Home Moynihan Station Some thoughts on Moynihan Train Hall and designing public spaces with nowhere to sit

Some thoughts on Moynihan Train Hall and designing public spaces with nowhere to sit

by Benjamin Kabak

A panorama of Moynihan Train Hall, New York State’s attempt at righting the wrongs at Penn Station. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

New York spent $1.6 billion on the Moynihan Train Hall, but all we got was a big waiting room/mall with nowhere to sit. New York spent $4 billion on Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus, but all we got was a big waiting room/mall with nowhere to sit. New York spent $1.4 billion on the Fulton St. Transit Center, but all we got was a big waiting room/mall with nowhere to sit.

Are you sensing a trend yet? Why is New York spending so much money on giant waiting room/malls that all have nowhere to sit? And what does this say about how we’ve chosen to treat our public spaces and transit infrastructure? Must we make every public space so inhospitable to the people using it or can we find a better way? I’ve thought a lot about these questions since visiting the brand-new Moynihan Train Hall on Saturday, and while we have a chance, as a city, to design friendlier public spaces, the opportunity is slipping away.

Before I dig into this philosophical discussion on urban policy, let’s talk about Moynihan Hall. It’s very nice – exceedingly nice. It’s so nice that I overheard someone say to his companion, “This place is too nice.” I couldn’t tell if it was a compliment or if he felt truly out of place to be in a clean, light, airy, modern train station in the middle of Manhattan. New Yorkers are so beaten down by the grunginess of Penn Station and the general mediocrity of the design of newer transit infrastructure that something nice is too good to be true. This isn’t New York City; it’s too nice.

Moynihan Hall also isn’t finished. None of the shops or restaurants that will make it feel more like London’s St Pancras Station are open yet, and they won’t be until later in 2021. Even though Gov. Andrew Cuomo insisted on opening Moynihan Hall “on time” — whatever that means during the middle of a pandemic when few people are traveling — the building is still a work in progress. Still, it has high ceilings and clear sight lines and bathrooms with three faucets and feels very much a modern train station should feel. Moynihan Train Hall, a glorified and expensive waiting room, plays the role of a state-of-the-art train station quite well, and considering how much of the problems with Penn Station are aesthetic, that may not ultimately be a bad thing.

Without capacity upgrades or service improvements, I still can’t shake the feeling it’s the infrastructure equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. Ultimately, the space looks like the renderings, and after decades of a cramped, crowded Penn Station, the new Hall is a significant visual and environmental upgrade. It makes going to Manhattan to catch an Amtrak or Long Island Rail Road train a pleasant experience.

An Art Deco clock looms over the middle of the train hall. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The critics have had a lot to say. You can read a review of SOM’s work at Dezeen and an interview with Peter Pennoyer, design of the Hall’s snazzy Art Deco clock, at Architectural Digest. (I love the clock, even if it is very much A Clock A Train Station Should Have According To Andrew Cuomo.) Justin Davidson likes it and took exception to my characterization of lipstick on a pig while Aaron Gordon found it mediocre. Steve Cuozzo thinks it’s a great example of adoptive reuse but says it can’t hold a candle to the original Penn Station.

As nice as the new hall is, it isn’t all days of wine and roses. What Penn Station enjoys in location, location, location, the Moynihan Train Hall does not. Penn, situated between 7th and 8th Avenues and one block away from Herald Square, is amidst 14 different subway lines. The entrance to Moynihan is west of every single one of the subway lines, and the Hall itself, with escalators down to the Penn Station platforms, is even further west. It pretends to be a Penn Station replacement but without Penn’s greatest asset, and when the world returns to regular commuting, those heading into the city may find the convenience of Penn and the shorter walk to the subway outweighs a nicer glimpse passing through Moynihan.

