A diagram from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement shows some of Vornado’s transit improements plans for the 33rd St. area. (15 Penn Plaza – DEIS)
In writing about shuttered subway passageways lost to time yesterday, I mentioned briefly Vornado’s plans to reactivate the Gimbel’s passageway between 6th and 7th Avenues underneath 33rd St. The proposal is part of the real estate company’s 15 Penn Plaza project that would see a 1200-foot mixed-use building replace replace the Hotel Pennsylvania, and as part of their plans, Vornado has proposed sweeping transit improvements that would unite subway lines in the Penn Station area.
Last night, at a presentation in front of Community Board 5 on 15 Penn Plaza, the MTA had an opportunity to present and discuss the transit improvements. Bob Paley, director of transit-oriented development at the MTA, spoke at the meeting as he highlighted this “excellent example of transit oriented development.” It is, he explained, a part of the city’s plans to bring Moynihan Station from an idea to reality.
“The redevelopment of the Hotel Pennsylvania site,” Paley said, “offers the ability to move ahead with some of the most critical aspects of the work that needs to be done [for Moynihan Station] – including the enlargement, reconstruction and reopening of the Gimbel’s Passageway and the improvement of specific platform locations, vertical escalation, and subway entrances that are within or adjacent to this full block property.”
The main thrust of the improvements, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, would involve reactivated that old Gimbel’s passageway underneath 33rd St. “The renovated passageway would be widened to accommodate pedestrian flows between Penn Station/the Seventh Avenue subway lines and the Sixth Avenue subway lines and the Port Authority Trans Hudson station, improving pedestrian circulation on the street- level sidewalks,” the document says. “The passageway would provide an alternative to pedestrians traveling along the 33rd Street corridor.”
The Post’s Steve Cuozzo discusses how the old passageway would be completely overhauled. Instead of a nine-foot wide, dimly-lit tunnel replete with sketchy characters, the new tunnel would be 16 feet wide and would resemble the underground concourses at Rockefeller Center. The MTA estimates that, in good weather, 10-14,000 people per day would make use of the connection. Although Cuozzo claims that the passageway would provide a free transfer between the IRT at 34th and 7th Ave. and the IND/BMT stop at Herald Square, the DEIS image, shown above, features fare control areas at either end. Still, simply uniting the two stations underground would make walking through a highly congested area much easier.
Vornado, working with the MTA and PATH, has proposed a slew of other improvements to meet the increased transit demands of their massive building – the third highest in the city if it is to see the light of day. These include:
- Widening the stair from the Seventh Avenue southbound local platform to the 32nd Street underpass;
- Building a new stairway to the center platform from the 32nd Street/Seventh Avenue underpass;
- Widening the Seventh Avenue northbound local platform between West 32nd and West 33rd Streets by six feet;
- Building new subway entrances at Seventh Avenue and West 32nd Street and Seventh Avenue and West 33rd Street, each of which would include a 10-foot-wide set of stairs through the proposed building;
- Constructing a new street elevator at the Seventh Avenue and West 33rd Street entrance;
- Widening the Sixth Avenue and West 32nd Street PATH entrance stairs by 10 feet, and adding one escalator;
- Constructing one escalator at the Sixth Avenue and West 33rd Street subway entrance;
- Constructing a 10-foot staircase from the PATH to the B, D, F, and V platform near West 32nd Street;
- Constructing a 15-foot staircase from the PATH to the B, D, F, and V platform near West 33rd Street; and
- Reconfiguring the fare control area to accommodate new stairs from the PATH to the B, D, F, and V platforms.
This plan, says the MTA, is estimated to cost approximately $150 million, and Vornado has shown a complete willingness to fund these upgrades. “The public benefit of funding from a private partner willing to take on the significant planning and construction work to implement these improvements is even more critical in today’s environment of limited capital funding than it was when these discussions began several years ago,” Paley said.
Of course, it looks good on paper, but it’s future is no sure thing. Vornado says it could have the building open in four and a half years, and the DEIS claims a completion date in 2014. Cuozzo reports, however, that the company won’t start construction until it “pre-signs at least one large office tenant – which could take years.” The company remains committed to gaining approval now.
In a sense, these improvements would create a hub similar to those at Times Square and Fulton St. for transit in an area exceedingly difficult to navigate. PATH access would be improved, and the Penn Station area catacombs would begin to clear up. It is a prime example of transit-oriented development and a public-private partnership that sees much-needed transit upgrades funded by a developer with money that plans to increase transit demand. It just makes sense.
“It is for those reasons,” Paley said last night, “that the MTA strongly supports this project – both the subway and transit improvements and the new tower that will rise above them. Although we can’t bring back the old Penn Station, through a series of very significant improvements such as those proposed as part of this development, we will be able to bring back the high level of convenience and amenity that the public deserves.”
Update (2:10 p.m.): For what it’s worth, Community Board 5 last night voted 36-1 against Vornado’s plan for 15 Penn Plaza. Eliot Brown offers some insight into the vote:
Many community board members seemed almost offended that Vornado had requested both an air rights bonus for its transit improvements and an additional increase in the density beyond what they would normally be allowed (one called it “double dipping”). Still, community boards often vote against projects, and some board members did acknowledge that this was a good space for a tall building.
While the Community Board asked Vornado to come back when it had a tenant in place, the reality is that this vote doesn’t matter. The City Council will eventually decide whether or not to approve this project, and odds are good that they will give it the OK. Stay tuned.