Archive for Penn Station

The Moynihan train hall will open by the end of December 2020. (Credit: SOM)

The Moynihan train hall will open by the end of December 2020. (Credit: SOM)

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.

The redesigned LIRR concourse will feature wider passageways, bright ceilings and new wayfinding. (Credit: MTA)

The redesigned LIRR concourse will feature wider passageways, bright ceilings and new wayfinding. (Credit: MTA)

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.”

The Moynihan train hall will cost $1.5 billion with all partners contributing funding. (Source: Gov. Cuomo's office)

The Moynihan train hall will cost $1.5 billion with all partners contributing funding. (Source: Gov. Cuomo’s office)

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.

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With the Gateway Tunnel project back in the news (more on that next week), the idea of a new Penn Station, a seemingly inseparable part of that plan, is creeping through the coverage. At some point in the not-to-distant future, various stakeholders will have to start having serious conversations about these plans, but for now, we’re still in that stage where ideas are being tossed around left and right.

One intriguing thought comes to us from Alon Levy. He first suggested doing away with the Penn Station South element of the Gateway proposal all together and simply running trains through to Grand Central. And then, earlier this week, he offered up his take on the debate over the future of the current Penn Station: Turn into a hole in the ground.

His idea is fairly simple: The street would serve as a mezzanine, and there’s no real need for the anachronistic amenities of a head house. This ain’t, in other words, the 1930s. Despite his intentions as admittedly trollish at the start, Levy later offered up a technical defense of his plan, and it’s well worth your read. The problem is one of politics. Our region’s politicians prefer monuments to themselves and often eschew practical and less costly approaches. A covered hole in the ground wouldn’t lend itself to a fanciful ribbon-cutting, and those calling for a new Penn Station will say Levy’s idea is hardly worth the Moynihan Station name. What a shame.

Meanwhile, it’s Friday night, and you know what that means. Click through for the service changes. Read More→

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I mentioned briefly on Tuesday the hour-long program on Penn Station’s construction and destruction. Although mine’s still waiting on the DVR, if you missed the special, you can now watch in online. I’ve embedded it above for your viewing pleasure.

Those who’ve seen it speak glowingly of the story but note how quick the 51 minutes seem. There’s enough backstory in Penn Station’s history, use and untimely destruction to fill many hours of quality public television, and we’re left with just a snippet. Anyway, enjoy. I’ll post some thoughts after I’ve had a chance to watch the program myself.

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Fire up the old DVRs tonight because Channel 13 has some intriguing content on tap. Starting tonight at 8 p.m., New York’s public television station will be airing two hours of transit-related programming.

First, Treasures of New York heads underground for an hour-long look at Arts for Transit’s popular installations. The documentary is available online if you can’t wait until tonight, and it explores 25 years of Arts for Transit, with interviews with artists Faith Ringgold, Tom Otterness, Milton Glaser, Bill Brand (and his popular Masstransiscope), Andrea Dezsö, and Elizabeth Murray.

After that, take a step back in history while reliving one of the most famous gut-punches New York has ever endured. American Experience is debuting The Rise and Fall of Penn Station tonight at 9 p.m. Here’s the blurb:

In 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad successfully accomplished the enormous engineering feat of building tunnels under New York City’s Hudson and East Rivers, connecting the railroad to New York and New England, knitting together the entire eastern half of the United States. The tunnels terminated in what was one of the greatest architectural achievements of its time, Pennsylvania Station. Penn Station covered nearly eight acres, extended two city blocks, and housed one of the largest public spaces in the world. But just 53 years after the station’s opening, the monumental building that was supposed to last forever, to herald and represent the American Empire, was slated to be destroyed.

We’re still living with the decision to destroy old Penn Station, and architects and transit advocates are forever fighting over the future of the rail station that currently carries the lost structure’s name. Tonight’s show provides a great opportunity to appreciate the grandeur of old Penn Station and mourn what we lost amidst the wrecking ball. If anything, it’s a welcome break from wall-to-wall Olympics broadcasts.