The hall itself continues the siloed fiefdoms of Penn Station. Although the new hall provides access to Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak trains, you wouldn’t even know New Jersey Transit services Penn Station. There are simply no signs of the New Jersey-bound trains. That’s partially due to the reality that you can’t access every NJ Transit track that far west, but it’s also due to the fact that none of the three entities that use Penn Station get along. Without through-running or capacity increases that won’t arrive until we get new trans-Hudson tunnels and Penn Station South, the Moynihan Train Hall is a testament to the reality that it’s harder to rationalize operations across multiple transit agencies based in different states than it is to simply renovate an old building that was already there.

The only seats in the Moynihan Train Hall are reserved for ticketed passengers only. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

But beyond the politics of improving commuter rail service through the New York City area, a few key aspects of the Moynihan Train Hall speak to decisions we as a city have made regarding our approach to public spaces that do not sit right with me and reflect societal failures to address policy challenges. In a sense, the Moynihan Train Hall is a public space but hostile architecture. It’s designed to look nice, but it’s not designed to encourage reflection or time spent within the space. You are to pass through the space, admire the Instagram-worthy elements of it and leave. Soon you’ll be able to dine and shop as well, but when you’re done with that, get outta here.

To hit you over the head with this element, the new building is closed every night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., while Penn Station remains open, and there is nowhere to sit. The new hall is a vast open space with narrow escalators leading down to the platforms, clear sight lines, a stunning skylight and no seats. The only waiting areas are reserved for ticketed Amtrak and LIRR passengers, and while station architects say the dining hall will have seats when it opens in the fall, those will be for people who are eating. Moynihan is, like Calatrava’s Oculus, the Fulton St. Transit Center, and the current iteration of Grand Central, a train station with nowhere to sit.

Why, you may ask do we make public places so anti-public? The answer is rooted in our inability to house the homeless and our societal fear that New York’s homeless residents will take over public spaces that aren’t designed properly. If Moynihan were open 24/7 as Penn Station is, if Moynihan had seats out in the open, if Moynihan were truly a public space, homeless New Yorkers would not leave, as many do not leave Penn Station, the Port Authority Bus Terminal or even parts of Laguardia Airport. Instead of solving for this specific problem, whether through better housing programs or homeless outreach or humane enforcement of public space, the city and state have opted to turn public spaces into museums. You can look at them, but you can’t stay long because staying long isn’t comfortable.

This is, of course, a New York City problem that isn’t constrained to train stations, though the profusion of new train stations in recent years has laid bare this approach to public space. It manifests itself in the lack of public seating throughout the city and the lack of any public restrooms as well. If these spaces don’t exist, then “undesirables” can’t use them or inhabit them.

Now, this should not be read as a defense of ceding public space to anyone or turning those spaces into de facto housing at the expense of the general public at large. But a competent and functional government should be able to design nice new train halls that include spaces where the public can relax while enjoying these spaces and policies that address the root of homelessness. We have chosen not to, and as nice as Moynihan Train Hall is — as much of an improvement over Penn Station it is — it’s hard to look beyond the choice made to design the space. These design choices affect more than just the homeless. For anyone facing mobility challenges or anyone pushing luggage or rolling a stroller, Moynihan offers little respite from the constant on-the-go motion of people passing through. It’s a new train hall, where people come and go, without any place for anyone to simply sit and collect themselves for a few minutes, and that’s a design choice we should un-make in the future.

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29 comments

Jeff January 11, 2021 - 12:27 am

Simple answer, because any seats would get filled up with bums. I don’t like it either.

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VLM January 11, 2021 - 12:43 am

You should at least pretend to read the article Ben wrote before commenting. He addresses that point in multiple paragraphs.

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Asher Samuels January 11, 2021 - 12:50 am

The more complicated answer is that if seats are only available for people who buy something to eat or drink then it’s a way to generate more rent which means more money for those running the station.

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Eric January 11, 2021 - 6:21 am

This is by far the best assessment I have seen so far.

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OneNYersOpinion January 11, 2021 - 6:33 am

In Moynihan, Grand Central, the Oculus and Fulton St, it’s ALL about keeping vagrants from rooting. And to anyone who has experienced Penn Station proper, where it’s perfectly apparent – the trade off is perfectly clear.

