What we talk about when we talk about Penn StationBy
New York City and its residents have had a long and torturous relationship with Penn Station, both new and old. The destruction of the original McKim, Mead & White head house spurred the start of the preservation movement, and architectural critics and transit planners haven’t been too sure what to make of the current iteration. Today, as we face capacity concerns that would have bedeviled the original Penn Station decades ago, halting efforts to reconstruct and reconfigure the Amtrak, LIRR and NJ Transit hub have drawn no clear consensus.
The latest news concerning Penn Station is actually about its upstairs neighbor Madison Square Garden. The arena looms over Penn’s rail service both literally and figuratively, and right now, its short- and long-term future is up for debate. The arena’s special occupancy permit is up for renewal, and as the Dolan’s are asking for a perpetual permit, Community Board 5 members and some of the city’s urban planning critics are calling for a ten-year permit that would allow for Penn Station’s future and an arena relocation plan to work itself out.
“The 10-year renewal is an attempt to create a planning period to figure out another location for the Garden,” Raju Mann, head of CB5’s land use committee, said to DNA Info. “The reason we would like MSG to relocate is because the Garden sits atop Penn Station, which is North America’s most important train station, but is unfortunately woefully over capacity…The goal is to try to figure out how we can improve transportation and also build a great new arena.”
Now, it’s not an inherently bad thing that Madison Square Garden is atop Penn Station. It further incentivizes patrons to take transit instead of their cars and allows for easy access to and from events. Moving Penn Station west to the Hudson Yards area, as many have advocated, would inevitably lead to an uptick in automobile traffic along the West Side and a decrease in rail usage. (The 7 line extension, however, may mitigate some of the traffic concerns.)
In The Times today, Michael Kimmelman expands on this argument and comes out firmly against a perpetual permit. His defense is centered largely around the need for a larger and prettier Penn Station.
On their own New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak have banded together to hire the design and engineering firm Aecom and James Carpenter Design Associates to devise ways to bring a little light and air down into the bowels of Penn Station. But so far the plans, hamstrung by the arena, seem only to recommend modest changes and perhaps the partial closing of 33rd Street at Seventh Avenue, to create a small pedestrian plaza. Serious change to the area, to heal one of most painful wounds the city has ever inflicted on itself, must involve the Garden.
Its owners, the Dolan family, have been pouring a billion dollars into upgrading the arena. New York taxpayers are effectively footing part of the bill. In 1982 the New York State Legislature, worried that the Knicks and Rangers might leave town, granted the Garden a tax abatement that last year alone saved the Dolans $16.5 million, according to the New York City Independent Budget Office. In 2008, by which time the abatement was estimated to have cost the city $300 million, the City Council recommended that it be ended, but the state legislature declined.
Penn Station was designed half a century ago when some 200,000 riders a day used it, but now 650,000 do, and that number is growing. With the Garden on top of it, relief is not likely. The City Planning Commission, which recommended the demolition in 1963 of the old Penn Station, now has, for the first time since then, a chance to atone by giving the permit a time limit. The permit that has just expired was for 50 years. Several years ago the Garden entertained a proposal by developers to vacate its site and move to the back of the post office. Having just spent a fortune on improvements, the Dolans probably have no desire to entertain a move now.
But a decade of wear and tear should help to amortize their investment and make the notion of a new home more palatable, especially compared with the endless prospect of sinking yet more millions into an already decrepit building. The Garden has already moved twice since its establishment, in 1879. Another move, one that sustains the arena’s mass-transit link, could provide an opportunity to build what the Garden should be, the newest and best sports and entertainment facility in the city: an architectural landmark as opposed to an eyesore, lately made to look even worse by the arrival of the spanking new and striking Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The problem with any discussion around Penn Station is the way the dialogue is framed. Kimmelman’s line that any new Penn Station has to “heal one of most painful wounds the city has ever inflicted on itself” is tough to reconcile with transit planning. While Penn Station is ugly and dingy and, at best, utilitarian, the problem with the station isn’t necessarily the way it looks; the problems, rather, are the tunnel leading to it.
While Penn Station may require larger corridors and while we may want nicer views, some natural lighting and soaring ceilings, train capacity is far more important, and plans to move the Garden to the post office or to convert Penn Station into Moynihan Station across the street do little — if anything — to add train capacity. Instead, critics are arguing to spend billions on a new train station head house and more on a new arena because Penn Station is ugly.
To me, that’s not a solution to the real problem of transit capacity. Rather, it’s a solution to fixing something that went wrong fifty years ago. As a $4 billion train hub with no added capacity grows in Lower Manhattan, we should be more mindful of our approach to building transit-related structures. Let’s increase rail capacity before we drum up more plans to build something that looks nice at ground level.