“This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to raise New York and the entire region to new heights of greatness by getting Penn Station right. We can and must do better.”
New York magazine’s Justin Davidson is right in calling the various plans for a new Penn Station “inherently confusing and nonlinear.” One could just as well call them chaotic. Many of those involved pursue agendas that have little or nothing to do with transit. If we are ever to get Penn Station right, decision-making at Penn Station must start with transit; after all, it is a train station. Below, we recommend four steps for how to get there.
But first, how did we get to this place? The biggest reason for the confusion and chaos at Penn Station is that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESD) put a mega real estate development first—a reprise of Hudson Yards just to the east—in an inversion of how the project should have proceeded. The ESD proposed to fund incremental improvements at Penn Station as a pretext for building commercial towers, most of them supertalls, from river to river.
The ESD called its development scheme the General Project Plan (GPP) and promptly declared the neighborhood adjacent to the station as “blighted,” giving Vornado Realty Trust’s CEO Steve Roth carte blanche to create what he called “Vornado’s Campus” where a large swath of Midtown West now stands. The collapse of the commercial real estate market has given the district a reprieve, but the plan has not been formally withdrawn and recently survived a challenge in New York’s lower courts, pending appeal.
The neighborhood demolition plan or GPP has been “decoupled” from transit upgrades at Penn Station. In effect, the GPP was never really about improving Penn Station and the ESD was using the station as a Trojan horse.
Complicating things further, Amtrak, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and New Jersey Transit (the Railroads) are content with a track layout that doesn’t differ markedly from the 1910 original. Now, metro New York, with a population of 20 million, sprawls beyond the city limits to emerging centers of business activity ill-served by today’s mass transit system.
What is needed is a trunk line to link New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester seamlessly through Penn Station. This trunk line would expand metro New York’s core and provide greater connectivity and reverse-commuting opportunities throughout the region, much the way the subway does for the outer boroughs. What we need is through-running.
With through-running, trains would pass through the station while originating and terminating in rail hubs on either side of the Hudson and East Rivers. Through-running is the globally accepted standard for mass rail transit and has been adopted by many of our peer cities at home and abroad (London, Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo and Toronto, among others).
Regrettably, our commuter lines (and Amtrak) reject through-running modernization proposals. Instead, they support building new, subterranean terminal tracks below 31st Street which will require complicated, expensive deep-cavern engineering and the demolition of approximately two blocks of mixed-use Manhattan real estate. Through-running would require no such demolition, would adaptively reuse the Penn Station/Moynihan footprint and would keep operations simple and affordable.
The Railroads claim this is needed to meet anticipated capacity gains from the new Gateway tunnels, which they claim through-running cannot provide. Yet, years into their proposals, they have not provided credible capacity data to support this claim. As far as anyone knows, they haven’t conducted this analysis at all or, if they have, they are sitting on the results.
Adding to the chaos, Madison Square Garden asked for a permit to operate in perpetuity at the same time the Railroads issued a report saying that the Garden was incompatible with transit operations. Mercifully, only a five year permit extension was granted.
Consequently, we are left considering disparate and competing parts of what needs to be a coherent Penn Station project. To overcome these dynamics, we recommend four steps.
Step One: If the goal at Penn Station is to create a transit-oriented commercial district, shouldn’t we first decide what the transit plan and operating model should look like? Without any bona fide data, the Railroads claim their proposals provide the capacity necessary for Penn Station’s future and that ReThinkNYC’s and others’ through-running plans do not. A robust, independently verified capacity analysis of the different track plans is a must. Rail Traffic Controller™, a program for capacity modeling, is standard for the industry and each of the Railroads routinely uses it. This data is especially critical as the Railroads’ preference for a terminal station at Penn is at odds with the Federal Railroad Administration’s own guidelines.
Step Two: Once we decide on a track plan, we should examine the location of Madison Square Garden. How much costlier are Penn renovations with Madison Square Garden atop the station? Does this compromise rail operations and, if so, how significantly? What are the costs of postponing this decision for several more decades? Conversely, what are the costs of moving Madison Square Garden? ReThinkNYC has recommended three different locations for Madison Square Garden.
Step Three: After transit operations and the location of Madison Square Garden have been decided, we will be in a position to address station design. Indeed, the governor announced at a recent press conference on Penn Station that there would be a “design process.” She expressed being open to designs from “any architect, any design firm, any engineer to allow them the opportunity to compete for a position to perhaps be creating this world-class masterpiece”—an excellent and necessary idea. If this were to happen, submissions should be required to indicate if they can accommodate through-running.
Present design proposals include those of the MTA (FX Collaborative/WSP/McAslan) and ASTM, who propose underground stations with mid-block glass-ceilinged train halls. ASTM’s includes an 8th Avenue entrance bringing natural light to the western part of the station and removes the Hulu theater, which eliminates Hulu trucks omnipresence on 8th Avenue. Alex Washburn proposes an above-ground station that features an extensive public realm. The ReThinkNYC proposal stresses transit connectivity, neighborhood preservation, public realm usage and fealty to the original McKim, Mead and White architecture. Alon Levy of NYU’s Marron Institute has also recently offered a proposed station concept that stresses function with a pronounced focus on maximizing transit capacity.
Step Four: With decisions made as to Penn Station proper, what changes, if any, should be made to the surrounding cityscape? What should happen to the many landmark-eligible buildings by America’s greatest architects that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has apparently ignored? What could be done to increase the availability of affordable housing and homeless services? Is there room for parkland or for otherwise materially improving the public realm?
Real estate development should be considered after the questions set forth above. Hundreds of residents and small businesses should not be cast to the wind. Meeting the objectives of one real estate developer over those of an entire neighborhood should have no place here. The rightly maligned GPP should be withdrawn as it has been “decoupled” from its original ill-conceived purpose.
In sum, the four steps set forth above are logical and easily understood. They look to transit and station improvements first and address development issues after these critical matters have been determined. The chaotic sequencing of the Railroads’ current plan for Penn Station is detrimental to New York. This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to raise New York and the entire region to new heights of greatness by getting Penn Station right. We can and must do better.
Sam Turvey is chairperson of RethinkNYC, an advocacy and education group dedicated to the broader impacts of transit infrastructure and governance issues. He also is co-coordinator of the Empire Station Coalition, a group of over 15 civic, environmental and neighborhood associations opposed to Gov. Hochul’s Penn Station plans.