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.”