Archive for Moynihan Station
It’s hard to find a space in New York City transit planning as hotly contested as Penn Station. The destruction of the original Beaux-Arts masterpiece hangs over the city and echoes throughout today’s conservationism and landmarking process, and the current Penn Station rivals Laguardia as the city’s most scorned transportation space. Shoved under Madison Square Garden and operated as three separate fiefdoms by Amtrak, the LIRR and New Jersey Transit, the current iteration is a drab entryway to the city with poor wayfinding and passenger flow. It is constantly subject to fanciful ideas for improvement.
In early 2016, as part of his State of the State tour, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Empire Station Complex, a redesigned Penn Station that involved shifting much of the passenger areas to Farley Post Office building west of 8th Ave. and perhaps demolishing the Theater at Madison Square Garden to open space for grand public entrance. It followed decades of wheel-spinning over the so-called Moynihan Station plan and recent NYC rumblings concerning Madison Square Garden’s occupancy permit covering the space above Penn Station. Many people seem to think that to fix Penn Station, and retain its usefulness as a rail hub in between the 7th and 8th Ave. subway lines, the Garden will have to go.
That, however, may not be in the card as Gov. Cuomo announced last week a $1.5 billion plan to build out Moynihan Station and fix up the preexisting parts of Penn Station. Related, Vornado and Skanska will collaborate on a 255,000 square-foot train hall in the old post office that will house the LIRR and Amtrak (though it’s not clear what becomes of New Jersey Transit or why these three entities can’t better collaborate on the use of this space). The project will include 112,000 square feet of retail in Moynihan Station, making it the third transit mall the city has built in recent years, and an additional 588,000 square feet of office space. This thing, funded somehow, will be completed by the end of 2020.
Within the existing Penn Station, the MTA will redesign the LIRR’s 33rd St. concourse with higher ceiling, brighter lighting, wider concourses and new wayfinding signs. Additionally, the two Penn Station subway stops will be modernized under Cuomo’s plan to update the look and feel of the subway system. (The renovations will not include reconfiguring tracks to allow for same-direction, cross-platform transfers between local and express trains.) And that was it.
“New York’s tomorrow depends on what we do today, and the new Moynihan Train Hall will be a world-class 21st century transportation hub,” Cuomo said in his remarks. “With more than twice the passengers of all JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports combined, the current Penn Station is overcrowded, decrepit, and claustrophobic. The Moynihan Train Hall will have more space than Grand Central’s main concourse, housing both Amtrak and LIRR ticketing and waiting areas, along with state-of-the-art security features, a modern, digital passenger experience, and a host of dining and retail options. This is not a plan – this is what’s going to happen. People are going to walk through this station and recognize that this is New York.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: Penn Station is not a particularly pleasant train station for anyone, and it needs to be nicer. But redesigning Penn Station without addressing the trans-Hudson capacity concerns at the same time make me worry that we’re simply repeating the mistakes of the PATH World Trade Center station. How many billions can we spend on transit malls and fanciful headhouses without addressing operational issues (such as through running) or trans-Hudson capacity constraints (such as new tunnels)? On the bright side, Cuomo mentioned “coordination” with the Gateway Tunnels and indicated in another presentation that an announcement on Gateway funding and the project’s future may be coming soon. But shifting a busy commuter rail stop one long block away from nearby subways and not addressing capacity constraints seems short-sighted to say the least.
Meanwhile, while Cuomo controls the purse strings and can actually get something built, he’s not the only one with a vision for Penn Station. In The Times this past weekend, Michael Kimmelman highlighted Vishaan Chakrabarti’s plan to redo Penn Station by eliminating Madison Square Garden. Chakrabarti’s plan retains the Garden’s shape but removes the arena. He repurposes the building as an entrance to Penn Station and believes it would cost less than the Moynihan project while retaining access to subways. Unfortunately, a year after one of his top aides landed a plum spot at MSG, Cuomo has repeatedly said that the Garden isn’t going anywhere. “It’s called Madison Square Garden, and it’s private and they own it and they want to leave it there,” he said yesterday in comments. This too seems awfully short-sighted.