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Is this Penn Station’s future or just a fanciful rendering from SHoP?

The clock is officially ticking on the effort to plan a new Penn Station. With the City Council vote earlier this year granting Madison Square Garden only a ten-year operating permit, city politicians have challenged the various stakeholders to come up with a replacement plan that can be well under way by 2023. The Municipal Arts Society and the Regional Plan Associate have come together to form the Alliance for a New Penn Station, and while they’re on the right path, I’m not sure they’ve figured out what they want for a new Penn Station and the surrounding area.

On Thursday, MAS hosted the first day of its Summit for New York City, and this year’s sessions focus nearly exclusively around Penn Station. The speakers spent the day discussing the need for a new Penn Station and a redeveloped Midtown, and each of the architectural firms that unveiled their renderings earlier this year will discuss their plans in depth. It’s a veritable lovefest, but without commitments from Amtrak, NJ Transit, the MTA or MSG, none of this will come to pass.

The trouble with the messaging began early in the day. “Penn Station should be a city within a city,” Charles Renfro, a partner with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, said. He called it “a double destination.” From the get-go, I am skeptical. I do not expect train stations to be utilitarian and dingy as the current Penn Station is, and New York City should embrace the chance to improve upon what we have in place. But a train station is designed to be a gateway to a city, not a destination unto itself. It gets travelers to their destinations efficiently and easily.

On the East Side, Grand Central is unique in what it has meant to the city’s history and in the way its incidental spaces have been used to create a commercial destination. Do we need an inorganic, overbuilt mall atop a train station or a building that accommodates passenger flow and quick travel with the right mix of amenities? A combination of Philadelphia’s 30th St. Station and the Grand Central Terminal would be just fine, and it doesn’t require MAS, the RPA or a bunch of architects to reinvent the wheel due to New York exceptionalism.

Meanwhile, in its presentation and a new Penn 2023 policy document, the Alliance discusses its overall vision for the neighborhood. Penn Station is to be the catalyst for the revitalization of that area of Midtown. The current train station, they say, “stifles growth and limits economic opportunity in the area” because it is at capacity. But the train statin itself needn’t be a required part of a plan to spur development in Midtown.

It’s true that Penn Station’s limitations — both structurally and, equally importantly, operationally — impact capacity. A new station would solve that problem but so would through-running at a much lower initial cost. Meanwhile, to spur on growth outside of Penn Station, fix the zoning regulations. A plan to upzone the area similar to the effort underway for Midtown East and an elimination of the Special Garment Center District would be all the catalysts the area needs. A new train station could be a part of a redevelopment plan, but it’s not the necessary centerpiece.

So what’s the right approach? While I’ve been skeptical of the MSA and RPA approach over the last year, their Penn 2023 does contain the germs of the right plan. Although they prioritize a worldclass neighborhood first, their vision includes relocated MSG, completing Moynihan Station, pushing through on the Gateway and Penn South plans and rebuilding Penn Station. That’s a significant increase in transit capacity for the area, and the only thing holding back this project is money. They’ve proposed creating a Penn Station Redevelopment and Revenue Capture District, but that would fund only so much of the plan. Plus, we haven’t even looked inside the Pandora’s Box that is the MSG relocation problem.

These aren’t easy issues to grapple with, but now is the time to figure this out. As the MAS report says, this opportunity won’t knock again. “The longer we wait,” Penn 2023 reads, “the more congested the station will become, making it more difficult to make improvements.”

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A set from the next Star Trek movie or an actual rendering of SOM's plans for Penn Station?

Interagency cooperation just isn’t as alluring as SOM’s futuristic dreams for a new Penn Station.

There’s an expensive movement afoot to replace Penn Station with something fancy while moving Madison Square Garden and generally spending billions on something that will have only a minimal impact on actual trans-Hudson rail capacity. It’s drawn support of various urban planning groups, and city politicians have granted the World’s Most Famous Arena only a ten-year occupancy permit as the various stakeholders struggle to develop a plan. There’s no doubt that something should be done to improve Penn Station, but I’m skeptical that spending billions on cosmetic upgrades is the right move.

