Home PANYNJ Port Authority declines an opening ceremony for its $4 billion subway stop

Port Authority declines an opening ceremony for its $4 billion subway stop

by Benjamin Kabak

The PATH oculus nears its opening. (Photo via @WTCProgress)

In a few weeks, the Port Authority’s long-awaited, $4 billion subway stop designed by Santiago Calatrava will open for passengers, and when it does, it will open not with a bang but with a deafening whimper. This project, a toxic mix of bureaucratic bumbling, absurd cost overruns, conflicted city and state oversight driven out of control by a lack of interagency cooperation and onerous security concerns, and a starchitect who took advantage of a client unwilling or unable to a say no, doesn’t even have the Port Authority’s enthusiastic support, and the agency essentially said on Monday it won’t even hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a building so important that it could wind up on New York State driver’s licenses.

The news of a quiet opening came to us from Dana Rubinstein. As she reported, the Port Authority is too embarrassed by the bad publicity and price tag attached to this project to hold an opening ceremony. There will be no ribbon-cutting, no giant scissors, no self-congratulatory press conference. Instead, New York City will get a $4 opening for a $4 billion colossal.

The Port Authority’s Executive Director Patrick Foye issued a statement to Capital New York in which he explained his concerns with a ceremony. “I’m proud of the work that the Port Authority and hundreds of skilled union workers performed on the Hub,” he said. “Since I arrived here, I have been troubled with the huge cost of the Hub at a time of limited resources for infrastructure so I’m passing on the event.” He later said in no uncertain terms, “The thing is a symbol of excess.”

Meanwhile, as the building gears up for its silent opening, the Port Authority has conducted a few preview tours of the space, and the early word has been decided mixed. Justin Davidson, writing in New York Magazine, found the space visually arresting but also could not look past the price tag. Meanwhile, The Post’s Steve Cuozzo, a frequent critic of the expense of new transit buildings, did not mince words in slamming the building.

The Oculus, which will partially open to the public the first week in March, is as functionally vapid inside as it is outside. It’s a void in search of a purpose other than to connect a bunch of subway and pedestrian corridors and concourses with one another. The ribs rising to a 22-foot-wide skyline frame an impressive ovoid space, for sure. How could a white marble floor 392 feet long, 144 feet wide and a ceiling 160 feet high at its apex not be impressive?

But what will the public find on the vast, 56,448-square-foot floor? Nothing. Not a seat. No newsstands or snack concessions. No central information kiosk like the one that provides a focus to the main hall of Grand Central Terminal, to which Calatrava and the Port Authority presumptuously compare the hub.

Why? An empty floor was Calatrava’s idea. But also, the PA plans to pimp out the Oculus as an event venue, and any installations would get in the way. (How transit riders will make their way around weddings and corporate celebrations remains to be explained.) …The passageways, to open later this year, will let you walk underground all the way from Brookfield Place in Battery Park City to William Street via the MTA’s Fulton Center — although, except in a blizzard, most of us would rather enjoy the sights and sounds of the streets.

At a time when urban design is focused on vibrant street life and local pride, the Calatrava hub is mall above a modestly-used subway station. Its cost is disproportionate to its impact as, on a weekday, the Port Authority counts around 50,000 passengers — on par with the 14th St. subway station that spans the 7th Ave. IRT and 6th Ave. IND and 14th St. BMT platforms. On weekends, the $4 billion subway station sees around just 10,000 riders on Saturday and under 9,000 on Sunday, placing its weekend tally on par with the 6 train’s Parkcester Ave. or 28th St. stations. Imagine if someone proposed spending $2 billion on those stations, let alone $4 billion.

Ultimately, Foye is rightly concerned about the role this building plays in the transit discussion. He has repeatedly called it a “boondoggle” and isn’t afraid to address the fact that the Port Authority isn’t getting much bang for its buck. After all, the $4 billion investment doesn’t include increased service to and from Jersey City, a guarantee that the Port Authority won’t curtail 24-7 PATH service, a connection to Brooklyn, or a one-seat ride to JFK.

