The problem with federal funding is how inflexible it is. The feds may be willing to pony over a significantly amount of dollars — upwards of one billion for certain projects — but that money can’t be shuffled around to better uses. It’s earmarked for a specific purpose, and the local agency receiving that money has to spend it on that purpose, even if agency heads know how badly they could use those same dollars for something far more worthwhile. Such are the contradictions of the Fulton St. Transit Center which will open to the public at 5 a.m.
On Sunday, politicians and MTA officials past and present gathered to celebrate the completion of the Fulton St. Transit Center, and in a way, it was a big deal. Two former MTA heads — Joe Lhota and Lee Sander — were in attendance as well as Mysore Nagaraja, the former head of MTA Capital Construction, who oversaw the start of this project well over a decade ago. Chuck Schumer, Jerry Nadler and Sheldon Silver didn’t miss the photo op either. Finally, the construction surrounding Fulton St. will end, and as tenants fill into 1 World Trade Center, the Fulton St. part of the Lower Manhattan puzzle is complete.
But in another way, the fact that the Fulton St. Transit Center even exists as a megaproject comes out of a different era in recent New York City history. Following the 9/11 attacks, politicians thought the best way to restore faith in New York and heal the wound to its psyche was to pump money into Lower Manhattan. It was, at the time, believed to be the only way to get people to return to the area to live or work or shop, and part of that money involved funding both the Fulton St. Transit Center and parts of the Calatrava World Trade Center PATH Hub. No one stopped to question whether the city needed to spend billions of dollars on two fancy subway stops, and no one could stop the political desire to create a public place and public space in Lower Manhattan.
So what we have now is the Fulton Center. It’s a multi-level headhouse atop the Fulton St. subway complex, and it’s not all just an ornate building with an oculus and the Sky Reflector Net, an art installation that will bring daylight into the depths of the headhouse. It’s also going to feature 30,000 square feet of retail that Westfield will begin to fill in early 2015, and the renovations open up corridors that were cramped, dark and hard to navigate. It’s fully ADA-compliant, and when all is said and done in Lower Manhattan, it will serve as the eastern end of an underground passageway stretching from Brookfield Place on the Hudson River to the Fulton St. station complex via the PATH Hub and the Dey St. Concourse. The transfers between the PATH, the E, the 1, the R and all the trains at Fulton St. will not be free, but they will be easy and underground.
As I toured the new station on Sunday, I was struck by its size. There’s nothing quite like it in the New York City subway system today. While we’re used to cramped corridors with low ceilings and narrow spaces, the Fulton St. Transit Center is massive with wide open vistas and a lot of space for people. The transfer between the A and C platform and the 4 and 5 will be instantly easier and quicker, and the East Side IRT platforms are much wider. (The doors in that photo will always kept open; they can be closed in the event of the emergency.) The Fulton St. Transit Center will likely become a meeting spot and, as Therese McMillan, the Acting Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, said, “an essential part of everyday life” in the neighborhood.
Is it all worth it though? During his remarks on Sunday, Senator Chuck Schumer, quoting the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, stated that great public works are always “worth the dollars.” But he also said the same thing about the Calatrava hub, and he’s a big supporter of Moynihan Station. These three projects are all, to varying degrees, nice to look at, but they do little to nothing to solve problems of regional mobility. For a combined expense of over $7 billion — the total of the Fulton St., PATH and Moynihan expenditures — the city could build train tunnels it needs rather than another fancy building.
But the fancy building is what we get. So take a look around as you pass through there on Monday. Try to find the special edition MetroCard and marvel at what federal dollars can bring. It certainly doesn’t look like the subway system with which New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship. That alone is a step in the right direction, albeit a very, very expensive one.
I’ll have more on the features of the Transit Center — the video boards and ad screens, the climate control, the plans for the retail space — later this week. For now, enjoy the pictures. After the jump, view a slideshow of all of my photos from Sunday. For an ongoing stream of my transit-related photos, be sure to follow me on Instagram.