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Flatiron Hot! News | January 17, 2018

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Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Chance for a Better Penn Station at Last?

Light at the End of the Tunnel:  A Chance for a Better Penn Station at Last?
Tod Shapiro

Reported by Tod Shapiro for the Flatiron Hot! News

As a Community Board 5 member, I had a chance to attend a special seminar and panel discussion last Thursday sponsored by CB5 and the Regional Planning Association that discussed some critical issues of interest for Flatiron and Chelsea, and indeed, for all those who live or work in NYC. Titled, tantalizingly, “Moving Madison Square Garden and the Battle for a Better Penn,” the session featured some nationally known architectural and transit experts who explained the seminal issues of our time for NYC and its environs, namely, planning strategically for the growth and maintenance of our transportation infrastructure. They discussed the opportunities – and threats – to our livelihoods and quality of life if we cannot meet the challenges.

All of us who make Flatiron and Chelsea our home know how difficult and demoralizing it can be to get into the city via Penn Station using NJ Transit, Amtrak, and the Long Island Railroad at rush hour and at other times.  One arrives by train from L.I., New Jersey or other points into a vast, dimly lit, claustrophobic, subterranean space, crowded beyond belief at rush hour, with no light or breathing room to spare.  After arriving and dealing with the crowds, without knowing which way is up, down, east or west, one must make one’s way through an endless maze of tunnels and stairways to the subways, the streets, or cabs to one’s appointed destination.  Not a fun experience, and certainly not what one would expect in one of the great cities of the world, even compared with arriving at the beautiful Grand Central Station.

Alas, we are all still paying the price for the shortsighted and misguided decisions made many years ago in 1960, when the original, glorious McKim, Mead, and White Penn Station – which was the equal if not superior to any train station in the world in terms of light, space, grandeur, and design, was abruptly torn down in that era when planes, cars, buses, and trucks seem to be the wave of the future and our federal, state, and local government planners couldn’t be bothered to see the long-term interests of citizens. We were left with a truncated, crowded, subterranean station that quickly proved unequal to its task as commuter traffic mushroomed, and a new Madison Square Garden and a series of commercial office buildings were built over and around what used to be the original Penn Station, in effect sacrificing its functionality, light, and beauty for more of the build-without-a-plan, mindless New York sprawl.

Here it is, more than half a century later, and the manifest error in such short-sighted planning has become apparent, to the point where the the threat to everybody’s economic livelihood, if not our personal comfort and aesthetic, has forced virtually all the key players – city, state, federal government, real estate industry – indeed, everybody with a stake in the continued growth and livelihood of New York, to cast about with increasing urgency for a better option before it’s too late. According to info related by the speakers Thursday evening, the growth in transit into and out of NYC from NJ, Long Island, Connecticut, and Westchester is such that it threatens to overwhelm the capacity of the existing Penn Station.  In fact, if no advance planning for more capacity is accomplished, the region’s growth, already showing signs of being stymied by lack of capacity, may stagnate.  Even worse, if the existing infrastructure is not upgraded, repaired and expanded, there may be a catastrophic collapse in capacity that could pitch the whole region into recession – the nightmare scenario being the closure of the two 100-year-old tunnels into Penn used by Amtrak and NJ Transit that are seriously aging and damaged by recent storms.

At last, a series of substantial efforts by all the major regional players to address the issues of transit and economic growth is taking shape, albeit in the typically ad-hoc, uncoordinated way that such efforts often take. Projects include the Gateway Project (the new tunnels across the Hudson that are belatedly being planned to support Amtrak and NJ Transit), the Port Authority’s planning for a new bus terminal to remedy the decaying and inadequate current incarnation, the projected East Side Access for LIRR via Grand Central, as well as the plans for an expanded and upgraded Farley Post Office by NY State that will open up and provide additional light and space for Penn Station commuters.  The possibility arises that the efforts can be coordinated and perhaps joined with an effort to re-imagine and re-build a state-of-the-art, much-expanded Penn Station. A master plan must be created that will persuade the owners of Madison Square Garden to move their arena west to the rear of the current Farley Building.

All of this was up for discussion at a lively presentation and panel discussion at the meeting Thursday evening.  CB5 and the RPA invited noted architect and planner Vishaan Chakrabarti, New YorkTimes architectural critic Michael Kimmelman, and Tom Wright to review the current affairs for the benefit of the CB5 members and local notables and elected officials.  Kimmelman, Wright, and Chakrabarti are well-versed in the history, logistics, politics, and finances of the region’s efforts to deal with transportation and infrastructure, and are an ideal group to brainstorm and offer constructive criticism.  Wright is the Director of the Regional Planning Association, a group dedicated to focusing the region’s efforts on comprehensive and cost-effective efforts to deal with transit; Chakrabarti is an academic expert on architecture and design with extensive experience in the design and implementation of large real estate and infrastructure projects both through his academic work and his cutting-edge design experience with major firms in the northeast – he recently helped promote his novel re-imagining of Penn Station through a wildly well-received and visionary article and interactive multi-media preview featured in the New York Times. Kimmelman, via his perch as the Times critic, has been speaking out on city building and architectural issues for years.