We don’t know what future awaits the PATH Hub. As of mid-2013, the Port Authority had hoped to draw retailers willing to spend $550 per square foot to rent out the commercial space, which would make the building yet another mall and one that sits just a block away from the mostly-empty Fulton St. Transit Center, another $1.4 billion expense of questionable return. Yet, will New Yorkers care in 20 or 30 years?

As Nicole Gelinas astutely said to Dana Rubinstein, time has a way of wiping away memories of lost opportunities and too many dollars spent. She said, “It, along with Fulton Center, looks like dead space to me, but we never know how the city will embrace these things until they’re 20 years old. They aren’t really ours; they belong to people who will never know they weren’t there (provided they don’t fall apart).”

New Yorkers of 2035 or 2045 might view the Calatrava hub as something that’s a natural part of the landscape, a mall like the Time Warner Center that no one really wanted but grew to an accepted part of the New York City landscape. But today it reeks of excess and waste that we cannot claw back. That missed opportunity will ring through the decades as well, a sad reminder of opportunities squandered at a time we could least afford to flush transportation dollars down an oculus-ringed drain.

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Walt Gekko February 23, 2016 - 12:46 am

In hindsight, they probably should have as part of a rebuilt WTC rebuilt the old Hudson Terminal “not quite twin” towers of the old Hudson Terminal buildings at 30 and 50 Church Street that were torn down after ironically having just gone through a multimillion dollar renovation in 1964 or so to make way for the WTC. That probably could have been done a LOT cheaper than the $4 Billion it took to build this and at the same time likely provided sufficient office space along with the new 1 WTC to fit this era.

The problem was, 13 years ago the thought was a grandiose structure was needed to “revive” downtown when in reality downtown was undergoing massive changes into an area that actually is now more residential than it is office space.

SEAN February 23, 2016 - 3:49 pm

The problem was, 13 years ago the thought was a grandiose structure was needed to “revive” downtown when in reality downtown was undergoing massive changes into an area that actually is now more residential than it is office space.

Part of the issue you speak of relates to the psychodynamics of 9/11 & the revenge factor that grew from it. Each presidential election since 2004 has shown elements of this with the current crop of candidates really showing the worst psychological damage outside of maybe Sanders.

Marc Shepherd February 23, 2016 - 8:34 pm

Part of the reason this exists, is because it was possible: it was what they could get funding for. Remember, a federal grant paid for a big chunk of it. A rail link to JFK (for instance), although clearly far more useful, was NOT something they could get funding for.

This is where I disagree with Ben Kabak. He throws out all these other ways of spending the money, as if all were equally possible, and it was merely a matter of choosing the best one. Most of Ben’s ideas, although superior, could not have happened.

I also get the sense that Ben is totally opposed to public architecture of all kinds, even if done well (which this wasn’t). Soviet-style cinder blocks, painted grey, are his cup of tea. While I grant that this dinosaur went unacceptably far over budget, I get the sense that no budget greater than a dollar would have been acceptable to him, because more trains on more tracks is all he cares about.

Eric February 24, 2016 - 4:28 am

In the city I grew up in, they allocate 1% of the budget to making the stations beautiful. That’s about right. I could even go for 5%.

Here, it was about 80%.

mister February 24, 2016 - 11:34 am

Was it?

What was the budget for the Oculus and the main hall? How much of the $4B cost did this eat up? I don’t know, but I do know at Fulton St that everyone pointed at the Oculus and screamed bloody murder that this was what cost so much money when the reality is that it cost less than $20 Million out of $1.4 Billion.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 2:29 pm

The Stegasaurus itself ate at least $1 billion, last I checked. It is a ridiculous object. And it’s about 25% of the PATH terminal budget.

