Home Penn Station Link: Four Penn questions for the next mayor

Link: Four Penn questions for the next mayor

by Benjamin Kabak
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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brianvan August 26, 2013 - 2:24 pm

So in order to adequately replace a couple hundred thousand square feet of office space, you need a plan that includes 10.4 million square feet of new office space. LOL sure.

Karm August 26, 2013 - 4:10 pm

yeah – it
s completely half baked idea – especially since banks are not lending unless you pre-sign tenants. Financing is so tricky – developers in Hudson Yards are pre-selling rather than pre-leasing to get cash to show the bank – in order to get the remainder of the money.

alen August 26, 2013 - 2:30 pm

if they added and exit on the north side of 34th and 7th it would make a huge difference. as it is now the escalators let you out on the south side and then there is a huge amount of people waiting there for the light to cross 34th and head north.

lawhawk August 26, 2013 - 2:37 pm

A new station by itself wont create much in the way of value.

A new station that increases the capacity of mass transit would. Get more people in and out of NYC and with better performance and increased reliability, and there’d be more value.

Designing something to be pretty in and of itself wont add much to the value. People who are using it will continue using it. And with capacity nearly maxed out, there’s not a whole lot of room for growth.

And I just have to add that it’s going to take flexibility from the transit operators too – NJ Transit, LIRR, and Amtrak to make any improvement work.

If we had a hypothetical $1b to work with, where should the money go? If it goes to NYP, it has to be to expand capacity – readjusting track configurations, platforms, and other work to maximize capacity. Otherwise, it should go to another Hudson River tunnel to Manhattan, followed by Phase 2, and perhaps extending the 7 south from its current terminus. It shouldn’t go to a revamped station that doesn’t add capacity.

Tower18 August 26, 2013 - 7:27 pm

Just smoothing out the kinks in Penn won’t do all that is necessary to create demand for transit. Let’s say my wife and I both work and commute from Monmouth County, NJ. If we were to take the train, we would spend around $1,000 on train passes and metrocards. If we were to drive together, we would spend around 700-800 by my estimates, including gas, tolls, and parking. Forget the cost of insurance and car payment, as we’d need one anyway in Monmouth County, NJ.

I don’t know how you solve this problem, but the finances say this hypothetical family needs to drive to Manhattan.

SEAN August 26, 2013 - 8:01 pm

Take the bus?

Tower18 August 27, 2013 - 10:11 am

The bus is also around $350-400 per person for a monthly, similar to the train…and then it’s the bus.

Like I said, I’m not sure how you solve this problem, and of course, there’s a certain “cost” you have to attach to the mental costs of driving into Manhattan every day. But strictly on economic terms, even after adding an estimate for wear and tear costs, the calculus still favors driving in this scenario.

Joey August 26, 2013 - 8:02 pm

Are there actually a large number of families for which this is applicable? i.e. that both people work similar hours in the same area? If the family has children, is it reasonable to expect that both parents will be able to arrive and leave work at the same time every day? If this is just a fringe case, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about too much. Good transit aims to serve as many people as possible, not every possible scenario.

Even so, I think you make a valid point about fare integration between different mass transit networks, though I haven’t studied the problem enough to know what the solution is – free transfers? Discounted transfers? Inclusion of subway fares in regional rail monthly passes?

Karm August 26, 2013 - 8:25 pm

you forgot vehicle wear and tear…. and unless you lie to your insurance – your rates would be higher for driving into Manhattan to work.

Karm August 26, 2013 - 8:27 pm

and unless you work at off-peak hours you are more likely to lose time driving…. which is certainly a cost.

Nyland8 August 27, 2013 - 6:16 am

Riding in and out together? Every day? Sounds like a divorce waiting to happen.

alen August 27, 2013 - 10:25 am

once in a while i have to drive to Philly from NYC for work. going south on i-95 at 80mph i feel so sorry for the poor souls stuck in that parking lot going into manhattan.

if you drive into manhattan you are looking at almost $500 a month in parking plus gas plus the time to actually commute. if you have kids you are going to spend a fortune on child care for the hours you are commuting

AG August 27, 2013 - 6:47 pm

Drive to Philly? My old company used to pay for me to take the Acela… it was great. I did use to have to drive to Edison, NJ once in a while and I agree, I used to feel bad. One of my stipulations for going to Edison was that I could leave during off-peak times.

Matt August 26, 2013 - 3:51 pm

Couple of questions…

When you say they can move across the street…I assume you mean the post office? I thought that was already scheduled to become some sort of shopping center above the new amtrak station?

If they were to renovate/expand/remodel the current Penn, what would that do to the commuters that currently use it?

Karm August 26, 2013 - 4:13 pm

i assume they are talking about the back of the post office. that’s where MSG actually wanted to move a few years ago…but the gov couldnt come up with the money for a new penn back then…

Matt August 26, 2013 - 4:56 pm

Theoretically, you could create a front space with shops/bars/restaurants and keep it open air with the current columns, then you’d walk past that area and enter the garden about halfway through.

There could be some sort of underground walkway from the garden/shops area to the new Penn.