As the city has digested Cuomo’s proposals, it seems that the Empire Station Complex idea has fallen by the wayside. Dana Rubinstein reported that the elements east of 8th Ave. will take longer. We don’t know what will happen to New Jersey Transit or how Gateway truly fits in with this new train hall. The RPA and MSA both called on Cuomo to be more aggressive in relocating MSG and more vocal in plans for increased trans-Hudson rail capacity (although one Cuomo ally who will soon head up the RPA may temper these calls, Politico New York recently reported).
So for now, it seems the future of Penn Station is a nicer train hall that’s less convenient for train riders. It’s an expensive gamble with an unclear funding picture and one that may or may not include the more badly needed Gateway project. It rights a wrong in the design of Penn Station but seems to be a siloed project and not one that holistically reimagines train operations under the Hudson River and into and through Penn Station. Much like many other Cuomo plans, it almost gets us to where we need to be. But without further additions, it’s going to fall short of the region’s needs, and that’s the bigger lost opportunity yet.
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.
Every now and then, New York City collectively remembers that Moynihan Station remains an idea slowly inching toward reality, and every now and then, Moynihan Station makes its way back into the headlines of the city’s newspapers. The project officially got underway in 2012 with a very modest Phase 1 build-out involving some staircases and access points to Amtrak platforms, and earlier this year, it seemed that forces were slowly aligning behind the long-aborning effort. Now, it’s back, with funding and a vengeance, and could be closer to reality than we think.
The latest comes to us from Charles V. Bagli of The New York Times. According to Bagli’s report, the station plans are nearly fully funded, and Senator Chuck Schumer is asking the feds and Amtrak to close the gap. We’ll get to that shortly, as, in the meantime, I find Bagli’s article telling for what it doesn’t say than for what it does.
In reintroducing The Times’ readership to Moynihan Station, Bagli runs through the litany of folks lining up to support the project. Calling it a “$1 billion proposal to create a grand annex to Pennsylvania Station,” Bagli notes that Moynihan is “a favorite project of civic organizations, developers and politicians.” Notice who’s missing: planners and transit advocates. That’s because it’s not really a favorite project for that group. The Farley Post Office is west of 8th Ave., a full avenue block away from the IRT lines and two avenues from the BMT and IND at Herald Square. Unlike Penn Station, which straddles two subway lines, it’s not particularly well located to serve as a centralized train station, and the building design, with sweeping staircases, isn’t luggage-friendly. Still the project marches on.
One small step nearing completion is the enlargement of the existing concourses serving the train platforms below the blocklong post office and the expansion of a passageway beneath Eighth Avenue to Penn Station. And on Tuesday, Senator Charles E. Schumer, long a proponent of what is known as Moynihan Station, called on Amtrak and the Federal Transit Administration to provide the remaining money necessary for the next phase: building a skylit, intercity train hall in the post office for Amtrak. “After years of dreaming and work, Moynihan Station is on the precipice of success,” Mr. Schumer said. “Let’s access available federal money — from the F.T.A., Amtrak and elsewhere — to get it done now.”
…The state’s Moynihan Station Development Corporation is overseeing the $300 million first phase of the project, which is expected to be completed next year…But state officials have a $700 million construction budget for building the train hall, where postal workers once sorted mail, and retail spaces. The hall would be roughly the same size as the great hall in Grand Central Terminal.
…Mr. Schumer said that the development corporation had pledges for $500 million, from the city and two developers chosen in 2005 to create the Moynihan transit hub. That leaves a $200 million shortfall, which Mr. Schumer said should be filled by federal funds.
Bagli rehashes how various plans to move Madison Square Garden have fallen through, and he even drags a perfunctory quote out of Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia. “Although our resources are limited, we think this is an important project. We’ll do everything in our power to make it a reality,” he said. “Right now, the most important thing is to serve the rapidly growing demand for train service along the Northeast corridor.”
But the largest problem with the project remains firmly in place: For $1 billion, the Moynihan Station Development Corporation is creating a nicer waiting room for Amtrak without contemplated or expanded train capacity through the station. There’s no denying that Penn Station needs fixing. It’s not a pleasant place to be, and that inevitably will lead some people to eschew train service. But as dollars for transit are scarce, the priority should be expanding trans-Hudson capacity.
