tourist traffic tends to sidestep the block on which the building is perched.

If it were up to me, it would become a centre for the homeless. In recent years, there have been few homeless people seen in Times Square. But, in recent weeks, their number has begun to swell.