AG August 27, 2013 - 7:01 pm

I think that was part of the original plan… well close to it. There is plenty of theory – but not the money.

BBnet3000 August 26, 2013 - 4:56 pm

[Im going to copy/paste my comment from Atlantic Cities. These points have all been made on 2nd ave sagas before I think.]

They dont actually need to move the Garden to remake Penn Station into something far better, more spacious and more usable. There are only 3 requirements.

1. Move the Theater at Madison Square Garden, which im sure the owners are a lot more amenable to (and would be a lot easier for them and the government) than moving the Garden itself.

2. Move the Amtrak/etc back offices out of the station level.

3. All the railroads (Amtrak, NJ Transit, LIRR, and perhaps Metro North in the future) need to share a single concourse (as in the rendered plans like the ones pictured above). This is done all over the world, but in building the current Penn in the 60s some kind of idiotic territorial conflict clearly got in the way.

Nyland8 August 26, 2013 - 6:47 pm

I might add that running a cross-town subway to Lautenberg would greatly reduce the New Jersey side of the crush, and with the opening of ESA, the Long Island side of the overcrowding will be diminished as well.

The combination of your points above, and reduction of overall pedestrian traffic through Penn, might be enough to get us through the next 50 years.

Or through the zombie apocalypse – whichever comes first.

Nathanael August 26, 2013 - 10:04 pm

“Move the Amtrak/etc back offices out of the station level”

Sure, we can move them to the ground level of Penn Station…. oh wait, some idiot put a stadium there.

Nathanael August 26, 2013 - 10:07 pm

I see your point, however. The “Theater at Madison Square Garden” is the seriously problematic part of the structure. The rest could be… modified.

Eric August 27, 2013 - 2:53 am

(while we’re being sarcastic) There couldn’t possibly be an office building nearby that the offices could move to. Not a chance.

Berk32 August 26, 2013 - 9:45 pm

Question 5:

How do you expect to decide what happens with Penn Station when Amtrak owns it and NY and NJ state agencies lease space in it?

Nathanael August 26, 2013 - 10:06 pm

(1) is the key question. If you get a good answer to (1) —
for instance “We have wider platforms which passengers can wait on, and better pedestrian throughput” — then the rest answer themselves (no, there is nothing better to spend the money on, and yes it’s worth it, and MSG can go hang itself).

If you don’t get a good answer to (1) you have a badly designed project and should restart the design.

marv August 27, 2013 - 8:40 pm

What will it rebuilding Penn and moving MSG cost?
What are we gaining?
Could we gain more elsewhere with the same money?

Limiting this to serving Long Island and NJ (and relieving pressure on Penn), consider:

*#7 to NJ thus reducing NJT demands on Penn while giving east side access

*Connecting the Atlantic Ave LIRR terminal to NJT via downtown. Through route trains from Jamaica to at least Hoboken, Journal Square or Lautenberg.

*Conversion of some or all of the: Port Washingon, Hempstead, West Hempstead and Far Rockaway Branches to a Premium Subway Service. The Port Washington Branch trains would use available capacity on the 63rd Street Tunnel and then go down 2nd Avenue. All other lines would use the Atlantic Avenue line to a new East River tunnel and up 2nd Avenue

How do we get the biggest bank for the buck given the bucks are scarce.

Karm August 27, 2013 - 9:55 pm

All worth ideas… but there are no “grand buildings” in those plans – so the pandering mayoral candidates who support this architectural dream won’t really get behind the ideas you mention.

Joey August 28, 2013 - 12:57 am

The fundamental passenger circulation problems at Penn can be fixed without wasting money on converting commuter lines to subway service. I don’t understand the obsession with that anyway, and it doesn’t solve any of the fundamental problems involved.

Penn could be improved vastly with minor modifications to the platform and concourse levels: all concourses should have access to all tracks, more platform stairs, additional routes to the street and 7th/8th avenue subways, removal of offices/concessions/Amtrak holding pens in favor of more passenger circulation. All of this could be done with only minor modifications to the structural elements of the station.

Things like wider platforms would of course require major modifications to the structure to be done correctly. Platform daylighting would be nice, but it’s also the single most expensive proposition, and doesn’t really improve circulation at all.

If you’re building another tunnel across the Hudson, it might as well be for regional rail, rather than forcing another transfer for many commutes. Bringing more trains into Penn isn’t a huge issue, particularly if you allow through-routing and force Amtrak to get their trains in and out rather than parking them there for long periods of time. With the number of platforms Penn has, it should be able to handle a lot more trains than it does even if dwell times are kept high by mediocre passenger circulation.

Nyland8 August 28, 2013 - 5:31 am

More platform stairs – but without wider platforms ?? !! ?? How does that work?

And subway tunnels across the Hudson do not “force” a transfer for any commutes. Not a single one! Building tunnels for regional rail means building another underground skyscraper for regional rail – which adds billion$, years, and maintenance cost$ in perpetuity.

Joey August 28, 2013 - 1:57 pm

The platforms already have stairs at various points. They’re wide enough to have additional stairways at other points. Adding vertical circulation means that trains can empty and fill faster.

