Home Moynihan Station Underneath 33rd: Transit plans for 15 Penn Plaza

Underneath 33rd: Transit plans for 15 Penn Plaza

by Benjamin Kabak

A diagram from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement shows some of Vornado’s transit improements plans for the 33rd St. area. (15 Penn Plaza – DEIS)

In writing about shuttered subway passageways lost to time yesterday, I mentioned briefly Vornado’s plans to reactivate the Gimbel’s passageway between 6th and 7th Avenues underneath 33rd St. The proposal is part of the real estate company’s 15 Penn Plaza project that would see a 1200-foot mixed-use building replace replace the Hotel Pennsylvania, and as part of their plans, Vornado has proposed sweeping transit improvements that would unite subway lines in the Penn Station area.

Last night, at a presentation in front of Community Board 5 on 15 Penn Plaza, the MTA had an opportunity to present and discuss the transit improvements. Bob Paley, director of transit-oriented development at the MTA, spoke at the meeting as he highlighted this “excellent example of transit oriented development.” It is, he explained, a part of the city’s plans to bring Moynihan Station from an idea to reality.

“The redevelopment of the Hotel Pennsylvania site,” Paley said, “offers the ability to move ahead with some of the most critical aspects of the work that needs to be done [for Moynihan Station] – including the enlargement, reconstruction and reopening of the Gimbel’s Passageway and the improvement of specific platform locations, vertical escalation, and subway entrances that are within or adjacent to this full block property.”

A rendering of a proposed entrance to the IRT along 33rd St. off of 7th Ave. (Click to enlarge)

The main thrust of the improvements, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, would involve reactivated that old Gimbel’s passageway underneath 33rd St. “The renovated passageway would be widened to accommodate pedestrian flows between Penn Station/the Seventh Avenue subway lines and the Sixth Avenue subway lines and the Port Authority Trans Hudson station, improving pedestrian circulation on the street- level sidewalks,” the document says. “The passageway would provide an alternative to pedestrians traveling along the 33rd Street corridor.”

The Post’s Steve Cuozzo discusses how the old passageway would be completely overhauled. Instead of a nine-foot wide, dimly-lit tunnel replete with sketchy characters, the new tunnel would be 16 feet wide and would resemble the underground concourses at Rockefeller Center. The MTA estimates that, in good weather, 10-14,000 people per day would make use of the connection. Although Cuozzo claims that the passageway would provide a free transfer between the IRT at 34th and 7th Ave. and the IND/BMT stop at Herald Square, the DEIS image, shown above, features fare control areas at either end. Still, simply uniting the two stations underground would make walking through a highly congested area much easier.

Vornado, working with the MTA and PATH, has proposed a slew of other improvements to meet the increased transit demands of their massive building – the third highest in the city if it is to see the light of day. These include:

  • Widening the stair from the Seventh Avenue southbound local platform to the 32nd Street underpass;
  • Building a new stairway to the center platform from the 32nd Street/Seventh Avenue underpass;
  • Widening the Seventh Avenue northbound local platform between West 32nd and West 33rd Streets by six feet;
  • Building new subway entrances at Seventh Avenue and West 32nd Street and Seventh Avenue and West 33rd Street, each of which would include a 10-foot-wide set of stairs through the proposed building;
  • Constructing a new street elevator at the Seventh Avenue and West 33rd Street entrance;
  • Widening the Sixth Avenue and West 32nd Street PATH entrance stairs by 10 feet, and adding one escalator;
  • Constructing one escalator at the Sixth Avenue and West 33rd Street subway entrance;
  • Constructing a 10-foot staircase from the PATH to the B, D, F, and V platform near West 32nd Street;
  • Constructing a 15-foot staircase from the PATH to the B, D, F, and V platform near West 33rd Street; and
  • Reconfiguring the fare control area to accommodate new stairs from the PATH to the B, D, F, and V platforms.

This plan, says the MTA, is estimated to cost approximately $150 million, and Vornado has shown a complete willingness to fund these upgrades. “The public benefit of funding from a private partner willing to take on the significant planning and construction work to implement these improvements is even more critical in today’s environment of limited capital funding than it was when these discussions began several years ago,” Paley said.

Of course, it looks good on paper, but it’s future is no sure thing. Vornado says it could have the building open in four and a half years, and the DEIS claims a completion date in 2014. Cuozzo reports, however, that the company won’t start construction until it “pre-signs at least one large office tenant – which could take years.” The company remains committed to gaining approval now.

In a sense, these improvements would create a hub similar to those at Times Square and Fulton St. for transit in an area exceedingly difficult to navigate. PATH access would be improved, and the Penn Station area catacombs would begin to clear up. It is a prime example of transit-oriented development and a public-private partnership that sees much-needed transit upgrades funded by a developer with money that plans to increase transit demand. It just makes sense.