As the debate over the train station’s future has unfolded this year, Bob Previdi, a fifteen-year MTA vet, has emerged as a voice against the new Penn Station. At least, he has argued, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the LIRR should try to work together to improve conditions at the old station. In April, he argued for through-running as a simple way to increase capacity, and today, he has an Op-Ed in The Times calling for multi-agency cooperation.

That these arguments need to be put forth in the first place speaks volumes about the provincialism of transit agency fiefdoms in the city, but let’s set that aside for now. Here’s Previdi’s argument:

Let’s face it, though. A new Penn Station, if it happens, would take billions of dollars, agreements between the federal government and multiple agencies of three states, and a decade if not more to accomplish. (Amtrak is expected to move across the street to the Farley Post Office by 2035.) Rather than wait for all of that to unfold, there are a few simple things those entities and Madison Square Garden should do now to improve the experience for the unfortunate 440,000 intercity and commuter rail passengers who pass through the station’s claustrophobic maze every weekday…

As a starting point, the executives of the three railroads that operate out of the station — Amtrak, which owns it, and New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road — should put their heads together to develop a plan to provide seamless customer information and ticketing. Now, New Jersey Transit operates on both the Seventh and Eighth Avenue sides of the station, Amtrak on the Eighth Avenue side, and the Long Island Rail Road below West 33rd Street, where the subways are. For all of the infrastructure issues that plague the station, the biggest problem for passengers is that each rail line operates as if the other two don’t exist. To navigate the station, you need to know where to buy your ticket and which monitor to watch for your train. Good luck if you’re not familiar with the station and its catacombs…

More visible and universal signs that point people to the various railroads, subway lines and street and building exits would help people find their way. So would maps that show passengers how to find the station’s many retail shops and food outlets. Most malls post maps of their layouts. Why can’t Penn Station have one map?

A more inviting retail atmosphere would also improve the customer experience. Grand Central Terminal, owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, hired a professional leasing firm to manage the retail mix after the station was renovated in the 1990s. Union Station in Washington did the same thing. Both stations are now hugely successful as inviting retail and restaurant locations. Perhaps Penn Station could be, too. These goals — universal ticketing, access to all arrival and departure information, better signage throughout the station, a more engaging (and perhaps more profitable) retail experience — might seem obvious. The problem is that territorial claims within the station run deep.

It’s hard to put forward an argument against Previdi’s claims. I’ve tried to find one and can’t. It would be nice to have a Grand Public Space to welcome Amtrak riders into New York City, but that won’t happen for decades and at a steep cost. In the meantime, every politician worth his or her salt should be pushing Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the LIRR to the negotiating table and forcing them to stay there until this is resolved. If the MTA could be pressured so easily by two state governors to hand out refunds over a temporary partial service outage, surely we can act to resolve some of Penn Station’s more fixable and obvious problems.

The problem with inter-agency cooperation is that, ultimately, there is no ribbon-cutting. There is no monument to the lasting legacy of the politicians who fought for the cause or delivered the funding. There’s an uptick in traveler appreciation and a corresponding downtick in stress and inconvenience, but that’s about it. Before we spend billions, though, let’s see what we can do with Penn Station spending just a few million and trying to cooperate. It’s a lesson we all learned in kindergarten.

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Diller Scofidio & Renfro's plans for Penn Station. MSG would be relocated across the street.

Diller Scofidio & Renfro’s plans for Penn Station. MSG would be relocated across the street.

Whoever emerges from this morass of mayoral candidates to take City Hall will have to confront the future of Penn Station. With loud voices calling for a rebuilt and majestic headhouse, the City Council voted to grant Madison Square Garden a ten-year occupancy permit for the space, and along with that vote came the very explicit message that it’s time to fix Penn Station.

Of course, fixing Penn Station isn’t nearly as easy as talking about fixing Penn Station, and various stakeholders have competing designs for the spot. The architectural renderings we saw a few months ago and Michael Kimmelman of The Times have seemingly prioritized style over transit expansion while rail advocates recognize that limited funds available for the project should be spent first on trans-Hudson capacity concerns and second on great public work.