Contrary to popular belief, adding another regional rail tunnel does not require a new cavernous station. As previously mentioned, Penn already has a huge number of platform tracks relative to the number of tracks that feed into it. Connect the new tunnels to the LIRR side of the station and then you have conflict-free through-routing through both pairs of East River Tunnels.

alen August 28, 2013 - 2:02 pm

isn’t the underground part of that office building going to block a new platform?

Joey August 28, 2013 - 3:34 pm

Which office building? And where did I say anything about a new platform?

Nyland8 August 28, 2013 - 8:34 pm

Yes … I know the platforms already have stairs at various points.
Yes … I know the platforms are wide enough to have stairs at other points.

What seems to elude you is that we already have a condition where platform departure announcements are made 10 minutes before the train leaves, and there is already a mad dash for people to get down the stairs and scramble to the seat they want – or any seat at all on a train booked to SRO. What you’re proposing, at its best, would be to allot even LESS time between the track announcement and the departure. More angst … followed by more panic.

The way to alleviate that – AND to speed the turnaround time of loading and unloading – is to have the same train scheduled to leave on the same track all the time – and for the platforms to be wide enough for people to await their train where they already know it will be boarding. That requires MORE platform room – not less, which would be the result of merely adding more staircases.

Projected to its most efficient turnaround time, your “solution” would have more people, poised atop more staircases, anxiously awaiting a smaller boarding time. You’re suggesting that the solution to the worst discomfort of the Penn Station experience is to make it even worse than it already is.

Don’t be surprised if your recommendations aren’t adopted.

Joey August 29, 2013 - 1:52 am

If people are funneled down a couple of staircases then is there any surprise that crowding occurs at the bottom of those staircases? Wider platforms are probably needed in the long run, but with tracks known ahead of time and many disperse access points to the platforms, it might not be for a while. If passengers know exactly when and where their train will arrive, and they can get there quickly and efficiently, then there’s no need for everyone to bunch up in the station 10 minutes before departure.

Alon Levy August 29, 2013 - 6:03 am

More platform stairs – but without wider platforms ?? !! ?? How does that work?

More access points from the lower concourse, spreading the load more evenly along the length of the platform. Compare the LIRR and NJT platforms on this map.

Nyland8 August 30, 2013 - 1:25 am

Yes … I assure you I grasp the concept Alon. But the experience is the same no matter if you’re on the north side of Penn, or the south. Believe me. I’ve used both regularly.

Whether you have 200 people continuously staring at one big board, or you have 20 people continuously staring at each of 10 boards, the feeling is the same. Everyone is waiting for the countdown clock to begin after their track is announced. Everyone is afraid to take their eyes off the departure board.

Angst, followed by panic, followed by a race to one’s seat. It is stressful. And if the time from announcement to departure is shortened, the stress is amplified.

And even if there are 10 staircases to your departure platform, if you’re entering Penn from the street or the subway AFTER the announcement, you’ll still be heading to the closest stairway to your track.

And even if there are 10 staircases available when you arrive, whether you’re headed for the A/C/E, or the 1/2/3, or the sidewalk to Herald Square, you’ll still try to board closer to the one that empties nearest your exit.

And if there are 10 staircases available when you arrive at Penn, even if you found your seat in the middle of the train, if you’re smart, you’ll walk along the platform with your fellow commuters, east or west toward your exit. Because going up the nearest set of stairs relegates you to racing through Penn Station against people going in either direction, or people just standing in your way.

Whether it’s to the subway or to the street, whether its arriving or departing, stairs closest to the exits will always have disproportionately more traffic. No speed in turnaround time is gained unless you can shorten the time from track assignment to departure – which only makes the experience worse.

So no amount of staircases is a substitute for knowing in advance where your train is leaving from – and platforms wide enough to wait for its departure.

Joey August 30, 2013 - 2:55 am

Planning ahead what train will be at what platform and announcing it isn’t difficult. There’s no need for passengers to stare at announcements and then stampede down the stairs.

Nyland8 August 30, 2013 - 7:07 am

Right! And if platforms are announced well in advance to avoid the stampede – which, as you point out, is not difficult to do – then people will start waiting on the platforms – which already aren’t large enough – and which your proposed increase in stairways would make even smaller.

Joey August 30, 2013 - 1:33 pm

It might be an issue in the long run, but as long as passengers are dispersed along the platform it shouldn’t be a huge problem. The platforms at Penn aren’t any narrower than many subway platforms, which handle much higher passenger loads.

alen August 30, 2013 - 1:50 pm

a lot of the stops only a few cars have their doors open. Forest Hills its the first 4. other stops its the last 2 or whatever. you are always going to see crowding in some parts of the platform as people try to get into the right car

Joey August 30, 2013 - 2:46 pm

Platform extensions are cheap. Much cheaper than underpinning the structures that would be required to adjust the track spacing at Penn.

alen August 30, 2013 - 11:44 am

sometimes the trains arrive on different platforms. i don’t know why, but i’ve been on the same train that comes in on a different platform almost every day.

Joey August 30, 2013 - 2:47 pm

You’re equating “The LIRR does it wrong” with “it can’t be done right”

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