Why Cuomo's Plan to Revive Penn Station Is Pure Fantasy
“One entered the city like a god”: Penn Station, 1954
Jackson M. Holliday
If modern New York City has a guiding spirit, an Obi-Wan Kenobi that has helped govern our fates in mysterious ways, it may well be a building that few city residents alive today have ever set foot in. When the original Penn Station was torn down in 1963 at the young age of 53, it set off a firestorm of outrage that shifted the course of history: From the dust of the building's glorious Beaux-Arts edifice and commodious waiting rooms arose the first modern landmarking law. In the half-century since, generations of city planners have been fighting to reclaim what has been lost — and to stave off similar atrocities.
On January 6 of this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced, as part of his self-declared mission to lead New York into a brighter tomorrow (or at least seize the headlines from Mayor Bill de Blasio), plans for a $3 billion revamp of Penn Station — the dystopian successor to the elegant original. The update would include new skylit entrances and more spacious waiting rooms and would be part of a broader set of transit improvements that could run upwards of $100 billion.
That may sound blissful to anyone forced to suffer the crushing indignities of the 5:51 to Ronkonkoma, but it comes with a catch: Even $3 billion, let alone $100 billion, seems an almost impossible sum in the current fiscal climate. And that lack of cash is compounded by the fact that New York's transit needs are metastasizing. With the city growing by half a million people per decade, many of them abandoning cars for subways and commuter trains, it has become a daunting task just to get them all to work every morning: The MTA's future capital requirements could run close to half a trillion dollars, trans-Hudson commuter rides are expected to increase by 50 percent in the next 25 years, and the Port Authority bus terminal is already operating above capacity.
While transit advocates largely applaud Cuomo for trying to get a Penn Station overhaul rolling, they're also quick to warn of the consequences of a do-it-all-and-damn-the-cost strategy. "He's taken a lot of projects that many civic groups and residents and elected officials have wanted to see advanced over the years, and he's moving them — and that's a great thing," says Tri-State Transportation Campaign director Veronica Vanterpool. But with a $100 billion wish list and no clear priority on which items come first, some of the governor's projects could end up pushing aside even worthier ones. (Just ask East Harlem residents how they're enjoying that new Second Avenue Subway.) As Vanterpool puts it, "It's almost as if the governor's picking projects out of a bag and jump-starting things without it being part of a larger strategy."
Maybe. Or maybe a front-page-worthy megaproject announcement is just what the doctor ordered for a governor thinking ahead not only to his 2018 re-election campaign, but to the 2020 New Hampshire primaries.
Jackson M. Holliday
By all accounts, the original 1910 Penn Station was breathtaking. Stretching from Seventh to Eighth avenues between 31st and 33rd streets, it epitomized the ambitious architecture that was a byproduct of early-twentieth-century railroad competition. The station welcomed passengers arriving on the Pennsylvania Railroad's lines with a pink granite colonnade and a 150-foot-high waiting room inspired in part by the third-century Roman Baths of Caracalla. Inside, a delicate web of steel columns supported soaring glass skylights, which admitted light all the way down to the platforms themselves.
But by the 1960s, the rail industry was coming apart at the seams, unable to compete with newfangled jet planes, and the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to accept a $50 million payout to demolish the building to make way for a "Penn Plaza" office complex as well as a new Madison Square Garden (the fourth, and the second nowhere near Madison Square). Though a few vestiges of the old building remain — a pair of stone eagles near Seventh Avenue that once topped the station's columns; a handful of brass-railed stairwells down near track level — one of the city's core experiences was gone forever. As architecture critic Vincent Scully famously wrote at the time, "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."
Ever since, certain sectors of New York's political leadership have been on a crusade to restore train riders' godliness. As early as 1993, Amtrak, which inherited the Penn properties when the private rail line went bankrupt in the 1970s, floated the idea of creating a new entrance in the James A. Farley post office building across Eighth Avenue, a sister building of sorts to the old station that was designed at the same time by the same architects, McKim, Mead, and White. (Fans of the 1981 film Ragtime will recall that the philandering, murdered architect Stanford White was improbably played by Voice founder Norman Mailer.) Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan next took up the cause, and upon his death in 2003, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and Regional Plan Association (RPA) — two advocacy groups with a bent for grand-architecture-as-public-amenity — launched a renewed campaign to build a "Moynihan Station" in the postal building's shell, perhaps even accompanied by a new Madison Square Garden in place of the post office annex next door.
