How To Stand Out In Times Square?

Adrian J Cotterill, Editor-in-Chief

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Glenn Collins wrote in the New York Times on Saturday about an even bigger and brighter billboard coming soon to Times Square…

They could be 212-foot-high, flat black stealth bomber wings studded with tiny jewels, soaring 17 stories above the crossroads of the world.

Soon enough, their gemlike lights will glow brilliantly as the signature elements of the largest advertising billboard in Times Square, trumpeted by its designers as the world’s most complex, powerful and digitally advanced new supersign, with unequaled high-resolution graphics.

The billboard, traditionally called a “spectacular” on the Great White Way, is already visible, yet still very much under construction. In sheathing the east, west and south sides of 1 Times Square, it will show the flag of the Walgreen Company, the nation’s largest drugstore chain in sales, which is promoting a new three-level, 16,200-square-foot emporium in the building’s ground-floor retail space, which has been empty for seven years.

The multicomponent, 250,000-pound sign will be programmed from street level to 341 feet high at the top of the building, on the traffic island between Broadway and Seventh Avenue at 42nd Street. Best known as the mother ship for a patchwork of billboards and the place where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, the building was originally called the Times Tower, the 25-story, 1904 headquarters of the newspaper that gave the square its name.

The store is expected to be unveiled, and the billboard officially illuminated, next fall.

The sign will have 12 million light-emitting diodes, known as L.E.D.’s — 17,000 square feet of them, “which is more than a third of an acre,” said Arthur Gilmore, president of the Gilmore Group, a Manhattan design and branding consulting firm, which created the sign. “Including its digital and vinyl decorative components, it will be 43,720 square feet in area.”

The new spectacular “will be larger than any sign in Times Square,” said Barry E. Winston, a Times Square project consultant who has been a billboard expert for more than 50 years. He said it would surpass the current behemoth, the 11,000-square-foot Nasdaq sign on Broadway at 43rd Street.

Walgreen is trying to raise its visibility in New York, a city seemingly overrun by Duane Reade, Rite Aid and CVS, where residents seem to need another drugstore even less than they need another bank.

This does not deter Walgreen, which sees “the sign and the store as a focal point for us nationally,” said Craig M. Sinclair, a Walgreen divisional advertising vice president.

Walgreen has 22 stores in the five boroughs; it will have 5 more by the end of the year, and plans a dozen more by 2010. Mr. Sinclair estimated that the sign would be seen by 1.6 million passers-by daily.

“There was a jumble of signs at 1 Times Square, and no continuity,” Mr. Gilmore said. “Now, three sides of the building will be programmed as a single entity.”

And so, the sign components of the east and west facades of the building, which are 341 feet tall and 143 feet wide, will be programmed “in a synchronized way, as a single animation,” said Meric Adriansen, a managing partner of D3, a digital design company in North Bergen, N.J., that designed the hardware and software for Walgreen. These animations — largely advertising spots — will run from 15 to 60 seconds.

Enhancing the digital screens will be “passive,” or nondigital, custom-printed decorative opaque vinyls as well as lighter printed vinyl-mesh scrims of the kind used in bus graphics. The scrims are perforated so that they do not rip apart in the wind.

Other advertisers with screens on the northern face of the building have long-term leases. Those screens will remain, as will several nondigital vinyl billboards on the east and west facades.

In the language of supersigns, the Walgreen billboard will be “densely populated” with L.E.D.’s that are as close as six millimeters apart.

The sign will marshal enough candlepower to withstand the sun at high noon. Its images will be projected by 12 million red, green and blue L.E.D.’s programmed to glow in different configurations so that the brains of human observers interpret them as images. A trillion colors are programmable.

The elements of the sign, programmed and directed from a control room in the building, require 200 disk drives to govern both sides of the building.

The digital components of the sign, using 16.6 miles of power and data cables, require the installation of 77 10-foot-tall, 5,000-pound “cabinets” brought by truck from a steel fabricator in Oregon.

These cabinets, weatherproofed assemblages of diode arrays, are being lifted and bolted to 30 tons of new steel supports on the building, with more than a half million nuts, bolts and screws.

On a recent night, a cabinet section dangled from a crane as riggers bolted it into place.

The supersign’s distinctive features are “the diagonals,” as Mr. Gilmore called them: 27-foot-wide programmable digital elements on the east and west facades that will extend from about 12 feet above the ground.

The two diagonals will be interrupted by the Dow Jones zipper, as well as the tower’s structural elements, but “the diagonals pull the sign and the building together,” Mr. Gilmore said.

The diagonals will be extended above the building’s 224-foot parapet, up the sides of the south tower, with two digital signs 55 feet tall and 54 feet wide.

In addition, 13 5-foot-tall, high-definition plasma screens at street level and 17 additional 6-foot-square high-definition L.E.D. screens on the east and west facades will be programmable; and on those facades, there will be two 27-by-24-foot digital signs. There will also be a 54-by-32-foot active sign at the south facade.

Advertising possibilities for the sign are so robust that Walgreen plans to sell space to its suppliers for promotions. The company would not say how much it spent on the sign, but billboard advertisers said a sign of this size would cost at least $15 million.

The billboard is not guaranteed to boast about its size forever. An entrepreneur in downtown Los Angeles has promised to install two 14-story animated billboards celebrating “Blade Runner,” the 1982 dystopian science-fiction film. That project has yet to win approval from city agencies and overcome community opposition.

Meanwhile, a nebula of diodes will shine from 1 Times Square. “It’s going to light up that canyon near 42nd Street,” Mr. Gilmore said, “and give you a suntan.”

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