The Times reserves this inconvenient truth for the kicker of the article. By paraphrasing Bob Yaro, outgoing head of the Regional Plan Association, Bagli notes that without another Hudson River tunnel or an expansion of Penn Station to the south, Moynihan Station is simply a nicer shell for an older problem. Gateway, anybody?
When you stop to think about it, the Farley Post Office building doesn’t make for the most practical of train stations. The first thing you notice are the steps, and who wants to navigate those while lugging some giant suitcase around the streets of New York City? The second thing is its location. It’s an avenue block away from the 7th Ave. subway and two from Herald Square. That’s not added convenience; that’s moving westward to a more inconvenient spot.
Yet, the Farley Post Office is the subject of future plans to save Penn Station. It is the subject of a decades-long initiative to convert the majestic building into a new gateway to the city. By moving Amtrak’s waiting area to Farley — and spending over $1 billion in the process — various interests hope to redeem the shortcomings of Penn Station by simply turning the Farley Post Office into Moynihan Station. It is a project not without flaws.
Prior to the end of the Bloomberg Administration, various groups made a push to draw attention to the need for something better than Penn Station. It hardly needs saying, but the current station is a visual dump and a mess to navigate. The plans were fanciful, but the momentum behind the MSG replacement has died down in light of the arena’s 10-year occupancy permit.
Now, though, Moynihan Station, at least, has reared its head. As Laura Kusisto and Eliot Brown reported in the Wall Street Journal, there’s movement afoot to generate money for future phases of the Moynihan project. The money would come from — what else? — air rights, but no one’s saying much of anything right now. Kusisto and Brown report:
Empire State Development Corp., the state economic-development agency, is looking for a broker to sell 1.5 million square feet of unused real-estate-development rights attached to the property on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets, according to a request for proposals posted on its website last month. It is unclear how fast the state intends to proceed with the selection of a broker and marketing of development rights, nor is it clear if developers would be willing to pay a price that satisfies state officials or that would fully fund the project. A spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo declined to comment.
But the move toward the sale is one of the first signs that the Cuomo administration is interested in remaking the interior of the post office into a grand waiting room for Amtrak—a project about which administration officials have said little publicly…
Using the Farley building as a train station has been a dream of planners and state officials for more than two decades. Its intent is both to evoke the original Penn Station that was demolished in 1963 and to spur nearby real-estate development, although it would do little to expand train capacity.
As the local politicians noted to the Journal, no one really knows where the 1.5 million square feet of development would go, but that’s a solvable problem with old buildings dotting the midtown landscape. The biggest question surrounds the transit purposes. Kusisto and Brown do not hold back when the note that Moynihan would “do little to expand train capacity.” Amtrak says a new station is required if the Gateway Tunnel sees the light of day — but that station would be south of the current Penn, not west.
So we’re left with something that resembles a band aid and seems more like a vanity project. It may, as Alon Levy argued a few years ago, even have negative transportation value. But the Moynihan train won’t slow down. It inches forward, but it seems to draw ever nearer. While it solves the aesthetic problem as a high cost, it does nothing to solve the transit problem, and that’s more important right now.
When last we checked in on Moynihan Station, things were not looking good for the oft-delayed and rather expensive project. Phase 1 — essentially some wider concourses and more entrances — had to be scaled back amidst cost concerns when the bids on the project came in well above expectations. The Phase 2 work which includes the conversion of the post office building into the actual train station remains unfunded and a dream in the eyes of the project’s supporters.
Now, though, the Port Authority has some cause to celebrate. With a new price tag of $270 million, Phase 1 will kick off later this year, nearly two years after the ceremonial groundbreaking, Port Authority head Patrick Foye said yesterday. According to Reuters, Skanska’s $148 million bid to add street-level entrances at 31st and 33rd Sts. was the winning one. The different will go toward a new ventilation system and a mighty expensive underground walkway to Penn Station.
In comments yesterday, Foye spun this is a big step forward. Dana Rubinstein was on hand to report:
Foye, himself a Long Island Railroad commuter, said what has been a “fairly dingy” commuter experience would now “be fit for humans.”