After being introduced by the CB5 leaders, Wright started out the evening with a trenchant and foreboding overview of the current state of the region’s transit and economic trends, summarizing the data in a series of compelling graphs and photographs.  He brought the audience up to date on the progress of various projects which all are scheduled to impact on the ultimate use and fate of Penn Station – first and foremost the Gateway Project, which envisions two new high-capacity tunnels under the Hudson to allow for the reconstruction of the two 100-year-old tubes used by NJ Transit and Amtrak and a major upgrade to relieve congestion and allow for future growth in the region; Wright showed some shocking pics indicating just how bad the conditions of the older tunnels are and how the region’s fate is hanging by a thread, or just one more bad storm.  He also reviewed progress on the Port Authority’s efforts to build a new bus terminal, as well as the LIRR East Side Access project, and the ambitious long-stalled plans to upgrade and redevelop the landmark Farley Post Office as a mixed-use expanded transit hub, retail center, and focus of a new and expanded Penn. He emphasized how the failure to deal with the transit issues threatens the economy of New York, New Jersey, and the whole region.

He was followed by Mr, Chakrabarti, who gave a thumbnail sketch of the history of Penn Station, the history of its original design and demolition which gave rise to the preservation movement and landmarks laws, and the financial, logistical, and transportation challenges of coordinating all the new projects in a way that will result in a viable future for the city, and especially for commuters, who are suffering in the current Penn Station in a miasma of crowds, ever-increasing numbers of commuters, lack of light, and currently little prospect of relief.

Chakrabarti was critical of the well-meaning but currently uncoordinated efforts by the myriad of competing stakeholders (the Federal government, NY State under Cuomo; the City of New York, NJ under Christie, the Port Authority and its scandals, Amtrak, NJ Transit, LIRR, the property owners in NYC as well as the MSG ownership under the Dolans) that may cause them to lose sight of the inter-related nature of all the projects and, as he sees it, the failure so far to think “out of the box” and address the key issue that would address the one factor most important to actual commuters and their comfort and safety. That issue, currently unresolved, is that Penn Station, even with the Farley upgrade, will still be too small, and will still leave the major part of the station (the front 2/3 of the platforms) too confined and cramped for the masses of new users down the road.  Chakrabarti explained via a series of diagrams how the current layout of the tracks, based on the original Penn Station, leaves the front two-thirds of all the current platforms directly under Madison Square Garden, which would continue to present a problem even given the new Farley and Gateway expansions  This is especially so, as the Gateway Project will require construction of a new terminal south of the existing Penn Station, which will exponentially increase traffic in the station as people board and depart both the existing and soon-to-be-constructed platforms.  As long as Madison Square Garden stays in its current location right on top of the current Penn Station, there is no practical way to open up the space in a way that will solve the problem of light, access, and freedom of movement – a major safety issue in this terror-aware era.

Charkrabarti then went on to explain his visionary solution: entice, via appropriate incentives, the Dolans to move the Garden west to the lightly used storage and warehouse space of the Farley Building Annex, and re-purpose the existing Garden and Penn Station infrastructure to create a huge, open, glass-enclosed state-of-the-art climate-controlled atrium in the shell of the old Garden, which, taking advantage of much of the original Penn Station infrastructure which is still in place after the original demolition, would allow a redesign of Penn Station as an open-air concourse which,  together with the Farley upgrade, gives NYC a station that would be the rival of any in the world as a grand entrance to the city.  Chakrabarti made note of the efforts of Community Board 5 and local officials to limit the city permit of MSG to use the current space to 10 years only, through recent legislative efforts to keep open the option of an improved Penn Station, a long-time goal of local officials.

Chakrabarti then showed renderings and schematics of his proposed design, comparing it to other stations around the world, and giving “before and after” views for arriving and departing passengers.  He also explained how the coordinated effort of all the area’s stakeholders could arrange a transfer of air rights to property adjacent to the new station that could allow for financing of the project.  Because this project would be able to use substantial portions of the infrastructure of the existing Penn Station and MSG – actually never removed during the 1960 redevelopment – the cost of the project would be substantially less than building a whole new station from scratch, perhaps no more than $2 or 3 billion.  It all seems very possible, if the region can get its many players to work together.

Chakrabarti was followed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who gave her support to the enterprise, and speaking on behalf of the Borough and Community Boards, summarized the need to think expansively and ambitiously to meet the needs of the future.

All in all, a very thought-provoking evening on some issues critical to the future of the city and region, and one that Flatiron and Chelsea residents, and indeed all New Yorkers, should educate themselves about!  Check out our Flatiron Hot! News Video Clip for a quick overview of the excellent presentation, as well as some speaker highlights.