Somehow, the next mayor is going to have to figure out a way to balance out these competing interests, a growing city’s needs and the fight over dollars. To that end, Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities offers up his four questions about Penn Station for the next mayor. It’s worth reading Jaffe’s explanations, but — spoiler alert — the questions are as follows:

  1. How will a new Penn Station improve transportation?
  2. How much economic value would a new station create?
  3. Is the money better spent elsewhere?
  4. Where will Madison Square Garden — and all its patrons — go?

Question 4 is probably the easiest as there is some prime real estate right across the street from the current MSG that could easily house the future MSG. It would remain very transit-accessible and would be a state-of-the-art arena in Midtown Manhattan. Even with MSG’s recent renovations, the building has a finite lifespan, and the discussion on its future must happen in tandem with a look forward at Penn Station.

Questions 1 and 3 I’ve been hammering since this effort to limit MSG’s permit got started, and Question 2 is an unsung one worth significant analysis. As Jaffe notes, the Municipal Arts Society plan for Midtown calls for 10.4 million square feet of new office space. “That’s the equivalent of four entire One World Trade Centers (itself still not filled),” he writes. “Such expectations may need to be tempered, especially since nearby areas of Hudson Yards and Midtown East will also be creating vast amounts of office space during the same time period.”

So far, all we’ve heard from the mayoral candidates on Penn Station has been a big fat nothing, but this promises to be a big, if not the biggest, development issue facing Manhattan over the next decade. Hearing some answers to these questions would be a start.

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The science fiction future for Penn Station.

The science fiction future for Penn Station.

Over the last few years, I’ve written a bit about the disconnect between the need to spend wisely and the need to build great public works. I don’t believe all transit infrastructure should be purely utilitarian, but in an age when cities have to fight for every last transit dollar, does it make sense to spend billions on fancy headhouses instead of rail expansion projects? I don’t think.

In addition to this disconnect, a few Second Ave. Sagas readers have picked up on the theme of vanity projects. In the public works space, it can be hard to pinpoint and define a vanity project. Mayor Bloomberg is funding the 7 line extension with city money because, first, it was to be a part of the Olympics bid and second, because it is undeveloped land in Manhattan. The subway extension is useful, but is it a vanity project? Or what about the QueensWay park plans? Or my favorite whipping boy, Santiago Calatrava’s gold-plated subway station above the PATH terminal at the World Trade Center?

The latest vanity project that’s come to view is this plan to replace Madison Square Garden with a grand new Penn Station. Few New Yorkers would dispute the charge that Penn is a dump. It is clearly in need of some work, and MSG’s place atop the station will forever interfere with improvements. Relocating the arena and rebuilding the train station makes sense if the money makes sense. How much should we spend on a majestic building when rail needs — such as a new trans-Hudson train tunnel — are so glaringly obviously more important?

Last week, in a piece a long time coming, Stephen Smith at The Observer tackled this question and came up with a much better solution to Penn Station’s service woes. We don’t need a new building; we just need streamlined operations. Here’s his take:

During peak periods, each track at Penn is used, on average, just three times an hour. While Penn Station struggles to move around 300,000 passengers each weekday with more than a dozen commuter tracks, Paris’s main commuter hub, Châtelet-Les Halles, handles half a million with just seven tracks.

The key to making the most out of the existing station is what’s known as through-running. The gold standard in commuter rail integration, through-running would have trains from New Jersey come into Penn Station, but instead of making a capacity-taxing reverse maneuver, they’d run straight out to Queens and Long Island, much like a subway…

This is not to say that large capital projects won’t eventually be necessary, even after the existing service patterns are streamlined. But rather than focus on new station complexes, the railroads should look to a solution considered for the first Hudson River crossing that Governor Chris Christie ultimately killed: a tunnel between Penn Station and Grand Central. New Jersey Transit and Amtrak need a new tunnel beneath the Hudson, but they also need somewhere to put the trains once they reach Penn. A tunnel from Penn Station to Grand Central would achieve this while also allowing for through-running not only between New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road, but also between Metro-North and job-rich suburbs like White Plains and Stamford, Conn. Not to mention giving Metro-North riders a one-seat ride to Penn Station, and New Jersey Transit riders a similar trip to Grand Central.