The Fulton St Above Ground Building cost about $200 million, which is actually quite a lot (about 14% of the project price), but that price does include the rentable space as well as the deocrative ‘oculus’.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 2:31 pm

You should take a look at the Soviet subway stations — gorgeous pieces of tilework with chandeliers — before you refer to “Soviet style cinder blocks”.

“American style cinder blocks” would be more appropriate, since Washington Metro is all grey cinder blocks.

Max Roberts February 23, 2016 - 1:42 am

Is this supposed to remind me of dinner leftovers?

Battered skate with chips and lots of salt and vinegar. Mmmmmmmm.

British delicacy.

Chet-NYC February 23, 2016 - 6:26 am

I am reminded of the giant brontosaurus rib dropped onto Fred Flintstone’s tray in the credits of The Filntstones cartoon.

SEAN February 23, 2016 - 4:08 pm


Chet-NYC February 23, 2016 - 6:29 am

A former student of mine is the marketing director of the Westfield World Trade Center. He’s a great guy and he’ll put all he can into his new job. I sincerely wish him luck. We never should have spent $4 billion on this thing, but it is a fact of life now. I’m glad that someone I know and trust is one of the people in charge of making it work.

SEAN February 23, 2016 - 4:14 pm

What is his name. I know three people who hold similar jobs at malls around the NYC suburbs & they are among the nicest people you will meet anywhere.

Manuel February 23, 2016 - 7:38 am

4 billion what ??? a disgrace

BoerumHillScott February 23, 2016 - 8:31 am

I assume one reason for not wanting a ceremony is the place will be a long way from finished with it officially opens next month.

Based on the construction rate over the last 4 years and how much is left to be done, I assume another year before all platforms, passages, and entrances are open, and that does not even count the 1 station.

LLQBTT February 23, 2016 - 9:16 am

How much sense did this elaborate design make if it’s going to be sandwiched by buildings and therefore not that visible?

Larry Littlefield February 23, 2016 - 9:34 am

The closest thing to an excuse for this thing is that the $4 billion wasn’t just for the station. It was for the foundation of the whole site, and the passageway under West Street.

So is the passageway under West Street open? Will it open? Can you walk from Williams Street to the Hudson River outside fare control without running into traffic or hitting a light, with the aboveground and underground pedestrian system? Is there a map of all the pedestrianized streets and passageways?

Will the construction on West Street be removed?

The headhouse doesn’t really count for much.

BoerumHillScott February 23, 2016 - 10:08 am

The passage under West Street has been open for well over a year, and today the lower level of the West Concourse connects to the temporary PATH Mezzanine outside of Fare Control and the upper level connects to another fare control area between the PATH hall and the not yet opened “Oculus.”
My assumption is that next month, the lower connection to the temp PATH area will be closed for the next phase of construction.

Eventually, you will be able to walk from either Fulton and Broadway or Church and Park to Brookfield Place (WFC) outside fare control, and from either Fulton and Williams or Church and Chambers via NYCT fare control.

Most of the current surface construction on the streets surrounding the WTC is for the street-level security.

Benjamin Kabak February 23, 2016 - 10:39 am

I do think there’s a discord between mid-2010s urban planning that focuses on vibrant street life and the idea that we needed to spend billions of dollars on underground passageways that may or may not be lined with national chain retail. If surface-level sidewalk congestion is the problem, shoving people underground isn’t really the answer. But that’s a separate (if related) debate.

Larry Littlefield February 23, 2016 - 10:49 am

The thing that has absolutely killed downtown is the constant re-construction. It’s going to be 15 years! I’m heading for a 30th wedding anniversary, and Lower Manhattan, where we started out, has been a wreck for half of it. And my wife still works in that wreck.

The street commercial Downtown is a shadow of what it was when I worked there before 2001, based on what I saw when I was back there recently. All the local stores went under. It’s chains that don’t get much business. And it’s more expensive than Midtown, or so I’m told.

