If the latest news surrounding two dueling plans to fix New York’s Pennsylvania Station has left you scratching your head, you’re not alone. Various officials I spoke with are also vague on details.
The one thing everyone seems to know for sure is that nothing meaningful ever really happens to improve North America’s busiest and most miserable train, despite decades of demands and promises. Hope was long dead at 6:50 to Secaucus.
But now it can actually be different.
For starters, because a very detailed and, for now, clearly superior but unofficial proposal has suddenly emerged to challenge the one the Metropolitan Transport Authority is slowly putting together. At the very least, the new proposal, from a private infrastructure developer called ASTM North America, may be the disruption needed to move Albany.
Outlined for public officials and widely reported last week, ASTM’s six-year, $6 billion plan would reconfigure the cramped, confusing station, which is owned by Amtrak, into a single concourse with high ceilings and a grid of wide corridors that let in daylight, dignity. and circular logic replaces the rat’s maze under Madison Square Garden. On the station’s exterior, a new, porous stone facade with landscaped terraces and rows of columns would restore some of the architectural sensitivity and civic symbolism that New York lost in the 1960s when McKim, Mead & White’s original Penn Station was demolished. . .
Unlike many others before it, the plan does not involve moving the Garden. That dream, I’m afraid, has gone the way of Betamax and Blu-ray. Instead, ASTM pictures boxing the drum-shaped arena inside a square podium – restoring a street wall and the part sign of the old station.
A tall new Eighth Avenue entrance, framed by syncopated rows of columns that subtly nod to the old station and also to its Beaux-Arts sister, the James A. Farley Building, across the street, would lead down to a new 55-ft. elevated train hall with a map of the city streets in relief on the ceiling. To build the hall, ASTM would buy (reportedly for somewhere south of $500 million) and then demolish the Theater at Madison Square Garden, which clings to the west side of the arena, above the sidewalk, creating what was for decades a two-block dead end zone along Eighth Avenue.
The ASTM team includes Severud Associates, longtime engineers for the Garden, as well as two architecture firms, PAU, based in New York and run by Vishaan Chakrabarti, who has worked for years on various Gardens. renovation plansand HOK, which oversaw the new Terminal B at La Guardia Airport.
For now, I leave the plausibility of the $6 billion figure and ASTM’s guarantee of coverage of overflows to others. Cost aside, there’s much to admire here, including how the plan prioritizes the surrounding streets and sidewalks and solves a host of deeply unsexy back-end issues involving things like Amtrak storage and the Garden’s loading dock, on which the quality. and design of the commuter spaces ultimately depends. Seeking inspiration from exalted precedents such as Grand Central Terminal and Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin, ASTM’s architecture at this early stage is somewhat stiff and self-serious but it clearly conveys the most important point that an entrance worthy of New York, and of the millions of working people who rely on it need to offer more than high ceilings, clear signage and warm bagels. It must be a source of public pride.
But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, not ASTM or anyone else, is temporarily in charge of the official master plan. In early 2021, you may recall, Moynihan Train Hall opened in the Farley Building. With its rooftops and Tennessee marble, it became an instant attraction and bright spot for the city during the depths of the pandemic, reminding New Yorkers what a great public space looks like. Moynihan, however, could never serve more than a tiny fraction of the 600,000-plus commuters who throng Penn Station each day. So the task of fixing Penn fell to the already overburdened and stressed MTA and a team of designers and engineers that includes FXCollaborative, WSP, and John McAslan, the British architect who successfully redid London’s King’s Cross Station – the closest analog to Penn Station.
This is pretty much how things stood when my colleagues Dana Rubinstein and Stefanos Chen broke the news this past spring that ASTM had inserted itself into the picture. When I spoke with MTA officials last week, they said they remain on track to deliver full details of the promised plan next summer, meaning a year from now. Their current budget estimate for the project is north of $7 billion. All design and financial details remain on the table, they said. Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, which share the station with the Long Island Railroad and the New York City subway system, will later sign off on what the MTA is cooking up.
are you still with me
It is possible that during the next year, the MTA, either on its own or due to pressure from Governor Kathy Hochul, other politicians and/or its partner railroads, may decide, for example, that ASTM or another developer. should take over the project as part of a public-private partnership, or P3.