…The project’s impact will be felt mainly by commuters. “It’s going to mean easier access to and from the tracks for Long Island Railroad commuters, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak,” said Foye. The authority was careful to present the project as Phase I of a two-part redevelopment that will culminate in the conversion of the Farley post office into an Amtrak terminal and retail center called Moynihan Station.
Though Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust are still the designated developers for Phase II, the project is unfunded and generally considered, at the very least, dormant. Even so, Foye argued on Tuesday that the completion of this track work, which he called, “the concourse of the new railroad station, of the new Moynihan Station,” would help make the latter a reality.
“The way I’d say it would be that the commencement of construction here later this year is gonna send a message to the development community, to investors, to Related and to Vornado and frankly to the whole community that this project’s gonna happen,” said Foye, “And, we would expect that not only is it a precondition to Phase II and the redevelopment of this building, but that it’s commencement will accelerate those discussions and that investment.”
By itself, the Phase 1 project is a worthwhile one. Improving access into and out of Penn Station will go a long way toward easing the crush of commuters in this underground cavern. That the Port Authority worked to ensure bids came in at budget is a step in the right direction too.
As I’ve noted in the past though, the Moynihan Station plan — with a price tag ranging from $500 million to $1 billion — leaves much to be desired. It doesn’t increase track capacity through the city and represents a nice building for politicians and a lot of dollars spent on some cosmetic upgrades. If it’s a future key for high-speed rail, that’s an easier pill to swallow, but I still wonder about our infrastructure spending priorities at a time when funds are not freely flowing.
The Moynihan Station project won’t die and can’t really move forward either. Despite a TIGER grant and a groundbreaking in October 2010, the plan to spend more than a $1 billion without truly increasing cross-Hudson train capacity has hit a stumbling block. As The Wall Street Journal reports today, due to escalating costs, the already-modest Phase 1 is being further scaled back.
Phase 1 of the two-phase project was not a particularly ambitious set of improvements. For $267 million, the Port Authority, now the overseers of the site, had planned to build two new entrances to Penn Station from west of Eighth Ave.; double the length and width of the West End Concourse; drop 13 new access points to the platforms; double the width of the 33rd St. Connector between Penn Station and the West End Concourse; and make other critical infrastructure improvements. Now that bids are in on the work and every single one came in above budget, the PA is reducing the scope of Phase 1.
Ted Mann has the story:
State and federal officials wary about mounting costs plan to scale back the first segment of work for the future Moynihan Station, the latest setback for an ambitious project almost two decades in the making. Plans to revamp a concourse and upgrade passenger amenities in a portion of Penn Station were narrowed after officials determined that bids for the estimated $267 million project came in too high, said Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is assuming control of the long-delayed venture…
“The response of the federal government, state government, MTA and Port Authority to the higher-than-expected bids is a unified approach to reduce the scope of phase one and thereby reduce the amount to be spent,” Mr. Foye said in an interview on Friday. “Phase one is funded and all government parties are working closely together to move phase one forward.”
…Mr. Foye said officials agreed to rebid the contract, focusing on the expansion of the existing West End Concourse, nestled beneath the main steps of the Farley building. Other elements of the first phase, including improvements to the 33rd Street corridor under Eighth Avenue, two new entrances to the station across Eighth Avenue and a new passenger waiting area, will follow once costs can be lowered, Mr. Foye said.
As I’ve long maintained, the Moynihan Station project borders on being a total waste. It’s a fancy way to fund some upgrades for the Amtrak platforms and ventilation infrastructure. It doesn’t offer up more track capacity into or out of the city, and it seems to represent spending on a structure that would allow politicians to point to something nice but not entirely functional. If these cost overruns and rejiggered project allow planners to take a second look at Moynihan Station, so much the better.
The old Penn Station — that long-lost symbol of the city’s historic preservation movement — turns 100 this year. As City Room’s Michael Grynbaum meticulously detailed, the first passengers to ride the Pennsylvania Railroad passed through the doors of the famed building back in 1910, and while the city tore down the iconic building, today’s iteration is one of the busiest transit hubs in the nation. Yesterday, city and state officials used the Penn Station centennial to celebrate the groundbreaking for another project. Phase I of Moynihan Station, newly renamed Moynihan Moving Forward, is now, well, moving forward.
