Archive for Penn Station
Before I get too far into this little exercise in future planning, let’s remember something about this whole thing: The Municipal Art Society has stressed both to me and to the public that their competition to design a new Penn Station was about transit planning. It was about finding a solution to Penn Station’s train capacity and passenger flow problems while relocating Madison Square Garden and redeveloping the area of Midtown surrounding the train station. It wasn’t supposed to be about undoing the destruction of Penn Station 50 years ago or reclaiming the area for one architect’s ego as has happened with the PATH Hub at the World Trade Center site.
In fact, during a presentation yesterday of the four plans by SHoP, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, H3 Hardy Collaboration and Diller Scofidio & Renfro, Vin Cipolla, head of the MAS, spoke again about the reality-based nature of the designs. Calling the proposals a “range of practical and liberating possibilities for an expanded, world-class Penn Station and a great new Madison Square Garden,” Cipolla said, “These ideas are buildable. I think everyone took pains to emphasize that.”
Buildable for Cipolla may not mean buildable for anyone else. One that has drawn the most attention — SHoP’s reimagining of Midtown West from the Hudson Yards and High Line straight on through to the current Madison Square Garden site — came with a price tag. Vishaan Chakrabarti, a SHoP lead, spoke about how their plan would be self-funded through a variety of payments in lieu of taxes and air rights sales. These deals, he claims, would generate the $9.48 billion necessary to realize their design. That’s almost two whole phases of the Second Ave. Subway for the cost of one train station and a new arean. What a bargain.
In a dialogue on Twitter, Chakrabarti later cited to the 7 line extension as a similarly successful project, but that’s a comparison fraught with problems. The 7 line has been under budget because the city cut out half of the proposed train extensions. Furthermore, it has, so far, failed to live up to its economic promises. It likely will recapture a lot of its value, but early returns have not been as high as expected. Attempting to generate $10 billion through a similar program may just be folly.
Even as the renderings capture our attention, the firms seem in it for the wrong reasons. The designs are based on creating a grand building rather than expanding Hudson River rail capacity. “Nearly 640,000 passengers use Penn Station every day, and yet it does not act as a dignified gateway to one of the world’s greatest cities,” Roger Duffy, the design partner who developed SOM’s plans, said in a statement. “What we propose creates a civic heart for Midtown West – one that is truly public and open to all – while allowing New York City to maintain its position as a global center of commerce, industry and culture.”
So what are we left with then? We’re left with fancy renderings that won’t happen, price tags absurdly out of reach, and talking points for Madison Square Garden to dispute this exercise. What we need are some realistic plans for a better Penn Station and reasonable funding goals and mechanisms. As Hilary Baron said to Crain’s, “We have to be careful, given our fiscal constraints, not to get trapped by the old visions of Penn. This can’t be another World Trade Center PATH station.”
Right now, it is both better and worse than PATH. It’s better because no one has committed to fund these things. But it’s worse because it’s a patently silly exercise in imagination with little attention paid to what we can actually accomplish, what we need to accomplish and how, ultimately, we can get there.
Despite my inherent skepticism, it’s still illuminating to look at the renderings and imagine what we could do if money were no obstacle. Click on the thumbnails for much larger versions.
H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture
It’s looking more and more likely that Madison Square Garden will receive a 15-year occupancy permit from the city with strict instructions to reach a compromise on the Penn Station problem. In a unanimous vote today, the City Planning Commission supported the 15-year permit with a small loophole and strict conditions to improve Penn Station or relocate the arena. Of course, future administrations could see fit in 15 years to further extend the permit, and the City Council still has to validate today’s vote. But for now, there is a groundswell of political support behind the move to address Penn Station’s capacity constraints.
During the CPC’s proceedings today, commission chair Amanda Burden spoke about her desired course of action. “I don’t think anyone would disagree that the best outcome for New York City would be a relocated Madison Square Garden and a rebuilt Penn Station,” she said. I, for one, do disagree. The best outcome would involve keeping MSG where it is and improving and reconstructing Penn Station for increased transit operations. Still, I won’t quibble with the vote.
Meanwhile, somehow, supports and opponents of the limited permit expressed disappointment. MSG wanted an unlimited right to use the space while the Municipal Arts Society wanted to force the issue in 10 years rather than 15. MAS also warned against a special provision that could allow MSG to stay put if it can reach an agreement, not subject to public review, with Amtrak, LIRR and NJ Transit for Penn Station improvements. The City Council will take up the issue within the next two months.
For the last few months, we’ve heard a lot about the future of Madison Square Garden and its relationship to Penn Station. Community groups and various city stakeholders believe MSG should not be granted an unlimited license to operate about Penn Station, but there’s a sneaking suspicion that these efforts are fronted by those who care first about reclaiming a grand building for Penn Station and second about expanded transit access into and through New York City. The debate may soon come to a head with a time limit on MSG but also an out that could render the time limit pointless.