There’s a lot more to Smith’s article, and it’s definitely worth a read if only for the fact that someone, somewhere is discussing an obvious topic that the transit agencies are hesitant to admit to considering. Smith recognizes that we’ll have to spend capital dollars somewhere, and I think Penn Station’s aesthetic problems can’t be overcome without a new station. But the priority should be first on streamlining current operations to make better use of the station while adding trans-Hudson rail capacity.

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The Garden will loom over Penn Station for at least another ten years.

The lengthy ULURP process for Madison Square Garden came to an end yesterday with the promise of only a decade more for the aging arena. With various civic groups advocating for a new Penn Station, the City Council voted yesterday to extend MSG’s operating permit for only another ten years as the city’s effort to reconstruct and reimagine Penn Station is now on the clock. Despite the overall coverage of the vote, it’s not a death penalty for the World’s Most Famous Arena.

By a vote of 47-1, the City Council did not, as the Daily News says in its headline, vote to move Madison Square Garden in ten years, and neither, as Gothamist claimed in a tweet, was the Garden “basically evicted.” Rather, the City Council has said that it wants to see what can happen to the spot. The various stakeholders — MSG, Amtrak, the MTA, New Jersey Transit, the City of New York, the States of New York and New Jersey and the federal government — now have ten years to develop a plan for a new Penn Station and find a new location for the Garden. If they don’t succeed, the Garden can and will apply for another permit extension in 2023.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has requested a task force be set up to plan out the next decade and hailed the vote — one she was instrumental in securing — as a good launching point. “This is the first step in finding a new home for Madison Square Garden and building a new Penn Station that is as great as New York and suitable for the 21st century,” she said. “This is an opportunity to reimagine and redevelop Penn Station as a world-class transportation destination.”

The Garden issued a more muted statement. “Madison Square Garden has operated at its current site for generations, and has been proud to bring New Yorkers some of the greatest and most iconic moments in sports and entertainment,” a company statement said. “We now look forward to the reopening of the arena in fall 2013, following the completion of our historic, three-year, nearly billion-dollar transformation, which will ensure our future is as bright as our celebrated past.”

Of course, the $1 billion investment is nearly besides the point. If the Garden has to move in ten years, MSG will have recouped these expenditures, and the Garden will be 55 years old by the time 2023 rolls around. It’s not nearly as onerous a future as the arena’s proponents have made it to be, but should we even expect that future to come to pass?

As we sit here in mid-2013, it’s tough to see a plan for Penn Station that would involve a resolution within the next decade. The train station’s stakeholders will first have to come to an agreement on their next steps, conduct various environmental reviews and secure funding. MSG’s owners will have to identify a new location for an arena that is as prime as its current spot and proceed through formal reviews as well. For the train station, as I’ve written in the past, expanding transit access — and not just constructing a pleasant building — has to take centerstage, and with space in Manahttan at a premium, a plan to move the Garden, forced or otherwise, has to be developed.

So no, this isn’t a death sentence for the Garden, and the Knicks won’t find themselves homeless in ten years without an arena to host them. Rather, it’s a challenge to everyone clamoring for a solution to the Penn Station problem: Work together, figure out a fix and find some funding. Ten years should be ample time, but then again, the MTA released the FEIS for the East Side Access project in early 2001. Nothing this expansive gets done in New York within ten years. So in a decade, the Garden can come back to the City Council for another extension, and the World’s Most Famous Arena will continue to dominate the discussion surrounding the one of the world’s most depressing train station.

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A glimpse at SHoP’s grand proposal for a new Penn Station.