The Moynihan Station plans, which at one point carried an impressive $14 billion price tag, ultimately stalled in the wake of the economic crash, as proposed developers Vornado and Related balked at the costs of redoing the main post office atrium in exchange for retail space in its back offices and air rights on neighboring blocks. A scaled-down $300 million Phase 1 of that project, which will add just a couple of stairways to street level at the post office building's corners, broke ground in 2011 and is projected to open this year.
And the vision gets smaller still: Under Cuomo's $3 billion reboot, the post office building would still be repurposed as an entry hall, but only for the Amtrak tracks that run directly beneath it. Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit train platforms all terminate one block east, beneath Madison Square Garden, so commuters on those lines would be stuck using an upgraded version of the current rat-scuttling underground warren.
This new Penn Station — or "Empire Station Complex," in the governor's proposed rebranding — is just one element of that $100 billion laundry list of infrastructure projects proposed in the runup to Cuomo's January 13 State of the State address: $4 billion to revamp LaGuardia Airport; $20 billion toward a new rail tunnel under the Hudson; $22 billion for new roads upstate (which the governor has given the perhaps excessively on-the-nose name "PAVE NY"); $1 billion for yet another expansion of the Javits Convention Center (see related story); and a handful of ancillary projects. Most of these have been in the planning stages for years: $26 billion in proposed MTA capital spending, for example, is already in the agency's capital plan awaiting legislative approval. What's new is that this time, the governor is lumping them together as an umbrella spending plan — or at least a series of PowerPoints long on photos and portentous declarations, but woefully short on budget details.
Rendering of Empire Station Complex
Courtesy of the Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
And that, as always, is the rub: New York could have all the transit improvements in the world if it didn't have to worry about paying for them. Regarding his new Penn plans, all Cuomo has revealed so far is that $325 million would come from two public sources: The Port Authority would contribute $150 million, with the feds expected to chip in the rest. The remaining $2.675 billion, meanwhile, would come from a private developer in exchange for the rights to operate stores in the redesigned station. There is so far no objective reason for believing that number — a Cuomo spokesman would say only that "the state is offering valuable real estate and we are confident it will generate a good private-sector response" — and we won't know how realistic it is, or isn't, until the state hears back from megadevelopers on its Request for Proposals for the site, which was just released Friday after a two-week delay.
But generating nearly $3 billion out of thin air may actually prove difficult. Inevitably, Cuomo's prestidigitation is premised on the Miracle of Retail. Specifically, it calls for the Theater at MSG — the onetime Felt Forum, named for Irving Felt, the MSG president who masterminded old Penn Station's demolition — to be removed, making way for an expanded shopping concourse accessed via the kind of snazzy glass entryways that are all the rage these days. But while it'd be nice to remind commuters what the sun is like, this scenario has been run before. Reinventing transit stations as shopping malls — not just for commuters rushing to catch trains, but as destinations for tourists and local office workers — has been a full-blown trend at least since the 1980s, when Washington, D.C.'s Union Station was revamped with a food court and movie theater inserted beneath its vaulted ceiling. New York followed suit, as Grand Central Terminal subsequently redid much of its interior space as food courts and high-end stores; the recently opened Fulton Transit Center is in theory supposed to recoup its $1.4 billion cost from retail tenants through a similar meeting of convenience and commerce, although the MTA doesn't yet have any detailed revenue projections.
So will developers pay $3 billion for the chance to do the same in an expanded Penn Station mall? None of the many major New York City–area developers contacted by the Voice would comment on the viability of Cuomo's funding model for the Penn Station project (though one, Related Cos., did confirm that it expects to place a bid). But the numbers aren't encouraging. The Grand Central and Union Station retail operations have been successes, but cost just pennies on the dollar compared with Cuomo's plan. Retail space in the Penn Station complex is currently divvied up among the MTA, Amtrak, and Vornado, which owns Two Penn Plaza, the 29-floor office complex that faces Seventh Avenue on top of the station and sits, awkwardly, in front of the Garden. The MTA reports it earns $4.4 million a year in revenue from its 20,000 square feet of retail; Amtrak won't divulge its earnings on its 54,000 square feet of existing space. The just-released state RFP promises 640,000 square feet of "office space, retail, and hospitality," most of it tucked away in the back of the Farley building, away from the commuting hordes. If the same revenue rates held there as on the high-traffic space in the train station overall — a significant "if" — it would be enough to produce a semi-respectable 7 percent return for a developer who invested $2 billion. But that would still leave a significant shortfall.
Additional money could be raised from the sale of the post office building's 1.5 million square feet in unused air rights, which would be used to erect new towers either on the site of the Farley annex behind the main building or catty-corner across Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street on a site adjacent to One Penn Plaza. According to one recent state estimate, an air rights sale could net $500 million, but again, nothing will be certain until developer bids start to arrive.