In a story published last night on Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein reports on a gift for Madison Square Garden from the city that could arrive as early as Wednesday. Here’s her take:
The city will in fact propose a 15-year renewal, rather than a 50-year one, which is in theory a victory for the planners. But the proposal also contains a major loophole: if the Garden meets certain conditions during those 15 years, it can get a permit to remain on top of Penn Station in perpetuity.
Namely, the Garden would have to come to some sort of an agreement with the three railroads that run beneath it to make improvements to the station, like adding new escalators and elevators. If such an agreement were to reached, and the City Planning Commission’s chair (who is appointed by the mayor) were to approve it, then the Garden could remain where it is, on top of the ever-more-crowded Penn Station. Its special permit, in other words, would have no expiration date.
“We think this exception would be a mistake,” wrote Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, and Vin Cipolla, the president of the Municipal Art Society, in a letter to planning commissioner Amanda Burden last week. “Although the City Planning Commission cannot solve this problem singlehandedly, we would like to underscore that the only way to regain a train station worthy of New York’s status as a global city and to meet the needs of a growing economy and population is to relocate the Garden and build a new station from the track and platform level up.”
Without knowing the full details of the agreement, I’m withholding full judgment on the deal. There has to be more to it than some new escalators and elevators as those are instead seemingly the centerpieces of the $1.6 billion Moynihan Station plan. Hopefully, there is more to it, and we’ll find that out on Wednesday.
On the other hand, Yaro’s concern again seems to focus around the building, but if you read his statement closely, it’s more of an appeal to sensibility. He wants that new station from the track and platform level up, and that’s the key. New York City needs to redesign Penn Station from the bottom up, and if it comes with a new headhouse that looks nice and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, then fine. If MSG can figure out a way to improve the track, platform and station concourse levels while maintaining an arena above ground, that’s fine too really. Simply put, we need to focus on the transit experience at Penn Station first.
Of course, not everyone agrees. In The Post yesterday, Steve Cuozzo penned a persnickety piece on Penn Station. Comparing a potential new Penn to the absurdly expensive and functionally questionable buildings at Fulton St. and the PATH WTC Hub, he writes, “Penn Station remains tolerably clean, safe and functional. Its lack of sex appeal hardly justifies the cost and years of chaos that trying to beautify it would entail… Let Penn Station be Penn Station. Remember, many thought it a fine idea in the 1960s. Let it remind us that change is not always to our good.”
But that’s quite right either. Penn Station has stretched the boundaries of functionality, and at rush hour, frequent users would question even that limited appeal. It also has no room for growth in ridership or trans-Hudson service. Right now, all we know is that something needs to be done. We don’t know what or how, and if it means keeping MSG on ice for a few years, so be it. The arena will still recoup of the costs of its recent renovations and then some, but the chance to right the Penn Station transit wrongs doesn’t come around too frequently.
As the movement to reimagine and replan Midtown West takes shape and calls for some solutions to the Penn Station morass grow, the Department of City Planning is considering limiting the renewal term on Madison Square Garden’s occupancy permit to 15 years. The move — not without controversy — comes after a recommendation of 10 years from the Community Board and a request of an unlimited term from the Garden’s owners. A 15-year term would force the city to confront the problems of Penn Station before the end of the 2020s.
“While Madison Square Garden maintains that the arena special permit should continue in perpetuity, we believe the term is warranted due to the uniqueness of the site and the importance of Penn Station to the city,” Amanda Burden, director of City Planning Department and chair of the City Planning Commission, said.
Matt Chaban of Crain’s New York broke the story following the vote this morning, and his reporting provides some context on the next steps:
It’s been nearly a decade since efforts to move the Garden surfaced. Early talks involved city, state and federal governments, the three railroads that use the station, two developers and the Dolan family, which controls the Garden. Under that plan, the Garden would have moved across Eighth Avenue into the old Farley Post Office. It fell apart in 2008 under bureaucratic inertia and the wreckage of the real estate bubble. “We are recommending today that the commission call for a renewed, multiagency initiative to improve Penn Station,” Ms. Burden said.
Her notion of a 15-year permit drew vocal support from fellow commissioners, who will officially vote on the plan later in May. “I think 15 years, in my view, was a good decision and the minimum of what we could do because 10 years is too short and does not give the Garden enough to relocate,” said Commissioner Angela Battaglia, who had been skeptical of a limited term during past commission hearings…
Manhattan Commissioner Anna Levin reiterated the need to use the permit to jump-start the negotiations around the arena. “I’m fully in support of the general direction of the 15-year permit,” she said. “But we’ve got to rally the troops to get this to happen. It goes beyond these walls.”