The only grand indoor place in Manhattan that appears to provide seating while providing seating is the WTC Glass Garden, where there are benches among the palm trees. Security there does an effective and reasonably discreet job of discouraging homeless.

In summary – Point made re the lack of seating. However the reasons are obvious, and are justifiable, given our social reality. The people who actually use these transit hubs typically pass through em-route to their next destination and as ticket holders, have seating areas available to them. Gawkers are certainly free to come and view, but their ongoing presence is not a primary benefit to the stations or the commuters.

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SEAN January 11, 2021 - 11:58 am

Unless of course these visitors spend money & then it doesn’t matter if they hang out for long stretches of time. Also as a comparison, our largest international airports in the US have been are becoming mall like as well & there largest complaint by users is lack of gate seating. But of course the hallways themselves – no seating, so this is much the same.

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Larry Penner January 11, 2021 - 7:24 am

The $300 million 8th Avenue West End Concourse, $600 million new 33rd Street Entrance & widening of the Main Concourse also have no seating. There is very limited seating for LIRR riders as part of the new $1.6 billion Moynihan Train Hall. Clearly the lack of seating was deliberately designed to keep homeless people out. This represents $2.5 billion in investments which end up as an inconvenience for LIRR commuters waiting for trains that are periodically delayed due to service disruptions..

In 1992, the estimated cost was $315 million. Several years later, the cost grew to $500 million with the completion date slipping to the late 1990s.

What is the current status for paying back a federal $550 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan which played a major role in financing this project?

(Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions of dollars in grants which provided funding for capital projects and programs to the MTA, LIRR, New Jersey Transit and over 30 transit agencies in NY & NJ)
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Johnny C. August 24, 2021 - 5:10 pm

Penner strikes again, this time slightly on topic.

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BrooklynBus January 11, 2021 - 7:51 am

They don’t even deserve credit for the three “innovative” bathroom faucets that allow you to wet, wash and dry your hands in one place. They had this in Germany in 1981 when I visited there. But the German faucets were even better. First came the water, then the soap, and a few seconds later, the same faucet turned into a dryer which were all on a timer. You didn’t even have to walk from one faucet to the other. What took the US so long? All your other points, I agree with.

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Curious January 11, 2021 - 8:10 am

You know, it’s easy to lament the lack of seating and say that the city should instead solve the root problem of homelessness. But in practice what should they really have done here? Homelessness is a massive, extremely difficult, politically charged problem. I don’t think anyone would disagree with your sentiments here Ben, but they do seem a bit idealistic to me. We can’t just wave our wand and get rid of homelessness. And frankly, the area around Penn Station is one of the worst in the city for it!

If/when the homelessness problem is ever solved (don’t hold your breath), putting in seats should be a relatively easy retrofit. As it stands, I think they likely make the right decision given the current constraints.

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Doctor Memory January 11, 2021 - 4:41 pm

My only slightly snarky response is that Amtrak’s NYC station should do exactly what Amtrak’s Boston, New Haven, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington and DC stations do and provide ample public seating in the waiting areas and let station personnel and if necessary the NYPD handle any cases where homeless people use those seats in a problematic way.

Seriously, the most maddening part of this entire debacle is that people insist that this is some sort of insoluble gordian knot of a quandry when the answer is very simple: do exactly the same thing as in all of the other stations where this is not in any way a problem. We don’t have to solve homelessness before we put a few chairs into a train station waiting area.

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Curious January 11, 2021 - 6:19 pm

Yours is the kind of common sense suggestion that sadly fails in practice due to a lack of political will. If we tried it, some would complain about over-enforcement and heavy-handedness by the cops (e.x. “this is a violation of their rights and they have a right to use the public seating just as much as you do!”), while others would complain they weren’t doing enough (e.x. you mentioned using the seats in a “problematic way”, but what does that mean? many would not want them using any seats period). So ultimately it turns into a “this is why we can’t have nice things” scenario. In that way it’s akin to the shutdown of overnight subway service, which of course has nothing to do with the spread of the coronavirus at this point.