Alon Levy, a long-time SAS reader and commenter, runs his own site called Pedestrian Observations. Late on Friday, he published he thoughts on the discussion over Penn Station and the driving factors behind the push to limit Madison Square Garden’s occupancy permit to 10 or 15 years. Rather than excerpting Levy’s post, I asked him if I could run it here as a guest post, and what follows are his words and arguments. It’s a very astute commentary on some of the overarching concerns. Check out the original post on Alon’s website for a healthy discussion that grew over the weekend.

Penn Station is in the news again: the Municipal Art Society ran a public competition for a rebuilt station house, involving proposals by four different architectural firms. This does not include any track-level improvements at all: only the concourses and above-ground infrastructure are to be rebuilt, at a cost of $9.5 billion according to one of the four firms. The quotes from the architects and other backers of rebuilding use language like “great train station” and “gateway to the city,” and this is where the subtle hate of the city’s actual residents lies: why the focus on Penn Station? Why not a subway station?

The headline figure for the ridership at Penn Station is 600,000-650,000 a day, but this is a wild exaggeration. First, this includes both entries and exits, so the real number is half that. Second, about half of the number comes from subway riders, who these discussions always ignore. And third, there is a large number of passengers transferring between commuter rail and the subway who are doubled-counted; at subway stations, passengers transferring between lines are not even single-counted, since the subway counts entries at the turnstiles. Taking an average of boardings and alightings when both numbers are given or just boardings otherwise, Penn Station has 100,000 weekday LIRR riders, 80,000 weekday New Jersey Transit riders, and 170,000 weekday subway riders between the two stations. However, people transferring between the subway and commuter rail are double-counted.

In contrast, not counting any connecting passengers, there are 195,000 weekday Times Square subway riders. Without detailed data about transfer volumes at each station we can’t compare the two, but since the proposals for a better Penn Station focus only on the mainline station, the number of passengers served is certainly less than that of Times Square passengers.

Indeed, every single problem that the architects are trying to fix with Penn Station exists at Times Square. Times Square has low ceilings. The corridors between different lines and between the platforms and the exits are as labyrinthine as at Penn Station. In my experience rush hour passenger crowding levels within the station itself are comparable. Most platforms are wider, but nobody is proposing to widen platforms at Penn Station, and the 42nd Street Shuttle platforms are narrow and curvy and have been this way since 1918. The tickets are all integrated because the trains are all run by one operator, but again nobody who proposes to replace Penn Station is talking about the separate LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak fiefs.

There are some legitimate changes that could be done if Penn Station is knocked down and rebuilt: instead of a hack involving paving over platforms to increase their width, the platform level could be rebuilt, two tracks at a time, with six approach tracks in each direction each splitting into two platform tracks, giving twelve tracks on six platforms; the train box appears about 140 meters wide, enough for 15-meter-wide platforms (compare 10 meters on the Chuo Line platform at Tokyo Station, where 28 trains per hour turn on two tracks).

However, the technical issues here are a lot less important than the fact that city leaders, architects, and even transit commentators assume that it is more important for New York to have a great train station used by 200,000 suburban commuters than for it to have a great subway station used by (at least) 200,000 city residents. It speaks to the utter hatred most city leaders have of the people who live in what they consider their fief or perhaps their playground. For most people in the city, there are more important transportation facilities, and even on a metro area level Penn Station isn’t unusually important.

This leaves the argument that Penn Station is a gateway to the city. But if the point is to impress a few thousand tourists, why not spend the same money on improving tourist amenities at Times Square, building more hotels? Or maybe building free housing for tens of thousands of homeless people (both the ones at Penn Station and the ones in the rest of the city) so that they stop being homeless and disturbing the rest of the population? If the point is to have great art, why not spend the money on employing artists to produce more work or to improve the aesthetics of the city’s ordinary spaces?

Of course, none of those options involves city leaders getting together and building important edifices with plaques with their names on them. So at the end the idea is to tax actual city inhabitants $10 billion to build a monument to the vision of city leaders. Large corporations pay their executives hundreds of millions a year in stock options and bonuses; governments cannot pay top political power brokers this way, so instead they spend large quantities of money on monuments that glorify them.

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