Should a deal fall through, the special permit calls for a commission to reassess the area around the arena, perhaps creating more entrances on the plaza surrounding the Garden. The arena would not be responsible for such changes, but it would have to make way for them. “If such a plan does not come to fruition, making improvements to the station with Madison Square Garden at its current location will become critical to the future of Penn Station,” Ms. Burden said.
Various stakeholders expressed varying degrees of acceptance. The Municipal Art Society, which is seemingly more concerned with a great public space than a train station that can meet demand, still hopes for a 10-year permit while Madison Square Garden lashed out at the Commission’s decision. “Adding an arbitrary expiration for reasons unrelated to the special permit process or requirements would not only set a dangerous and questionable precedent, but would also hinder our ability to make MSG and New York City the long-term home of even more world-class events, and would harm a business that has served as a significant economic driver for the city for generations,” the arena’s owners said in a statement.
If the late-May vote upholds the 15-year permit and if the City Council does as well, the next decade and a half becomes a critical one for the region’s rail infrastructure. As I’ve mentioned a few times this year, the fight over MSG and, subsequently, Penn Station should not be about the above-ground elements. We can’t resurrect the old Penn Station, and we shouldn’t be sinking billions of dollars into a station house as we are with PATH at the World Trade Center site.
Rather, as Scott Stringer carefully elaborated, Madison Square Garden’s future must be tied to underground improvements. We need more track capacity, bigger platforms and a train station not interrupted by support columns that hinder passenger flow. MSG, already one of the country’s oldest arenas, has moved in the past, and it can move again if better transit connections warrant it.
Today’s announcement is the first real salvo in this fight, and the permit has clear a few hurdles before becoming law. Then, the battle of form vs. function over Penn Station will start to play out as well. For now, though, the move is a welcome one if we are to expand rail access into Manhattan, and the City Council should follow suit.
Last week, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer released an appropriately balanced call to develop a plan to relocate Madison Square Garden so that track capacity beneath Penn Station could eventually be increased. A close reading of the plan revealed it to be controversial in its suggestion that MSG be granted a ten-year reprieve before facing pressure to move but also more concerned with rail capacity than with the aesthetics of a Penn Station headhouse. It was, in other words, about planning for the future and not atoning for the decision to allow the original Beaux Arts building to face the wrecking ball fifty years ago.
Not everyone seemed to appreciate the nuances of Stringer’s report. Now, I’m not referring to those who disagreed with it; there was, after all, plenty with which one could disagree. Rather, I’m referring to writers such as The Post’s Bob McManus who published a screed against Stringer’s proposal on the grounds that it was too stuck in the past. Not actually paying attention to Stringer’s report, McManus said that we should all get over Penn Station and that Moynihan Station is not a well-thought-out plan.
McManus is not incorrect on either front, but Stringer wasn’t proposing rebuilding Penn Station or adopting Moynihan as the only solution. Rather, as part of the ULURP process, Stringer wants to see the city formulate a long-term plan for the Penn Station area that focuses first on rail expansion that involves moving MSG because the support pillars block such an expansion. It’s one plan, but it’s not the only plan. I wouldn’t expect an editorial writer in The Post to pick up on nuances or spend 20 minutes reading an 18-page double-spaced report though.
What about another plan? Over the weekend, Crain’s ran an editorial from Bob Previdi calling for a different solution for Penn Station’s capacity concerns. He wrote on through-running:
Finding the $15 billion or so for Amtrak’s Gateway project has proved difficult. But there is a way to spend roughly half as much while still doubling rush-hour train traffic. It involves taking a regional approach in how we use Penn Station.
Today, many Long Island Rail Road and NJ Transit trains terminate at Penn Station by discharging their passengers, loading more passengers and heading back in the direction they came from. This causes too many at-grade movements (where trains cut across each other’s path) within the station. It slows everything down, limiting service and inconveniencing pass-through passengers.
If trains simply kept going in the direction they came from—with NJ Transit trains continuing to Long Island and LIRR trains along New Jersey routes—we could streamline operations and expand the number of destinations each railroad serves. For example, NJ Transit customers could reach JFK airport, Citi Field and the U.S. Open tennis tournament, while Long Islanders would be able to reach Newark Liberty airport, MetLife Stadium and the Prudential Center.
Achieving this would require changing equipment and updating operating procedures, but this concept is not new or radical. It’s been done in the U.S. and around the globe, including in London and Paris. Heck, even Philadelphia did it: Way back in 1984, the old Reading Terminal and Suburban Station were combined into the Center City Commuter Tunnel.
This too is an approach worth embracing because it focuses on rail capacity and costs. Amtrak’s plans seem to focus on rail capacity as long as costs are no limit, and plans from folks bemoaning the lack of Penn Station believe funds should be spent only on restoring the past. “If we are concerned about what we can afford—and how we can leave some funds to fix the existing station—then New York’s and New Jersey’s elected officials should insist that the agencies find a way to make better use of the existing track, tunnels and yards that support Penn Station,” Previdi writes.