I had thought I would see more activity, with the additional population, but it wasn’t there. The Seaport is being redone and is a dead zone. The WTC is a dead zone.

“If surface-level sidewalk congestion is the problem, shoving people underground isn’t really the answer.”

Look at the big picture. There are streets in Lower Manhattan that have long been pedestrianized. No motor vehicles. And others where people can walk in the street, because they are so narrow and the vehicles move slow. It’s like an Alstadt over in Europe.

The streets that form barriers — the only such streets — are Water, Broadway, and West. The passageways eliminate those barriers. Or could, someday.

BoerumHillScott February 23, 2016 - 11:46 am

Focusing only on the transit aspects, anything that gets me my transfer between subway and PATH faster is a good thing, and staying dry or warm in bad weather is a bonus.
In addition to not waiting for traffic lights, the average commuter will save at least one level of going up and down, and some will do better.

From a street life perspective, I think one of the things done well by the FSTC, WTC 4, WTC 3, and WTC TC designs is linking street level retail to below ground retail and circulation in a much better way than previous generations of either large scale urban shopping or grade-separated pedestrian circulation.

In short, I think the goals of the WTC Transit center, including all of the non-transit goals, were good even if the execution was terribly bad. This is a common theme throughout the larger WTC project.

Douglas John Bowen February 23, 2016 - 5:12 pm

This issue isn’t separate to me, much as Mr. Kabak and others insist on parsing it out. “Shoving” is a subjective term; what’s wrong with choice for pedestrians or, heaven forfend, positive redundancy?

It’s understandable that transit advocates keep hammering at the incredible cost for minimal, if any, rail capacity or handling gains. But the dismissal of pedestrian flow is, frankly, disingenuous.

The separate (if related) debate for me is giving the words of Mr. Cuozzo high profile, while the softer (laudatory?) review by Mr. Davidson gets no space. But Mr. Kabak, to his credit, has been consistent on this matter, and it’s his site, so he’s entitled to that.

SC February 23, 2016 - 9:54 am

Tear down a station and replace it with a box of dark hallways and platforms, everyone complains for decades about what a mistake it was.

Get a world renown architect to build a station today, and everyone says it should have just been a dark box of hallways and platforms.

Benjamin Kabak February 23, 2016 - 9:55 am

This is a false dichotomy. No one is saying to build a dark box of hallways and platforms, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a bit more for $4 billion.

SEAN February 23, 2016 - 11:02 am

It maybe a false dichotomy, but still SC has a point as far as the notion that no matter what is done people will be wining over something pointless.

No one is saying to build a dark box of hallways and platforms, but it’s not unreasonable to expect a bit more for $4 billion.

Granted, but I think we are way past that point & venting over it accomplishes absolutely nothing. Lets not forget that a great deal of the $4 Billion went towards the BS known as security theatre.

Benjamin Kabak February 23, 2016 - 11:03 am

Granted, but I think we are way past that point & venting over it accomplishes absolutely nothing.

Disagree. If the Port Authority is contemplating spending $10 billion to rebuild the bus terminal or New York State is discussing a $3-$4 billion expenditure on Penn Station, it’s certainly worth remembering the lessons of this project and applying them accordingly.

SEAN February 23, 2016 - 11:17 am

Fare enough, but don’t forget about the security theatre involved with the WTC vs Penn station or the PABT witch have there own set of costs & challenges.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 3:05 pm

Oh my god, the PABT plans are insane and dumb.

It’s become clear that trying to terminate huge numbers of buses in Manhattan isn’t working. Has anyone figured out whether it’s possible to take over two lanes of the Lincoln tunnel for trains of some sort? It would provide the necessary *capacity*.

Chris February 24, 2016 - 5:48 am

This. The problem wasn’t as much the fact that Calatrava made it cost 4 billion, the problem was more that Calatrava’s #1 priority was form while function was on the bottom of the list of priorities. Things like platforms and passageways being narrow while most of the money was spent on building a giant stegosaurus that’s now rusting away as we speak. Good job Port Authority.