At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Governor David A. Paterson, Senator Charles Schumer, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — a veritable who’s who in New York politics — gathered to commemorate the start of the $267 million project. Just a few hours earlier, LaHood and Paterson had signed a grant agreement providing for $83 million in federal funding through the Department of Transportation’s TIGER program. Still, even as the back-patting spread in earnest, this project is far from complete and questions about both its usefulness and overall integration into the plans for the 34th St. area abound.
“This is an historic day for New York: not only the 100th Anniversary of Penn Station but also the birth of another,” Paterson said. “Today we break ground on one of New York’s most important transportation projects. While the size and scope of the project may have changed over the years, its goals have remained constant. This critical infrastructure project will create thousands of jobs for our construction workers and foster economic growth.”
While the state’s governor declined to mention the transportation benefits inherent in the project, Sen. Schumer, who led the effort to secure the TIGER grant, put them front and center during his remarks. “Moynihan Station is poised to be one of the greatest transportation and infrastructure legacies of our generation. Transportation infrastructure is the life-blood of New York and investing in it is a tried and true job creator,” he said. “The construction of Moynihan Station will create jobs, upgrade aging infrastructure, and leave behind an economic engine for the entire region. This project will bring together large numbers of people who can live and work in close proximity, which is New York’s secret formula for success. Our public transportation systems must continue to expand in sync with our population and job growth and confidence in the future.”
The Phase I construction — which I’ve covered in depth over the past few months — is modest in scope. While the entire project would realize a new train terminal inside the old Farley Post Office building, Phase I consists of better access points and cosmetic upgrades for the preexisting rathole that is Penn Station. As the press release lists, the first phase includes: “the expansion and enhancement of the 33rd Street Connector between Penn Station and the West End Concourse, which lies under the grand staircase of the Farley building” as well as “the extension and widening of the West End Concourse to serve nine of Pennsylvania Station’s 11 platforms, new vertical access points and passenger circulation space and entrances into the West End Concourse through the 31st and 33rd Street corners of the Farley building.” These most celebrated of all entrances will be opened by 2016.
Planning for the second phase, says the governor’s office, is “well under way.” In other words, don’t hold your breath. Still to prove that point, the Moynihan Station Development Corporation released the renderings with which I’ve decorated this post. If or when the $1.5-billion Phase II sees the light of day, it will at least look nice.
Yet, the project still suffers from a lack of planning. Basically, Moynihan Station is the very definition of putting lipstick on a pig. It takes a recognize urban problem — the ugliness of the current Penn Station — and spruces up the Amtrak depot. It doesn’t offer up more track capacity into or out of the city, and it doesn’t really integrate the New York City end of the ARC Tunnel. In fact, there’s no small irony to the fact that this groundbreaking came just a few days before the two-week ARC Tunnel review is up. At Penn Station, it’s almost as though the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, and one of those hands is planning to spend a significant amount just to make everything look nicer.
Earlier this spring, as part of its plan for 15 Penn Plaza, Vornado Reality revealed plans to reopen the Gimbels Passageway between 6th and 7th Avenues underneath 33rd St. Although the company’s development proposal failed a Community Board vote and is still awaiting an anchor tenant, the City Planning Commission approved the building, and as Speaker Christine Quinn is a friend to developers, a City Council vote next week is all but assured. But if a group of people banding together to protect the Empire State Building’s place amidst the New York skyline has its way, 15 Penn Plaza may not get so high off the ground.
The problem is one of height and proximity. Vornado’s new high-rise, located just two blocks west of the iconic Empire State Building, would top off at 1216 feet. The art deco building at 350 Fifth Ave. rises to just 1250 feet before the radio spire and lightning rod reach to just over 1453 feet. The new building, fear landmark preservationists, will radically alter the way the Empire State Building is perceived.
“The Empire State Building is the internationally recognized icon on the skyline of New York City,” Anthony Malkin, one of the owners of the Empire State Building, said. “We are its custodians, and must protect its place. Would a tower be allowed next to the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben’s clock tower? Just as the world will never tolerate a drilling rig next to The Statue of Liberty, why should governmental bonuses and waivers be granted to allow a structure as tall and bulky at 15 Penn Plaza to be built 900 feet away from New York City’s iconic landmark and beacon?”