Maximizing dollars has been a theme of mine with regards to the MTA and Port Authority. We’ve seen capital projects become fiscal sinkholes as costs and construction delays spiral out of control. We’ve seen one agency spend billions on a headhouse with less regard for rail service and another sacrifice design and flexibility to keep costs under control. Maybe for Penn Station the initial answer lies in through-running. At the least, it’s worth a closer look.
Madison Square Garden in its current form should be granted only a ten-year operating permit, and New York City must develop a comprehensive plan to redevelop Penn Station, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said today. As the World’s Most Famous Arena’s ULURP application winds its way through the torturous seven-month review processed, Stringer’s office released a non-binding, 18-page report calling upon New York to get serious about improving Penn Station both at ground level and underground.
While I’ve been skeptical of the architectural arguments against MSG, Stringer’s report strikes the perfect middle ground between the aesthetics — or lack thereof — of Penn Station and the need to do a serious assessment of rail capacity and the region’s future transportation demands. “It is time to build a more spacious, attractive and efficient station that will further encourage transit use, reduce driving into the city and spur economic growth throughout our city and our region,” Stringer said. Borough President said. “While we need to ensure the Garden always has a vibrant and accessible home in Manhattan, moving the arena is an important first step to improving Penn Station.”
The Penn Station problem, as I’ve written lately, is often tough to discern in media coverage. Some prominent city historians and architectural critics have grown too obsessed with rectifying a 50-year wrong. They want to promote the Moynihan Station venture as penance for Penn Central’s decision to tear down the Beaux Arts Penn Station, and they want to move Madison Square Garden to build something that looks majestic. That solution doesn’t address the fundamental problem: Penn Station rail capacity is maxed out. The platforms are too narrow, and the trans-Hudson rail tubes are too few. How can a new MSG and a new Penn Station improve rail capacity into and through New York City?
To that end, Stringer has an answer, and he lays it out in the ULURP recommendation [pdf]. Noting that both Moynihan Station and the Penn Visioning plan do not “go far enough, nor address the physical constraint of the Garden on meaningful improvements to Penn Station,” Stringer first calls for improvements at the track level. Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel will work, he says, only if platforms are wider, and to widen platforms, MSG and its support columns must go. “While moving Madison Square Garden,” he writes, “would potentially lead to a new, modern head house serving as a grand gateway into New York City, the true benefits in moving the arena would be increased below-grade flexibility that would allow for efficient track design.”
Thus, says Stringer, it’s time to develop a master plan for area. Involving all stakeholders — MSG, the city, the state, the feds, the MTA, New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, area business — will be a challenge, but the future economic development of the Midtown area and the city on the whole depend on it. “Master plans for regional and mass transit improvements can take years, sometimes decades, to implement,” Stringer says. “The city must begin to create a master plan now and not wait until the system is so congested as to be broken.”
Of course, we can embrace Stringer’s call for action readily, but what of the other stakeholders? Madison Square Garden has, at various points over the past decade, endorsed plans to move the arena, but recently, its owners spent around $1 billion in arena upgrades. A ten-year occupancy permit coming on the heels of a 50-year lease isn’t quite what they had in mind, and already we can see the signs of a brewing battle. Here’s their statement:
“Virtually all special permits are granted without artificial expirations. In addition to this, MSG meets all required findings for this permit and operates in a city where no sports arena or stadium has a time limit to its use. Given these circumstances, we have the reasonable expectation that we will be treated like every other applicant. Yet the Garden – a company that has recently invested nearly $1 billion in its Arena and helps drive the city’s economy by supporting thousands of jobs and attracting hundreds of annual events– is being unfairly singled out because of a decision that was made 50 years ago – to demolish the original Penn Station. Adding an arbitrary expiration for reasons unrelated to the special permit process or requirements would not only set a dangerous and questionable precedent, but would also hinder our ability to make MSG and New York City the long-term home of even more world-class events, and would harm a business that has served as a significant economic driver for the City for generations.”
There’s more than a kernel of truth in this statement especially surrounding the issues with the demolition of Penn Station. But while Madison Square Garden’s location makes it a very transit-friendly arena, there is no denying that it will inhibit rail infrastructure expansion and transit growth. Something may have to give, and Penn Station’s expansion is more important than the Garden’s maintaining its current spot.
So what’s next? Community Boards 4 and 5 have both endorsed a ten-year permit, and Stringer’s office has as well. None of these recommendations are binding, though, and the ULURP process next lands on the tables of the City Planning Commission before facing City Council. MSG will put on a full-court press before a ten-year permit becomes officials, but the end of MSG may be inevitable. Stringer’s recommendations provide a clear course forward, and they should be endorsed and adopted by the city while the team is right.
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.
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.