It’s hard to find a space in New York City transit planning as hotly contested as Penn Station. The destruction of the original Beaux-Arts masterpiece hangs over the city and echoes throughout today’s conservationism and landmarking process, and the current Penn Station rivals Laguardia as the city’s most scorned transportation space. Shoved under Madison Square Garden and operated as three separate fiefdoms by Amtrak, the LIRR and New Jersey Transit, the current iteration is a drab entryway to the city with poor wayfinding and passenger flow. It is constantly subject to fanciful ideas for improvement.
In early 2016, as part of his State of the State tour, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Empire Station Complex, a redesigned Penn Station that involved shifting much of the passenger areas to Farley Post Office building west of 8th Ave. and perhaps demolishing the Theater at Madison Square Garden to open space for grand public entrance. It followed decades of wheel-spinning over the so-called Moynihan Station plan and recent NYC rumblings concerning Madison Square Garden’s occupancy permit covering the space above Penn Station. Many people seem to think that to fix Penn Station, and retain its usefulness as a rail hub in between the 7th and 8th Ave. subway lines, the Garden will have to go.
That, however, may not be in the card as Gov. Cuomo announced last week a $1.5 billion plan to build out Moynihan Station and fix up the preexisting parts of Penn Station. Related, Vornado and Skanska will collaborate on a 255,000 square-foot train hall in the old post office that will house the LIRR and Amtrak (though it’s not clear what becomes of New Jersey Transit or why these three entities can’t better collaborate on the use of this space). The project will include 112,000 square feet of retail in Moynihan Station, making it the third transit mall the city has built in recent years, and an additional 588,000 square feet of office space. This thing, funded somehow, will be completed by the end of 2020.
Within the existing Penn Station, the MTA will redesign the LIRR’s 33rd St. concourse with higher ceiling, brighter lighting, wider concourses and new wayfinding signs. Additionally, the two Penn Station subway stops will be modernized under Cuomo’s plan to update the look and feel of the subway system. (The renovations will not include reconfiguring tracks to allow for same-direction, cross-platform transfers between local and express trains.) And that was it.
“New York’s tomorrow depends on what we do today, and the new Moynihan Train Hall will be a world-class 21st century transportation hub,” Cuomo said in his remarks. “With more than twice the passengers of all JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports combined, the current Penn Station is overcrowded, decrepit, and claustrophobic. The Moynihan Train Hall will have more space than Grand Central’s main concourse, housing both Amtrak and LIRR ticketing and waiting areas, along with state-of-the-art security features, a modern, digital passenger experience, and a host of dining and retail options. This is not a plan – this is what’s going to happen. People are going to walk through this station and recognize that this is New York.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: Penn Station is not a particularly pleasant train station for anyone, and it needs to be nicer. But redesigning Penn Station without addressing the trans-Hudson capacity concerns at the same time make me worry that we’re simply repeating the mistakes of the PATH World Trade Center station. How many billions can we spend on transit malls and fanciful headhouses without addressing operational issues (such as through running) or trans-Hudson capacity constraints (such as new tunnels)? On the bright side, Cuomo mentioned “coordination” with the Gateway Tunnels and indicated in another presentation that an announcement on Gateway funding and the project’s future may be coming soon. But shifting a busy commuter rail stop one long block away from nearby subways and not addressing capacity constraints seems short-sighted to say the least.
Meanwhile, while Cuomo controls the purse strings and can actually get something built, he’s not the only one with a vision for Penn Station. In The Times this past weekend, Michael Kimmelman highlighted Vishaan Chakrabarti’s plan to redo Penn Station by eliminating Madison Square Garden. Chakrabarti’s plan retains the Garden’s shape but removes the arena. He repurposes the building as an entrance to Penn Station and believes it would cost less than the Moynihan project while retaining access to subways. Unfortunately, a year after one of his top aides landed a plum spot at MSG, Cuomo has repeatedly said that the Garden isn’t going anywhere. “It’s called Madison Square Garden, and it’s private and they own it and they want to leave it there,” he said yesterday in comments. This too seems awfully short-sighted.
As the city has digested Cuomo’s proposals, it seems that the Empire Station Complex idea has fallen by the wayside. Dana Rubinstein reported that the elements east of 8th Ave. will take longer. We don’t know what will happen to New Jersey Transit or how Gateway truly fits in with this new train hall. The RPA and MSA both called on Cuomo to be more aggressive in relocating MSG and more vocal in plans for increased trans-Hudson rail capacity (although one Cuomo ally who will soon head up the RPA may temper these calls, Politico New York recently reported).
So for now, it seems the future of Penn Station is a nicer train hall that’s less convenient for train riders. It’s an expensive gamble with an unclear funding picture and one that may or may not include the more badly needed Gateway project. It rights a wrong in the design of Penn Station but seems to be a siloed project and not one that holistically reimagines train operations under the Hudson River and into and through Penn Station. Much like many other Cuomo plans, it almost gets us to where we need to be. But without further additions, it’s going to fall short of the region’s needs, and that’s the bigger lost opportunity yet.