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Doctor Memory January 19, 2021 - 9:10 am

I really am going to have to insist: there is no problem here save for the one we have invented for ourselves. Do you really think that the politics around policing of the homeless and mentally ill are any less complicated and toxic in Philadelphia or Boston than in NYC? As it happens I’ve lived in all three places and I assure you that they are not. And yet somehow South Station and 30th Street Station provide seating and the world does not end.

Literally the only thing NYC lacks that Philadelphia and Boston have is, apparently, the ability to buy some chairs.

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SEAN January 11, 2021 - 8:55 am

I don’t see what the problem is considering that we are also in the middle of a pandemic & as of now social distancing is still a thing. Also GCT has seating, but in the station masters office & yes it is policy to have a ticket, but if necessary I don’t see why you couldn’t sit down there without one.

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Larry Penner January 11, 2021 - 10:06 am

The project failed to add any new track or platform capacity for Amtrak, NJ Transit, LIRR or future Metro North Rail Road service.

Why would a majority of LIRR riders want to access to the new Moynihan Train Hall who come from east of 7th Avenue to wait for a train?.

What good is a new ticket office? Most LIRR riders continue to purchase tickets via Mail & Ride, ticket vending machines or various Apps. In coming years, new fare collection technology will be coming on line. Staffed ticket windows will go the way of the dinosaurs.

These funds would have been better spent reopening the old Hilton Passageway (indoor connection from Penn Station to the Herald Square subway & PATH complex) along with long overdue repairs to the Portal Bridge, Hudson and East River Tunnels Improvements supporting safety and reliability of service should have come first. There is also the long forgotten promise to extend Metro North Poughkeepsie Hudson line service using Amtrak’s Empire Corridor tracks to Penn Station)
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(Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office)
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SEAN January 11, 2021 - 12:09 pm

“What good is a new ticket office? Most LIRR riders continue to purchase tickets via Mail & Ride, ticket vending machines or various Apps. In coming years, new fare collection technology will be coming on line. Staffed ticket windows will go the way of the dinosaurs.”

True, but there are enough situations where a person to person transaction maybe required such as an incorrect fare being charged to a credit card.

“These funds would have been better spent reopening the old Hilton Passageway (indoor connection from Penn Station to the Herald Square subway & PATH complex) along with long overdue repairs to the Portal Bridge, Hudson and East River Tunnels Improvements supporting safety and reliability of service should have come first.”

It’s coming, but slower than we all would like it to be.

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Doctor Memory January 11, 2021 - 4:43 pm

Amen on all counts. The fact that the 6th ave passageway is still closed should be cause for mass firings.

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Christine August 24, 2021 - 10:30 am

The seating at the Station Master’s Office in GCT is gone. I don’t know if it’s permanent. But last week I REALLY needed to sit down and was looking forward to a rest on those benches. Alas, I stood for another 30 minutes for my train.

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Kevin Walsh January 11, 2021 - 2:40 pm

I was shooed out of the ticketed-only areas on opening day. Didn’t leave a very good impression.

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Whirlmode January 11, 2021 - 5:09 pm

Those disgusting bums who are covered in LICE AND BEDBUGS should be rounded up and shipped to an enclave out in Arverne on the Rockaway Peninsula. There they can be attended to.

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Curious January 11, 2021 - 6:20 pm

Ben, looks like your buddy JOSE MARTINEZ over at The City has a similar disdain for the lack of human parking spaces:

https://www.thecity.nyc/2021/1/10/22223920/homeless-feel-unwelcome-at-gleaming-new-moynihan-train-hall

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Robert Hickman January 11, 2021 - 11:05 pm

You’re mixing two different issues – public transportation and homelessness. Moynihan station gets an A for it’s ambitious attempt to recreate the beautiful public entryway lost when Penn station was raised. We need great spaces here in New York. Calatrava’s Oculus was totally worth every penny. Grand Central Terminal is one of the most beautiful public spaces in the world. Homelessness is a problem linked to Reagan’s drastic housing cuts in 1981. They’re separate issues. Come on Benjamin! I persevered 18 long months creating the 72nd Street subway station skylight artwork in my Brooklyn work/live studio. Aside from your finger tips on a keyboard, what Benjamin have you physically sacrificed to make day-to-day life better for New Yorkers?