This, in effect, was how both the new La Guardia terminal and Moynihan were built. It’s like the MTA is now renovating some subway stations with elevators to provide access to the disabled. The private company handling this project for the MTA is Halmar International, a subsidiary of ASTM. Halmar is also building a new third rail for the Long Island Railroad.
It is in this context that I think we can decipher the strange media event that Ms Hochul’s handlers hastily organized last week – timed, it seemed, to upstage ASTM’s release a few days after its latest drawings and budget. The governor’s event took place inside the new Long Island Railroad corridor that runs along the north end of the station, which the MTA recently spent several years and a whopping $700 million redoing. That renovation, which includes a new cone-shaped entrance on Seventh Avenue, transformed a claustrophobic rabbit hole into a large, wide passageway, but the price tag was astronomical and the architecture unimpressive.
At the event, standing next to the governor, MTA chief Janno Lieber showed off some of FXCollaborative’s latest designs for the new station, which included a mid-block train hall inside a towering glass concourse that looks to me like a buzzing mall. in Dubai.
Ms. Hochul seemed to put some distance between herself and those drawings after Mr. Lieber spoke. “We don’t stand here with a plan,” she told the crowd. “Everyone has a chance to show us their vision.”
It was a strange sequence that I think reflects not only the turmoil of the ASTM story, and the fact that anything is still really possible, design-wise, but also the limbo status of the MTA. a plan MTA officials currently insist that a grand Eighth Avenue entrance of the kind ASTM envisions would not serve enough commuters to justify its public cost. They calculate that only maybe 30 percent of commuters will use the station on that west side. They are adamant that taxpayers should not reward the Dolan family, owners of the Garden, by paying for the theater.
Thirty percent of what the MTA estimates will be more than 680,000 daily passengers by 2038 would make the west side of Penn Station the nation’s. fourth busiest train hub And that west side sits over the center of the tracks, where riders enter and exit. But it doesn’t matter. There is another way to interpret what is happening here, which involves a completely separate issue: the special license by which the Garden is allowed to operate on the station.
Rewind the clock to 2013 when the New York City Council, responding to growing calls to fix the station, declined to make the special permit permanent, as the Garden requested, and instead extended it for 10 years, during which time the Garden was supposed to. find a new home. The Garden did nothing of the sort.
I think what we’re seeing now in the MTA’s concept drawings is partly a negotiating strategy with the Garden. That proposed train hall with the enormous glass ceiling would require the Garden to abandon its mid-block taxiway and shrink the pedestrian bridge by which 80 percent of its ticket holders reach the arena. The MTA appears to be banking on the Council’s vote this summer to provide it with leverage. “The Dolans have gotten a pretty good deal from New Yorkers so far,” Mr. Lieber told a meeting of the MTA board. “I don’t want to pay hundreds of millions more to that account now.”
In other words, ASTM decided to buy the cooperation of the Garden. The MTA treats the Garden as an opponent.
My guess is that the Council will decide this summer to renew the permit but for a limited time on the condition that the Garden somehow co-operates with plans to upgrade the station and its surroundings. After the special permit vote is settled, the MTA’s strategy and design may look different.
If not, its demands on the Garden seem guaranteed to trigger lawsuits that could tie up any redevelopment for years in court. And funding for renewal depends on federal grants, which require sympathetic management in the White House.
So the clock is ticking.
If all this still seems dizzying, the bottom line is that next year will decide the fate of the station. Perhaps not since the demolition of the original McKim, Mead & White building has there been similar momentum and a similar alignment of the political stars. The question now is whether New Yorkers can put aside the cavil and anguished calls to rebuild the original station or remodel the East Coast rail network, and finally unite around what is possible.
Ms. Hochul says Penn Station is a top priority. Let’s hold her to it.