That 4 billion could have been spent on a bright and roomy station modeled after either one of the Canary Wharf stations in London, both of which squeeze in a shopping mall – and are way more roomy. And then there’d be more money to spend on upgrading other parts of the complex to also make them brighter (read: painting the ceilings and central support columns), and on the rest of the system.

But noooo, the megalomaniacs behind this just had to go for a starchitect to get a good photo-op.

I’m glad there won’t be a single penny spent on a formal opening, serves them right.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 3:06 pm

What Chris Said.

The Canary Wharf stations are not cheap; the subway station is freaking underwater, and was massively expensive. But the result is highly functional.

The Stegosaurus is not functional.

Wayne's World February 23, 2016 - 11:43 am

Let’s just put it behind us and tear it down now. This building makes me embarrassed to be a New Yorker (something in which I usually take great pride). Every day that goes by with it in our faces is just another reminder of how misplaced the priorities were in deciding to build it.

Christopher Stephens February 23, 2016 - 12:18 pm

Too many people have tried to suggest that the $4 billion price tag is the direct result of the Calatrava design. That simply isn’t true (and this blog hasn’t been helpful in making that distinction). Any rebuilding of the PATH site would have been expensive. The problems that made the project so outrageously expensive are the same ones that plague every major infrastructure project in New York (take your pick: political interference, union costs, managerial incompetence at the relevant bureaucracies).

In the meantime, can we stop blaming the design? I haven’t been inside yet, but when even Cuozzo says it’s beautiful, I’m guessing I’m going to be impressed. When we value good design, we get buildings like, yes, Grand Central Terminal. When we try to get the most for our money, we end up with (the current incarnation of) Penn Station. Which vision of New York would you prefer?

Benjamin Kabak February 23, 2016 - 12:35 pm

I’ve been perfectly willing to apportion blame to everyone involved as this December 2014 post detailed. Calatrava was part of the problem, not the solution, and the fact that the PA was so willing to accept in impossible design from Day 1 falls equally on their shoulders. As I said, Calatrava had a malleable client who didn’t exert itself. That’s on everyone.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 2:38 pm

The design is absolutely hideous.

Calatrava was an awful choice, because he designs *impractical* buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright had the same problem, actually.

There have been great train station designers and great subway station designers. Leslie Green who designed London Underground stations. Henry Hobson Richardson, whose “Richardson Romanesque” designs inspired a huge number of US railway stations. Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore, who designed Grand Central Terminal. McKim, Mead, and White, who designed Penn Station NY.

There are any number of architects who could have designed a glorious PATH terminal. Heck, I know a few *in Ithaca, NY*. One of our local firms was involved in the redesign of the Commons, a complicated project with a ridiculous number of vested interests which had to be appeased, and managed to come up with something elegant and functional while appeasing everyone.

Calatrava designed a monument to his own ego.

Andres February 23, 2016 - 12:19 pm

I always imagined more open space around this structure. Constrained as it is by the surrounding structures, I gasp as it reminds me of another ill-sited and ill-fated work of public art…

…Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” on Federal Plaza

ntrainride February 23, 2016 - 1:23 pm

…ummm, just for the record, the “Port Authority Trans Hudson” system is an electrified interstate commuter railroad. in a sense, it’s a nod to what exists in most other, smaller cities with third rail or pantograph-delivered motive power, such saint Louis or cleveland. even if some stations are located underground like a subway, it’s still a commuter train line, not an intra-city transit line (again, even if a portion of the line actually does function as an in-town transit system.)

tacony February 23, 2016 - 7:36 pm

Whatever floats your boat, but the idea that someone who enters the PATH at Exchange Place in Jersey City and rides the scheduled 4 minute trip under the Hudson to the World Trade Center in Manhattan took an “electrified interstate commuter railroad” while his colleague who boards the A train in the Rockaways for the hour trip is taking “an intra-city transit line” is purely due to accidents of geography and politics.

