This month in real estate history

<i>The Real Deal</i> looks back at some of New York's biggest real estate stories

Times Square in the '70s.
Times Square in the '70s.

An anti-pornography crackdown kicked off with a new zoning proposal announced 34 years ago this month to limit adult-themed entertainment in New York City, threatening to cut the number of XXX-rated movie theaters in Times Square from 22 to six.

The plan was focused not just on Midtown, but across the city. Mayor Abraham Beame’s administration sought to ban adult uses in residential areas and severely limit them in commercial areas.

The proposal sought to prohibit adult-oriented businesses from operating within 500 feet of residential areas and would allow only three such establishments within a 1,000-foot radius in a commercial area. In the outer boroughs, that number dropped to two per 1,000 feet.

Adult entertainment first took root in Times Square during the Depression. Business exploded after the 1960s, and by the mid-1970s there were more than 100 topless bars and sex shops in the district.

However, Beame’s legislation died after being opposed by members of the Board of Estimate, who believed the establishments had constitutional protection to operate. But in 1995 the City Council passed similar legislation, and in 1998, when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor, the State Court of Appeals gave a final push for the city by upholding the zoning plan.

The fight to clean up Times Square had actually been going on well before Beame’s salvo. For example, in 1954, a Catholic priest from a church at 329 West 42nd Street decried the movie theaters that glorified “nudity and near-nudity,” citing the Squire theater that was advertising the films “Naked Souls” and “Mating Time.”

Lever House

Despite rapid construction of skyscrapers in Manhattan following the end of World War II, the office vacancy rate in new towers was less than 1 percent 57 years ago this month, as tenants expanded and a handful of new companies relocated to Midtown.

Modern office buildings were replacing the aging office towers built in the early decades of the 20th century and before. There were very few office buildings built from 1932 to 1947 outside of Rockefeller Center, but 23 skyscrapers were built from 1947 to 1954.

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Walter Harvey, an executive at the Equitable Life Assurance Society, released the tight vacancy numbers at a meeting of the Real Estate Board of New York. He compared those figures to a vacancy rate of about seven percent at the peak of the prior boom, in 1928 and 1929. At that time, 10 million square feet of office space had just been added to the market. (Today’s vacancy rate in modern Class A office buildings in Midtown is 12.6 percent, Jones Lang LaSalle reported last month.)

The demand for the new construction in 1953 was in part from expanding advertising and television firms. Other companies, such as Lever Brothers and Arabian American Oil Company, were moving for the first time to Midtown.

1933: End of Prohibition brings spike in retail rents

Dream hotel

The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the sale and manufacture of alcohol in the United States, boosted rent prices in Manhattan 77 years ago this month, as restaurants and liquor stores rushed to open new locations.

The small real estate boom was created by a requirement from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which issued licenses to sell liquor, that vendors have a lease or deed in order to apply to sell spirits. The spike in rents was in anticipation of the actual date of the repeal of the 13-year-old amendment on Dec. 5, 1933.

One real estate broker, James Murphy, said at the time that the sale of alcohol would help reverse the slide in rents brought on by the Depression.

But the first licenses were doled out sparingly. For example, on Broadway, running from the Battery to Yonkers, just 19 locations were awarded licenses as of the first week of December 1933, including the Hotel Woodward at 210 West 55th Street, now known as the Dream Hotel.

Compiled by Adam Pincus