“It is for those reasons,” Paley said last night, “that the MTA strongly supports this project – both the subway and transit improvements and the new tower that will rise above them. Although we can’t bring back the old Penn Station, through a series of very significant improvements such as those proposed as part of this development, we will be able to bring back the high level of convenience and amenity that the public deserves.”

Update (2:10 p.m.): For what it’s worth, Community Board 5 last night voted 36-1 against Vornado’s plan for 15 Penn Plaza. Eliot Brown offers some insight into the vote:

Many community board members seemed almost offended that Vornado had requested both an air rights bonus for its transit improvements and an additional increase in the density beyond what they would normally be allowed (one called it “double dipping”). Still, community boards often vote against projects, and some board members did acknowledge that this was a good space for a tall building.

While the Community Board asked Vornado to come back when it had a tenant in place, the reality is that this vote doesn’t matter. The City Council will eventually decide whether or not to approve this project, and odds are good that they will give it the OK. Stay tuned.

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bb April 16, 2010 - 2:22 am

what, the death of the historic Hotel Pennsylvania is a done deal? I heard they were granted preliminary landmark status? A subway pedestrian tunnel is hardly compensation fro destroying a landmark building.

Benjamin Kabak April 16, 2010 - 2:31 am

CB5 asked the Landmarks Commission to grant it landmark status, but the commission declined. As far as I know, that vote in 2008 was the last of the movement on that idea.

Scott E April 16, 2010 - 8:11 am

I like the final plan, but this plan seems a bit too aggressive for my comfort. All of this widening of staircases and passageways has a cost. On the street, it shrinks an already too-narrow sidewalk. In the corridor, I have no idea what property gets pilfered. Is new rock excavation needed?

Another question — is the MTA willing to maintain the new escalators, or will it be Vornado’s responsibility. We’ve read plenty on the maintenance of these things, both by the agency and private entities.

Finally, I wonder what this means for the Hilton Passageway, the dingy, narrow passageway at Penn Station that runs above and between tracks 12 and 13 (owned by Amtrak, not MTA), and appears to have once been an employee-only utility corridor. This will certainly get more crowded as straphangers from Herald Square make their way to the trains. It is where the Gimbel’s passageway would let out, and is the only access from the 1/2/3 to NJT/Amtrak (another staircase leads to LIRR). I thought I once overheard grumblings about renovating it, but I’m not sure.

Marc Shepherd April 16, 2010 - 9:17 am

I think your concerns are misplaced. Most of the corridors and stairs that would be widened do not impinge upon the sidewalk, either because they are underground or inside of buildings. “Pilfered property” is a terrific inflamatory term; now try to back it up.

If anything, the proposal does the opposite of what you say: it gives people better underground connections, making the sidewalk less crowded.

Scott E April 16, 2010 - 9:59 am

I didn’t mean to imply “taken by eminent domain” when I used the term “pilfer”. Simply, I asked whether space is taken from another use, or if it’s new excavation. Widening an underground tunnel is no easy task. Moving a wall, on the other hand, is – but it comes at the cost of what’s on the other side.

Marc Shepherd April 16, 2010 - 11:31 am

The tone of your post, however, was that the “cost” of building these corridors and/or staircases would be intolerable. “Pilfer” isn’t a neutral word; it implies something bad.

Can you back that up?

Scott E April 16, 2010 - 1:18 pm

OK, so you don’t like my choice of words with “pilfered”. I’ve already clarified my intent there. Would you prefer “acquired”? But my use of the word “cost” is perfectly legitimate; it refers to what is being given up in order to gain something else and is not necessarily monetary. If you build an addition on the back of your house, the cost is that you have a smaller backyard.

Marc, I was not being inflammatory, nor was I saying anything is intolerable. I don’t know what you want me to back up.

Marc Shepherd April 16, 2010 - 2:54 pm

Well…never minding “pilfer” (I agree that “acquire” is far more sensible), you said that it was “too aggressive,” so I was wondering which specific acquisitions will have unacceptable costs.

Scott E April 16, 2010 - 3:52 pm

Multiple topics in the same comment. I was saying that opening the passage and making it brighter and safer might be sufficient. Once you throw in new escalators, staircases, and entrances, you’re making improvements that, while very nice to have, really have little to do with connecting the two stations.

Woody April 16, 2010 - 7:41 pm

I’d be amazed if Vornado wants to dig rock to widen that passageway, but if they do, hey, I would not stop them from spending their money.

I expect they will knock out the wall and put retail frontage along the passageway. The value of that remaining retail square footage will be greatly increased when it has doors and windows onto a walkway with tens of thousands of passers-by.

Not in the Post, but my hunch is that this will provide a great opportunity (excuse?) to revamp the Manhattan Mall. It needs work. It especially needs a couple more elevators and escalators. I always get impatient trying to get anywhere in there much off ground level.