Chris February 24, 2016 - 5:50 am

And modern day passengers should not be victimized by this technicality.

ntrsinride March 3, 2016 - 4:01 am

lol. that’s like saying a nude woman is an accident of genetics and desire. the A train from the rockaways starts and ends within the same city. the “tubes” were built as a de facto extension of all the railroads which terminated at the hudson river, to supplement the once huge number of ferry routes from hoboken, jersey city and other towns on the jersey side of the “north river”. point is, they travel from one town to another town. that makes it a “commuter railroad”. ok, the difference mainly only matters to a railfan…but this is one of those rare cases where, although it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it ain’t a duck.

JJJJ February 23, 2016 - 1:48 pm

$4 billion is cheap if you compare it to the amount of advertising that 15 years of construction has created for PATH, which is, you know, priceless.

Think of all the NYC residents that don’t (didnt) know there was a Subway to NJ. They know now!

KJ February 23, 2016 - 2:05 pm

You know, every time I’ve walked by this place I’ve always had this mixed feeling of “WTF is that?????” and “Wow, that’s cool!”.

But when you put a FOUR BILLION DOLLAR price tag on it, I just want to barf, and kick something.

I mean, seriously. They could have build a station for 1/10th of the money, and used the rest for, I don’t know, schools/homeless/food/shelter/roads/bridges/ANYTHING

Instead we get this gaudy thing, that I am not even sure looks good. Does anyone think it looks good? I mean, it kinda does… but not FOUR BILLION DOLLARS GOOD!!!!!!

SEAN February 23, 2016 - 4:06 pm

I understand your mixed feelings on this matter, but remember this was federal moneys earmarked for this project. If only a portion of it was spent, it couldn’t be reassigned for a worth wile cause without first being returned to it’s source. Maybe if NYC was lucky, a sliver of that money would come back.

tacony February 23, 2016 - 4:32 pm

Can we at least celebrate not having to make that stupid crowded block walk down Vessey Street to the temporary station entrance? Actually, I don’t know, will we? I’ve been using the “temporary station” irregularly for a decade and it’s never been clear to me which elements of it are temporary. Is the Vessey Street entrance closing when the Oculus opens? Is there a diagram showing what exactly is going on?

Jeff February 23, 2016 - 8:39 pm

Here you go:

You can enter from the two entrances at the east and west of the Oculus, and from street level entrances at Towers 1, 3 and 4, and the temporary structure for Tower 2. Also there is access from across the street at Brookfield Place as as well as the Fulton Street complex.

Not sure if all of these entrances are opening up next month, but at least we can look forward to them eventually.

Jeff February 23, 2016 - 8:40 pm

Oh, also from the 1 train eventually when MTA rebuilds that station.

mister February 23, 2016 - 8:47 pm

Why does this project (which serves 50,000 and cost 4 billion) keep getting mentioned in the same breath as Fulton (which serves over 200,000 and cost 1.4 billion)? Fulton covered 5 stations, made them all ADA accessible and built a new block long tunnel that passed underneath two active subway lines. We can argue the merits of Fulton, but it’s not anywhere near the boondoggle that PATH hub is.

Rick February 23, 2016 - 9:31 pm

It’s too late to do anything about the Oculus billions down the drain, but we should at least try to stand against wild-eyed plans that are still on the table. I refer, of course , to LaGuardia Airport. That rather cute little third-world airport of ours is smack in the middle of the city, no place to put a mega-airport of the 21st century, Mega-airports are for people arriving in Dallas or Atlanta. For the same money, we can have some real New York infrastructure improvements, like a fully built-out 2nd Av subway.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 2:40 pm

Fulton was also started later than the PATH Hub *and* finished earlier.

Fulton is actually an example of fairly competent project management at the MTA. How can it be cloned to other projects which keep going over budget and discovering “problems” at the last minute?


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