Home LIRR Inside another attempt at re-imagining Penn Station

Inside another attempt at re-imagining Penn Station

by Benjamin Kabak

Can the MTA, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak work together to overhaul Penn Station?

For many New York politicians and transit executives, Penn Station is a problem. The city has spent decades living down the decision to raze the 1910 Beaux Arts beauty, and everyone is trying to fix the current iteration. It is, after all, a station that needs something. It’s a basement of a sports venue that’s cramped, ugly and crowded. But just what money should we spend on Penn Station anyway?

Word of the latest attempt to remake Penn Station hit the news a few days ago. Ostensibly led by the LIRR but done in conjunction with New Jersey Transit and Amtrak, Penn Station Vision will be the name of a report soon to be released by Aecom. The $1.1 million study — half of which was funded by the MTA — will present a blueprint for restoring some respectability to Penn Station. No one can turn the West Side’s transit gateway into Grand Central, but it could be a far more pleasant station than it is today.

Newsday’s Alfonso Castillo had a report on the contours of the plan. With a focus on better lighting, cosmetic improvements to the dingy and cramped passageways and an effort to relocate some Amtrak back offices, it’s a start but not too much more than that. Castillo offered up an overview:

[LIRR President Helena] Williams said those changes will be phased in over several years, and even decades. She expects to include some improvements in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s next five-year capital plan, which begins in 2015.

The changes could include luring more upscale commercial tenants, improving lighting (including by letting in natural light if possible), adding new signage and getting rid of the main train departure board in the LIRR concourse to lessen crowding there.

Grander changes — including opening up space by relocating administrative offices, knocking down walls, and finding a new use for Amtrak’s waiting area when it moves to the adjacent Moynihan Station — could take much longer to complete. But LIRR officials and their partners in the project said they are committed to seeing it through. “We know the commuter experience can be and should be improved. The idea is to create a new, modern experience for Penn Station,” Williams said.

These are incremental improvements to a utilitarian station, and it’s tough to get too excited about such expenditures. The MTA’s next capital program will be tight on dough, and there are far more worthwhile projects to fund than some efforts to better light Penn Station. Transit experts and advocates expressed similar sentiments to Crain’s New York earlier this week. “How many more people are going to move to Long Island because Penn Station was redeveloped?” Columbia Professor David King said.

Meanwhile, one key element of the plan — better unifying operations and the overall feel of Penn Station — seems to have the support of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit as well. Currently, with three separate fiefdoms operating out of Penn Station, navigating Penn Station can be a challenge. Signs aren’t standardized, and moving from one departure area to the next involves twists and turns through strangely isolated passageways.

“Everybody has had a hand in stirring that pot a little bit, and part of the result, I think, is this almost haphazard look of development that doesn’t create the volume or the architecture of scale that you’d like to see in a grand terminal,” Drew Galloway, an infrastructure V.P. at Amtrak, said to Newsday. “It doesn’t work well today. Anybody who takes a walk down there today at 5 in the evening will agree.”

Still, MTA Board Members are skeptical that Amtrak is willing to cooperate. “To us, Penn Station is the one place where almost everybody who rides the Long Island Rail Road ends up. To Amtrak, Penn Station is one of many stations,” Mitchell Pally said. “It’s never going to be their No. 1 priority.”

Ultimately, I wonder if it even should be the MTA’s. It’s a better use of money to get better train service into Penn Station than it is to spend resources on improvements that do little to nothing to boost transit capacity. Penn Station is what is is, and putting lipstick on that pig won’t change anything.

“The basement atmosphere,” Bruce Becker, head of the Empire State Passengers Association, said, “I don’t think there is much that can be done with that, other than perhaps sprucing it up.” How much money from a limited pot of funds do we want to spend on sprucing something up anyway?

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Jake S July 5, 2012 - 12:43 am

I would be happy with just improving the signage in the station. Standardize the font, make them more visible, and make it so you can orient yourself without having to wonder which railroad made the signs in your area. Also, stop announcing tracks only 5 minutes before the train leaves.

