Earlier this week, I railed against the New York’s attempts at using the WTC PATH Hub as some great symbol of New York. It may one day be a distinctive building, but $4 billion can buy around half a new Hudson River train tunnel. As the pot for transit infrastructure is seemingly limited and dollars for buildings compete with dollars for actual rail expansion, we shouldn’t be spending money frivolously on fancy building when the area’s economy truly needs transit capacity improvements.
At this point, though, Calatrava’s hub is a foregone conclusion. Too much of it exists for the city to reallocate the money to somewhere more deserving, and it will open in a few years, replacing a temporary PATH terminal no one has ever called inadequate. A few miles uptown, though, a similar battle over Penn Station, Madison Square Garden and the future of West Side rail access is brewing.
I last tackled this topic not too long ago. In mid-February, the controversy over Madison Square Garden’s occupancy permit first reared its head, and I opined on the meaning of Penn Station. A subset of New York’s architectural community cannot seem to move beyond the reality that the current Penn Station is no great shakes. They bemoan decisions made 50 years ago and call upon leaders to reimagine a rail hub as a great public space worthy of the architectural musings of The Times.
Now, as then, Michael Kimmelman has taken charge, and from the headline on down, his latest piece prioritizes Penn Station’s future potential appearance over rail access and capacity. “Seizing a chance to right a wrong” is his angle, and from that alone, we see he’s talking not about improving transit but rather about improving the outward appearance of Penn Station.
“New York is at a crossroads,” he writes in the lede. “After half a century a fleeting opportunity has finally arrived to address the disaster of Penn Station, the nation’s busiest and most appalling transit hub, and to reimagine a new West Side for Midtown Manhattan that could be a center for development and innovation.”
How goes the rest?
Because public officials haven’t wanted to derail Moynihan, they have soft-pedaled the figures, leaving many New Yorkers with the illusion that Moynihan will replace Penn Station and solve its problems. But just Amtrak will move there, not the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit. At the same time demands on Penn Station are about to explode, with the development of the Hudson Yards and the third phase of the High Line; the prospect of Metro North’s trains and its commuters coming into Penn Station after the completion of East Side Access; and Amtrak’s proposed Gateway Project, a first step toward high-speed rail, which could double the number of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains coming into Manhattan.
It’s not only that Penn Station, designed a half-century ago in a declining city for what seemed then an unlikely capacity of 200,000 passengers a day, is now handling more than twice that number. It is also a shabby, hopelessly confusing entry point to New York, a daily public shame on the city. The station fails to conform to certain fire codes and safety regulations, local officials concede. Possible fixes being explored by Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, which have hired the consulting firm Aecom, don’t address the big, systemic problems, because they can’t. Not with the Garden there.
But here’s the bright side. Madison Square Garden has moved twice since its inception in 1879, and its present building is its fourth. Yes, the Dolans and their customers benefit from the perch above Penn Station. But there are options aside from the Morgan building to which the Garden might move again, options linked to mass transit, that should be attractive to its owners and fans.
At a certain point, I’ve almost begun to feel bad for Penn Station. It’s certainly not the most scenic of train stations, and as an entry point in the city, it sure pales in comparison with Grand Central. But the scorn heaped upon it stems more from the mistakes of city politicians who didn’t stop private railroad companies from bulldozing McKim, Mead & White’s original than from anything else. True concerns over capacity and cramped quarters could be addressed by removing Amtrak’s office space and opening up the corridors. Worries over crowd conditions and the ability of the hub to handle demand could be allayed with investment in a new trans-Hudson tunnel. A fancy building should always come last.
But here we are in 2013 and fancy buildings come first. We put the transit design cart before the capacity horse, and all we have to show for it is a $4 billion porcupine in Lower Manhattan and prominent voices agitating for a takeover of the Farley Post Office. Let’s take those billions of dollars we spend on architecture and invest in rail. Future generations of New Yorkers will be far more thankful for the added rail lines than for a nice building.