And that's still just one piece of that $100 billion puzzle that Cuomo has promised to piece together with no clear explanation of how to pay for it. "It's hard to read the mind of Andrew Cuomo, so what does he want to achieve here?" says Straphangers Campaign director Gene Russianoff. "He's identifying himself politically with, and receiving praise for, these projects — which doesn't necessarily mean making them happen." (Cuomo's proposed tunnel under Long Island Sound, for starters, is almost certainly never going to be built.) "I'm very concerned, because the financing plan he's working with borders on the fantastical."
Worse, Cuomo's Penn proposal wouldn't do squat to increase actual capacity: While the governor's broader plan does include $5 billion toward a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River, that's only a quarter of what's needed, and federal funding to fill the gap may never materialize. And Cuomo has no answer for one of Penn Station's worst aspects — the crush on the outdated, narrow platforms, which remain relatively unchanged from a century ago and were never designed for the more than 300,000 daily commuters from New Jersey and Long Island. (A friend of original station architect Charles McKim said he designed it with "well-gowned women who would sweep up and down his broad staircases" in mind.) To expand the platforms would require moving supporting beams, which, according to Regional Plan Association transportation director Richard Barone, would be impossible without removing both Madison Square Garden and, more importantly, the Two Penn Plaza office building. "[Two Penn's] columns, quite frankly, are even more disruptive downstairs than MSG's," he says.
Rendering of Empire Station Complex
Courtesy of the Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
The need for a platform upgrade to fit the flood of daily commuters is one reason the RPA and Municipal Art Society have advocated for the relocation of the Garden once again. Three years ago, the two groups launched an all-out campaign to deny the Garden an indefinite renewal of the operating permit that allows it to remain perched atop the train station; the City Council ultimately agreed to grant a ten-year renewal until 2023, but with the stern warning that this was expected to be only a temporary reprieve.
What happens in 2023 now looms large in the future of not just Penn Station, but the city's midtown development strategy as a whole. The city could always evict the Garden and tell the Knicks, Rangers, and Liberty to find new homes, but that's certainly not likely. If Cuomo really wanted to play hardball with the Garden's owners to allow for a more extensive Penn Station overhaul, he could start by having the state legislature eliminate the runaway property tax break that has cost the city nearly $400 million since 1984 (see related story). More likely is that, as the eviction date looms, the city and MSG owner James Dolan will begin negotiations to build an MSG 5.0 elsewhere in Manhattan.
That could be a pricey proposition too. Dolan just paid for a $1 billion renovation of the venue to add new concessions concourses and completely redo the seating bowl. Add in price inflation and the cost of acquiring a sufficiently large and accessible piece of land in midtown and this could easily turn into a $2 billion enterprise — with, yet again, no evident source of cash to pay for it.
Some advocates for a fuller redo of Penn Station say the pending MSG talks are a good reason not to move ahead with Cuomo's more modest plan. "What happens in fifteen years when they finally decide they need a new arena?" asks MAS vice president Mary Rowe. "You've already gone in and messed with the Penn piece, and now you have to throw good money after bad."
Cuomo's plan has other potential pitfalls. The proposed governing agency jointly headed by the Empire State Development Corporation, the MTA, Amtrak, and Long Island Rail Road sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare waiting to happen. Selling air rights from the post office building means cutting off a potential revenue stream that could be used for capacity-building projects. One of Cuomo's other announced plans, freezing tolls for upstate drivers, would slice $1 billion from available transit funds. And with umpteen different projects all in the pipeline at once, there's the danger that sexy ones like a new Penn Station will trump boring ones like upgrading the century-old subway signal system that is keeping the city from running more trains.
But the biggest issue remains that fancy pictures are nice, but you still need to follow the money. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Vanterpool notes that Cuomo's biggest transportation project to date, the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, used $750 million from the state's $5 billion windfall settlement of a lawsuit against banks that sold dodgy securities in the runup to the 2008 financial collapse. (The MTA capital budget received a relatively paltry $250 million from the bank settlement.) Finding $100 billion, though, is another matter. "He has a huge slate of potential infrastructure ideas — not all of them can be completed," Vanterpool says. "So it'll be interesting to see which of the few he's really going to help advance."
Or to put it more bluntly: Everyone would love to have a new Penn Station. But if it comes to a choice between a grand sunlit waiting room and a chance of finding a seat on your train, even scuttling rats would agree: The best sunlight is the kind you see when you get where you're going — on time.
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