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Alex January 12, 2021 - 10:03 am

Seriously, everyone is defending the lack of seating? If you put public seating almost nowhere, then of course the few places with seating will have a particular concentration of people who have nowhere else to go, and you’ll also have a lot more people sitting out on the street in the cold. If you put abundant seating everywhere, then there will be homeless people everywhere, but they won’t overwhelm any particular place. Security can always make sure people don’t spend an inordinate amount of time taking up the benches at peak times when there’s high demand for seating. But meanwhile, seniors, people with disabilities, and anyone else who wants to take a seat for a few minutes while waiting for the train can do so. It may upset people’s sensibilities to have homeless people in these beautiful new facilities, but that’s the reality in New York and other cities across the country. Both transit riders and homeless people deserve safe places to sit in the city and right now we’re providing neither.

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Rocky Chin January 14, 2021 - 8:42 am

Having had a chance to visit the new Moynihan
Train Hall this week(as a curious New Yorker who
loves exploring our public spaces), I was shocked to discover such a tiny restroom(!)…I immediately
wondered if this complied with NY building codes
Given the throngs of ravelers AND New Yorkers who we can anticipate will pass through this station??
NYC has TOO FEW clean & well maintained public restrooms(not to mention woefully insufficient affordable housing, indoor seating areas).

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SEAN January 14, 2021 - 1:07 pm

wondered if this complied with NY building codes
Given the throngs of ravelers AND New Yorkers who we can anticipate will pass through this station??
NYC has TOO FEW clean & well maintained public restrooms(not to mention woefully insufficient affordable housing, indoor seating areas).

I think the restroom situation is still an open question as the food hall & the other dining spots haven’t opened yet. Perhaps they too will have restrooms as well & that will solve part of the problem. Same goes for the lack of seating.

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SEAN January 15, 2021 - 11:31 am Reply
Al D January 15, 2021 - 11:58 am

While I understand the need for a proper train station on the West Side, I do not understand why the NY Governor is so single mindedly focused on projects that benefit few NYC residents compared to non NYC residents while at the same time neglecting NYC residents both passively and actively by not spending the money on the subway and bus and closing the subway overnight for deep cleaning even though the trains are running anyway!

I’ve lived in NYC for a very long time, and only for a brief period of that time when Richard Ravitch ran the MTA was the subway properly invested in.

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meesalikeu January 22, 2021 - 9:58 pm

the issue of the lack of notice and signage for njtransit is bizarre, but maybe that will eventually sort itself out with new tunnels and empire/penn south rails. the issue of it being too far west and an added schlep for commuters is valid, but only for current commuters. you are forgeting a booming whole new neighborhood to the west, hudson yards and that facebook is moving into moynihan itself. not mention all the redevelopment planned for empire/penn south. there will be a time in say 20-30yrs when moynihan is much more right in the middle of things.

as for the issue of seating, i am glad you brought that up. no city is as seating unfriendly as ny, where you can only find it in crowded parks or where you have to pay. keep it moving is a literal mantra. someone mentioned the wtc glass garden, which was a mess for homeless from the time it was built, but since post 9/11 they seemed to have figured it out without any public pushback as far as i know. worth looking into at least by others contemplating adding seating.

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JJ May 29, 2021 - 12:28 pm

A lot of good points Ben, but I still love this station even with it’s imperfections.

AS far as the homeless question, it’s never going to get answered as it’s too complicated.
The most liberal city in the country has no answer and never has.
Unfortunately homelessness has been rising since the minute DeBlasio came into office and exploded since Covid.
Our sleepy mayor’s too preoccupied with politics of class warfare

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