The various renderings — many of which are collected at The Architect’s Newspaper Blog — range from dire to reasonable. Take a look, for example, at the view from New Jersey or the way 15 Penn Plaza looms to the west of the Empire State Building if seen from the east:
The Observer’s Eliot Brown has more on Malkin’s crusade:
He first came to be involved with 15 Penn Plaza when Vornado began shepherding the plans for the tower through the city’s seven-month-long public-approval process, which concludes with the vote by the City Council this month. The size of the tower caught him off-guard, he said. He began to round up consultants and push for changes, including at the City Planning Commission, given that such a building so close by would significantly change the skyline. “We’re not talking about preventing tall buildings in New York,” Mr. Malkin said. “The question here is this tall building here in New York, being approximately 800, 900 feet away from the Empire State Building, crowding the distinctive skyline of the city.”
He is no fan of the design—he likened it to “an undersea ICBM”—and sees a decision on the tower as a historic one, saying it is “akin to the loss of Penn Station.”
As for what’s driving Mr. Malkin, it seems to be a transparent self-interest. He views himself as a guardian of his building’s place in the skyline, and, as such, he is protective of anything that might encroach on that. If there are financial motivations-and Mr. Malkin says there are not-they are not obvious (although he has raised concerns that the new skyscraper would interfere with his building’s radio tower). The Vornado tower and the Empire State Building would compete for two different types of tenants; namely, those willing to pay high rents for modern space at the Vornado tower (banks and the like), and those who can’t. Tenants at the Empire State Building include the FDIC and nonprofits like Human Rights Watch, for instance.
Malkin isn’t alone in his fight. Peg Breen of the New York Landmarks Conservancy expressed her surprise at the size of the proposed 15 Penn Plaza as well. “It’s hard to understand how City Planning could say that 15 Penn Plaza would have no impact on the Empire State Building when they already lowered a proposed 53rd Street building for that very reason,” she said. “We would urge the Council to look at the discretionary waivers and bonuses this proposal has received.”
As this battle brews, though, and the fate of the proposed development atop the Gimbels Passageway awaits City Council action (and the inevitable lawsuits), the altered skyline could come into play at 8th Ave. as well. As Jeremy Smerd from Crain’s New York York Business reported yesterday, the city, state and Vornado are haggling over the potential sale of 1 million square feet of air rights above the Moynihan Station. With the initial contracts for Moynihan’s Phase 1 approved on Monday, the air rights are the next big issue that must be sorted out.
Interestingly, an air rights deal could lead to a quick development at 33th St. and 8th Ave. If Vornado works out a deal, Penn West, a 67-story, 693-foot-tall tower above the new depot, could begin to rise soon. It’s going to get awfully crowded along the 33rd St. corridor soon, and the iconic Empire State Building may soon have some tall transit-related company indeed.
After this week’s PACB approval, construction on Phase 1 of Moynihan Station will begin in October. With a tortured history that rivals many of New York City’s late-20th Century transit expansion plans, a firm start date for the project is good news indeed. Phase 1 is a $267-million expansion plan for Penn Station, and it is expected to be completed by 2016. When the $1.5-billion Phase 2 will get off the ground is anyone’s guess, but when the project is finally completed, New Yorkers will enjoy a much airier and roomier commuter rail hub, evocative of the old Penn Station. Issues concerning track capacity into and out of New York City will not be addressed.
The New York State Public Authorities Control Board has approved Phase 1 of the Moynihan Station project. The vote today is a significant step forward as four years ago, the same board blocked then-Governor Pataki’s plan for the station. With a significant amount of federal funds in place and plans for the station complex broken up into the cheaper Phase 1 and the most costly Phase 2, the early work can go forward while the state scrounges up the dollars for the $1.5 billion Penn Station expansion.
Phase 1 of the Moynihan Station plan is a $267 million cosmetic and infrastructure project. It involves building two entrances to Penn Station, dropping 13 new “vertical access points” to the platforms, and widening some underground concourses. The Empire State Development Corporation had signed off on it in March.