Going further slightly off topic, is that rendering of the proposed megatower the best the architects can do for what’s gonna be the third tallest building in New York, just two blocks and a sliver of skyline away from the glorious Empire State Building?

Getting slightly back on topic, all this talk about improved transit connections on 33rd St., but nobody mentions the Transitway coming to 34th St nearby?

Also, with an unlimited ride MetroCard or its successor, won’t this new and improved passageway be a “free” underground transfer with or without turnstiles?

Not least, any way we can get some Vornado-managed public toilets out of this deal?

JPN April 16, 2010 - 9:50 am

Correct me if I’m wrong, but if the escalator is on private property, it’s the owner of that property who is responsible. (The Time Warner Center escalator at Columbus Circle comes to mind.)

Speaking of which, this reminded me of this Fox 5 report. Blatantly bashing the MTA as usual, here are some gems from the report:

We’ve been reporting this story now for a couple of years. The MTA gave sweetheart deals to real estate developers allowing them to build taller buildings above the subway stations in return for installing and maintaining escalators. Now, some developers have failed miserably to keep their end of the bargain and the MTA has done basically nothing about it…

As for the MTA, it could have replaced the broken escalators years ago and billed the developers for the cost. Or it could have taken the building owners to court to force them to live up to their agreement but the MTA did neither and the result is years of hardship for straphangers.

I don’t know if the MTA could have done anything what the reporter suggested. And the “sweetheart deal” characterization sounds bogus.

Emily H. April 16, 2010 - 9:31 am

I honestly don’t have the experience to know how effective these plans are, but anything that can be done to improve this area would make a big difference. I walk from the Herald Sq. stop to MSG every morning, and it is the worst part of my commute. I feel like a salmon against the river of people pouring out of Penn Station.

My only concern is that that part of 32nd St. is already pretty seedy. I don’t think I’d feel safe in an underground tunnel there.

Tim April 16, 2010 - 9:52 am

Sounds like the tunnel will be under 33rd, not 32nd.

Also sounds liek Vornado’s going to be razing quite a large chunk of the block for a giant tower. If it gets done the surrounding area will most likely see some quality-of-life upgrades. Coupled with a redone Moynihan/MSG, it’ll probably be a lot nicer, on a par with GCT now.

Emily H. April 16, 2010 - 10:57 am

My mistake, I was thinking of the entrance off of 32nd.

SEAN April 16, 2010 - 10:21 am

You ment B D F M not B D F V, as the V will vanish soon.

Scott E April 16, 2010 - 11:00 am

So that’s what V stands for! Vanish…

SEAN April 16, 2010 - 2:58 pm

I thaught it stood for visitors, the ABC Sci Fi/ drama. LOL Great show though.

Anyway, the more oppertunties you can rehab these passageways for passenger movement the better for padestrian flow on 32nd, 33rd, & 34th streets. As it is, crosstown padestrian flow at times is nonexistent.

Benjamin Kabak April 16, 2010 - 11:08 am

If you’re going to nitpick a technicality, I’ll nitpick right back. These planning documents were published in February and were prepared before the MTA even announced its plans to cut the V and replace with the M. I copy and pasted the information from there with the implicit understanding that my readers would know that the M is replacing the V.

SEAN April 16, 2010 - 2:39 pm

You cant assume all of your readers have been with you from the beginning. Take a chill pill.

Benjamin Kabak April 16, 2010 - 2:40 pm

I’m not up in the arms about it. Apologies for seeming that way. I didn’t mean to offend. I’m just clarifying why it says V instead of M. The M doesn’t start this route until late June still, and it is very much a technicality. The structures are the same; the trains that stop at the platforms will be different; and when Vornado prepped this DEIS, they had no idea changes would be forthcoming.

SEAN April 16, 2010 - 3:03 pm

It’s all good. We’re all friends here & lets keep it that way.

Eric F. April 16, 2010 - 10:51 am

It’s always seemed to me be a huge misallocation of infrastructure resources to have the area around Penn Station so underused. This would be a great idea to improve the subway space and get some Class A office space next to the train terminals. The Penn Hotel may evoke some sort of history, but it’s trule dead history. That building does nothing to enhance the area around Penn Station and I think 9 people out of 10 who pass it every day would love to see it gone.

petey April 16, 2010 - 1:37 pm

if i enter the 1-2-3 at #37 on the plan above, i go down to one landing, turn slightly right, and go down to fare control/subway level. is the entrance to the gimbel’s passage right there somewhere? is it behind the wall where the metrocard dispensers are now?

Clint Guyon April 16, 2010 - 1:38 pm

Another vanished MTA access tunnel: does anyone recall going down the flight of stairs at the main 7th Ave entrance to Penn at 32nd street, and immediately to the right was an entrance to a walkway that took you to an IRT token booth?

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