Call it the return of Moynihan Station. Call it the Empire strikes back. Call it an ambitious plan to expand Penn Station (because of those “underwhelming dining options”). Call it misguided. Whatever you prefer, something seems to be coalescing around Midtown West’s train station, and it is all thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desire to move us into and out of New York City.
In what I believe was the last day of Cuomo’s whirlwind State of the State preview tour that had him criss-crossing New York to announce various infrastructure upgrades, Cuomo announced two plans of dubious origin yesterday. The first is the bone he threw to upstate politicians who had asked for “parity” with regards to the MTA’s five-year capital plan. The state will, for some reason, spend $22 billion on upstate roads. It is ironically and appropriately called the PAVE NY plan, and it certainly isn’t parity. Considering the economic impact of such spending, the state would have to spend around $50-$60 billion on the MTA to create true parity. That was the appetizer though.
— Scott Saslow (@Saslow_Scott) January 6, 2016
The governor returned to Manhattan early on Wednesday afternoon to announce an initiative that could usher in a completely overhauled Penn Station as early as 2019 — when Cuomo is still likely to be governor. The new plan looks suspiciously similar to the Moynihan Station proposal that’s been gestating for three decades, but it now bears the moniker of the Empire Station Complex, which is not, I’ve been told, Kylo Ren and Snoke’s plan for a replacement for the Starkiller Base. Rather, it is the start of Cuomo hopes is a $3 billion public-private partnership to usher in a “world-class transportation hub” for New York City. Considering our experiences with the other transportation hub at the World Trade Center site, you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t jump for joy.
In presenting this plan, Cuomo managed to praise Robert Moses for “designing for the future” in creating “much of the highway and parks system we still depend on.” You can spend 1000 words unpacking that statement and Cuomo’s intentions alone. Rather, though, let’s talk about what the Penn Station renovations do and what they do not do.
First, they certainly look nice. By shifting the main terminal to the Farley Post Office building site, the plans create a European-style sunlight waiting room with higher ceilings and an overall better passenger experience (less the avenue block walk from the IRT trains) than one currently enjoys at Penn Station. It solves what Cuomo identified as a major problem with Penn Station. “Penn Station is un-New York: it is dark, it is constrained, it is ugly, it is dated architecture, it is a lost opportunity. Travelers are relegated to a bleak warren of corridors,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a miserable experience, to cut to the chase, and to really cut to the chase, it is a terrible introduction to New York.”
But to “fundamentally transform” Penn Station, Cuomo has seemingly forgotten the transit options. His plan:
Penn Station Redevelopment: The existing Penn Station facility, which lies beneath Madison Square Garden and between 7th and 8th Avenues, will be dramatically renovated. The project will widen existing corridors, reconfiguring ticketing and waiting areas, improve connectivity between the lower levels and street level, bring natural light into the facility, improve signage, simplify navigation and reduce congestion, and expand and upgrade the retail offerings and passenger amenities on all levels of the station. The new station will include Wi-Fi, modernized train information displays and streamlined ticketing.
Several design alternatives will be considered, including major exterior renovations involving 33rd street, 7th avenue, 8th avenue, and/or Madison Square Garden Theater…
Farley Post Office Redevelopment: As part of the Governor’s proposal, the Farley Post Office, which sits across 8th Avenue from Penn Station, will be redeveloped into a state-of-the-art train hall for Amtrak, the new train hall, with services for passengers of the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and the new Air Train to LaGuardia Airport. The train hall will be connected to Penn Station via an underground pedestrian concourse, and increase the station’s size by 50 percent. At 210,000 square feet, the train hall will be roughly equivalent in size to the main room at Grand Central Terminal. The new facility will offer more concourse and circulation space, include retail space and modern amenities such as Wi-Fi and digital ticketing, and feature 30 new escalators, elevators and stairs to speed passenger flow. The Governor’s proposal also calls for an iconic yet energy-efficient architectural design.
Cuomo presented the proposal with an aggressive timeline. He wants companies to bid on it within 90 days, and as I mentioned, he wants it built within three years. It’s clear this is something he wants to see through as governor. In fact, as The Times reports today, a behind-the-scenes agreement among New York State, Related and Vornado nearly came to fruition last year, but the negotiations simply took too long. Cuomo is now opening up the process so that development companies can bid on parts — that is, only the 7th Ave./33rd St. half or only the Farley rebuild — or all of the renovations at once. Vornado and Related are expected to be involved in the bidding, and Extell and Brookfield will be as well.
Considering we all know that Penn Station is an ugly mess of a train station that doesn’t serve as a particularly alluring gateway to New York City, what, you may wonder, are the objections to this project? Simply put, it is another multi-billion-dollar expense that, by itself, doesn’t do anything to solve the region’s real problem of transit capacity. Amtrak’s CEO Joe Boardman stated that the Penn Station overhaul is “setting the stage for the future expansion of rail service and ridership that will be made possible by the Gateway Program,” but without a firm commitment to build the Gateway Tunnel, the Penn overhaul is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.
And so we arrive back at the problem that Cuomo’s plan is a lot of flash without much substance. Despite promises to build the tunnel in his presentation, we still don’t know what the future holds for Gateway, and nothing Cuomo has said over the past few days of infrastructure press conferences has changed that reality. Gateway exists as an idea with some momentum and vague commitments to reach a funding agreement. There are no dollars flowing, no timelines, no studies, no shovels. Much as the World Trade Center PATH Hub was a $4 billion expense to create a shopping mall, so too might the $3 billion plan to overhaul Penn Station. And the sad part is that for those $7 billion in building expenses, we could have had a new trans-Hudson tunnel sooner rather than later.
Of course, if Gateway materializes, the Penn Station overhaul will be a welcome element of a revitalized midtown transit-scape, but we’re talking multi-billion-dollar, decade-long if’s. Cuomo won’t be in office to cut that ribbon, and supporting a project he won’t be around to see through will take leadership he hasn’t shown yet.