Nathanael July 11, 2012 - 3:12 am

An official, standard “Penn Station Signage Scheme” with a single person responsible for all signage in Penn Station — overriding Amtrak, LIRR, and NJT signage schemes — would be a very, very good start.

A single map of all of Penn Station, including the locations of the elevators, would be an excellent first step towards that.

Adirondacker12800 July 5, 2012 - 7:41 am

Last year Amtrak carried 30,186,733 passengers. 8,995,551 of them used Penn Station. Roughly 30 percent of their passengers. It’s not just another station.

Andrew Smith July 5, 2012 - 8:22 am

If they could improve the station for a reasonable cost, then this looks like it would be nice, but.

A $1.1 million study? That is — and you guys will be amazed with my math here — enough to pay ten people well for a year and have $100,000 left over for cardboard posters with pretty pictures, stands and laser pointers.

Is there anyone here who doubts that a single guy working a year with just $10,000 for cardboard posters could have done that? And if you spend ten times too much on your study…

Bolwerk July 5, 2012 - 10:32 am

I was thinking about that as I read this. They spent $1.1M to tell themselves we need cosmetic improvements, better lighting, and more spaciousness. Oh, and higher-end retailers is good. Those are the four most obvious, mundane points ever. That’s $1.1M – more money than most people will pay in taxes in their entire lives – that could have been spent on cosmetic improvements, better lighting, and more spaciousness. And, maybe, they wouldn’t even need to spend it on the retailers. Some outreach might take care of that.

This really might be the most mediocre study I ever heard of.

VLM July 5, 2012 - 10:33 am

The study hasn’t been released yet. It’s going to say more than what Newsday reported. Hold the criticism until we know whether or not it’s actually warranted.

SEAN July 5, 2012 - 11:40 am

Exactly. Lets see what’s inside the report before any incorrect judgements are made. Although $1.1Million does seme a bit overboard.

Bolwerk July 5, 2012 - 11:50 am

Eh, maybe I give Newsday the benefit of the doubt too much. I know it’s a bit crappy, but it’s a far cry from the Post or even NYDN. So fair enough.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines July 5, 2012 - 8:56 am

[…] Ben Kabak Reviews Latest Penn Station Redevelopment Proposal […]

Ed July 5, 2012 - 9:08 am

“It’s a basement of a sports venue that’s cramped, ugly and crowded.”

Basically that. As the post concludes, at the end of the day you are ou with a train station in a basement. If you want to improve the station, you have to move it out of the basement.

And its not even like its in the basement of a hotel or department store where you can just take an elevator or go up a flight of stairs and be in the lobby or the store.

But if they really wanted to improve things, they could put the station under one authority, and stop try ty to separate the two commuter rail and the intercity rail areas (though Amtrack moving across 8th Avenue will help). Create a big central concourse, just like in an above ground station, where its easier for people to circulate.

IanM July 5, 2012 - 9:42 am

Clearly you’ve never spent much time commuting through Penn, Ben. More transit capacity would be great, but increasing crowd capacity and generally reducing the misery of Penn Station customers are worthy goals too. I don’t think they should be dismissed just because they’re being pursued in an incremental way. I wish MSG could be knocked down and the old Penn Station rebuilt tomorrow, but it isn’t going to happen, so I’m glad to see the authorities are taking a realistic and pragmatic view to see what can be done to improve the station we’ve got.

al July 5, 2012 - 3:45 pm

East Side Access will reduce crowds at NY Penn. Up to 28,000 LIRR riders per hr during AM Peak that currently use NY Penn will use ESA.

Adirondacker12800 July 5, 2012 - 5:14 pm

To be replaced by Metro North riders, additional LIRR riders and the increasing ridership on NJTransit.

Bolwerk July 7, 2012 - 1:14 pm

Which is great. That is a better utilization of the capacity than we’re doing now by sending Long Islanders into Penn and then having them backtrack to the east side.

lic lovr July 6, 2012 - 1:47 pm

EAS will NEVER be finished.

petey July 5, 2012 - 10:10 am

so is this the alternative to moving across the avenue?

jim July 5, 2012 - 11:36 am

Simply better wayfinding would do a lot.

