The van was spotted by patrol officers around 11 a.m. Wednesday on Broadway between 41st and 42nd Streets, and counterterrorism and bomb squad crews responded. The area was blocked off and two high-rise buildings home to Nasdaq and publishing company Conde Nast were partially evacuated but allowed back in around 1 p.m.
Nasdaq said its trading was unaffected. Conde Nast was in the process of evacuating when the order was lifted.
There were no corresponding terror threats involving the vehicle, said chief NYPD spokesman Paul J. Browne.
But police take extra care around New Year's Eve when the ball-drop celebration draws hundreds of thousands of revelers to the heart of Times Square from around the world. Squads routinely patrol for suspicious vehicles and do sweeps in garages before the annual event.
"Its presence in Times Square just before New Year's Eve causes us concern, and that's why we're taking extra precautions," he said.
The 1992 Dodge van was parked in a row of cars beneath some of the large billboards that ring the square. Police used a robot to examine the vehicle, then approached on foot and peered in the windows. The van was opened and clothing was discovered inside, along with a temporary registration. Police were looking for the van's owner.
Shouting and putting up wooden barricades, police began clearing several blocks, directing thousands of Times Square tourists to move south. Investigators also towed a parked car several yards from the van. A tarp partially covered the van, and the placard said "detective's crime clinic, New York/New Jersey area," a nonexistent law enforcement agency.
It wasn't clear how long the van had been parked there, although New Yorkers who work in the area said the van had been there at least two days. A similar-looking van in the same location appeared on Google Street View in warmer weather, which suggests it could have been there for a while.
Stephanie Gonzalez, who works one of high-rises in the area, said announcements were made around 11 a.m. that people should head to the west side of the building, away from the van. She left the building entirely.
"Post 9/11, you're just not going to stick around to figure it out," she said.