When you get off an airplane and come out the gate, there will be signs telling you which way to ground transportation, which way to baggage claim, which way to other concourses, which way to gates n+1 to last and which way to gates 1 to n-1. Get off a train at Penn Station and come up a staircase and there’s nothing. Which way to the IRT? Beats me. Which way to the IND? Beats me. Which track did I just come up from? Beats me. How do I get up to the main concourse? Beats me. Blunder around until you find something.

Clearing some space would help. More cooperation between the railroads would help. The picture is a good if inadvertant illustration of the problem. The MTA portion is carefully depicted. For the rest: Here be Amtrak and NJT.

Al D July 5, 2012 - 12:22 pm

Seems like a waste, and that there is no $ and no one really wants to take the lead or do anything anyway necessarily.

Ben July 5, 2012 - 12:51 pm

Seriously? Getting rid of the main departure board, because it produces crowding? Please tell me there’s a misunderstanding in there somewhere, and they didn’t just say that the solution to everybody hanging around the main departure board waiting to find out what track their train is on is to remove the board. Please?

al July 5, 2012 - 3:47 pm

They can buy dozens jumbo flat screens and place them all over the station. Is there any way to fast track this?

lic lovr July 6, 2012 - 1:50 pm

they’ve already done that….there’s screens with track information all over, just not enough of them

Nathanael July 11, 2012 - 3:14 am

The “LIRR main departure board”, not to be confused with the actual main departure board which only shows NJT and Amtrak trains….

….sigh…. if it isn’t obvious by now, the problem is that NO ONE PERSON OR ORGANIZATION IS IN CHARGE OF INFORMATION at Penn Station.

sajh July 5, 2012 - 12:55 pm

Essentially, the damage is done. What they do need is more exit/entrance space and maybe an underground plaza point. This could be achieved cheaply (relative to the scale of the post office plan) by moving and demolishing the ticket area, waiting room and bathrooms and opening it up to be just a plaza. Then increase size and scale of the 7th Ave exit between 33rd/32nd. Thus with a large scale entrance/exit and greater open area for those heading to/from their tracks, it would ease congestion. However the dilemna would be where to put the ticket windows, waiting area and bathrooms but I am sure something creative could be done.

Eric F July 5, 2012 - 1:03 pm

It strikes me that some of the poor pedestrian flow could be improved by removing some retail. The main entrance on 7th avenue is constrained by small retail at the top of the staircase entrance and at the beginning of the station concourse. The main staircase itself is also a rickety mess. That staircase should be a showplace and should be widened as well. I’m not sure if ADA requirements make a renovation cost prohibitive.

Spendmore Wastemore July 5, 2012 - 10:34 pm

Half fix:

1 box of dynamite to fix Penn Station.


2 boxes dynamite to fix Penn & MSG.

BoerumHillScott July 6, 2012 - 8:01 pm

The image used for this post is yet another symptom of the problem: Penn station is treated like 3 different stations. The map is close to totally useless for anyone not using the LIRR.

As far as I know, a single map created for all Penn Station customers does not exist.

Nathanael July 11, 2012 - 3:15 am

Not an official map intended for the use of customers, no, there isn’t one.

I’ve found some designed by amateurs, and I’ve found some intended as construction blueprints.

UESider July 6, 2012 - 10:54 pm

Print the comments thread here and you will have a pretty good report for less than $1.1M

The one thing that hasn’t changed in 30 years is that no one will stand to gain from a renovation, except people that will never pay for it

NJ & LI residents that use the station can pony up if they want a nicer reception hall, but why should MTA and city residents pay dearly for a better commuter station for the B&Ters?

It’s unfortunate Penn is such a dungeon and I despise ever having to go through there, but I do well to avoid it. Put my tax dollars into better service and stations on the subway and let Christie and the LIRR constituents pay for their own reception hall

Matthias July 9, 2012 - 1:54 pm

Where do you get the idea that Penn is only for commuters and not residents? I use it all the time.

Josh July 9, 2012 - 3:03 pm

Improving signage at Penn Station is such a no-brainer that it’s really a shocking display of incompetence that they haven’t done it already.

Nathanael July 11, 2012 - 3:16 am

It’s really a display of psychotic fiefdom mentality.


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