It’s hard not to think of Penn Station—the dreary remnant of it still operating today—as the site of some colossal urban planning original sin. When the grand McKim Mead & White terminal was famously demolished in 1963 to make way for the newest iteration of Madison Square Garden, the action that helped spawn the modern historic preservation movement, the bulk of station activity was pushed below street level. Today the busiest train station in North America is essentially housed in a basement, atop which sits the “world’s most famous arena.” The Penn Station experience has been a dreary mess ever since—and a seemingly unfixable one. Every so often there were calls for “action” on Penn Station, but these pronouncements weren’t backed with political will or money. In the past year, however, the rhetoric has ratcheted up, with competing plans floated by the MTA, private developers, and community groups. Justin Davidson, the architecture critic for New York magazine and a longtime New Yorker, has been doing some excellent reporting on these recent efforts. We talked last week, and he helped me sort out exactly where, in this tangled and still unsettled tale, things now stand.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JD: Justin Davidson
At one point I realized that I had read a lot of good pieces, many of them by you, and was still confused about where we are. Help me here.
You’re not confused. The situation is inherently confusing and nonlinear. First of all, we need to distinguish between what happens underground and affects the trains, and what happens from the platform level up and affects the passengers.Those are different projects with different goals, funding streams, histories, and constituents. What’s unique about New York is its major train stations are terminals. There’s a historical reason for that. They housed the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Grand Central Railroad, and each one was the endpoint where all the threads that crossed the whole country were gathered into one place.
Hence the word “terminus.”
Exactly. Fast forward a century and quarter later: We’re left with these terminals that don’t correspond to the way we would, if we were starting from scratch, construct a regional rail network, which is essentially what we’ve got now. The usage is more intense, and as a result, Penn Station, especially, doesn’t function the way we want to. Some cities, like London, have modernized their networks, connecting not just the suburbs to the central city, but running trains through the central city and out the other side. Ideally, this is what we would want to do in New York.
There are two ways of accomplishing that. One is to create more tracks, so that more trains can come in and out. The other is to create more efficiency with a through-running system, where you would have what are now New Jersey Transit trains coming to the city, crossing through Manhattan, and out the other side to Long Island. Or run Amtrak trains and freight trains coming from Pennsylvania through the city and up to New England. That idea is not technically insurmountable, but it’s bureaucratically daunting, because multiple organizations oversee those lines. In a perfect world, New Jersey Transit, the Long Island Railroad, and Metro North would be united and even integrated with the New York City subway system.
A regional rail network.
That’s the obvious way to do it. The problem is, you can build highways and bridges and towers from scratch much faster than you can reorganize a bureaucracy. It’s one of the paradoxes of human society that social organizations that are formalized in legal documents become infinitely more difficult to disentangle than pouring concrete, putting up steel, or digging tunnels.
To increase capacity without through-running trains, you would have to create more tracks, and those would have to go to the south of where the current tracks are. That’s a huge project that would involve massive demolition and all kinds of underground work.
Andy Byford—the transit guru who ran the London system and came to New York and clashed with Governor Cuomo and left—is now back at Amtrak. He’s made clear his preference for through-running trains. It makes logistical sense. But I don’t see how it happens politically.
And all that track-level stuff is somewhat separate from the idea of a “new” Penn Station?
Yes. When we talk about that, we’re setting aside the issue of how to arrange the guts of the transportation infrastructure, and saying, “We’re not willing to deal with the real problem.” It’s like having a big, clunky jalopy that doesn’t go more than 20 miles an hour, but instead of replacing the engine, we’re going to give it a paint job and hope that solves the problem. That analogy is an exaggeration because it minimizes the benefits of a new Penn Station. The terminal we have now is woefully inadequate as a welcoming place used by human beings. Then the question becomes: How do you get the station, even if you don’t increase capacity or create through-running trains, to be a safe and pleasant place?
How many viable plans are there to do that?
There are fundamentally two in contention. Let’s start with the one that the MTA has put out there with the apparent backing of the governor. The MTA is a largely state-controlled agency, so Governor Hochul holds a lot of sway here. The MTA has put out a series of visions for renovating Penn Station, and they’ve already spent something like a billion dollars renovating the main concourse. Which is just a temporary fix. All of that would have to be demolished if another plan went forward.
The essence of the MTA plan is that there is no appetite for doing what would ideally create a top-notch new station: remove Madison Square Garden, which sits on top of it. It’s this ganglion of entrances and loading docks and elevators that are all intertwined with Penn Station. The situation is complicated by the fact that Amtrak (not the MTA) owns the station, and MSG owns the Garden; it’s a rare case of double-decker ownership. MSG isn’t a tenant. It’s not like a lease runs out and you can evict it. If you’re going to get the Dolan family, who own the Garden, to move, you would have to buy it from them. The cost of doing so would be astronomical. More importantly, the Dolans have no interest in going anywhere, since they’re sitting on the best-connected site anywhere.
They just put a billion dollars into renovating the arena not too long ago.
Exactly. So how do you get around that? How do you work out a good enough Penn Station while leaving Madison Square Garden in place?
There are people that I respect who say we have leverage on the Dolans but haven’t applied it.
It depends what you mean by leverage. Remember, this is not primarily a city project. You have to get Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the MTA all on board, and then you have to make a deal with MSG. None of those really involve the city directly. The city’s role is limited to approving the special permit that allows MSG to operate at the capacity it does. City Council has jurisdiction over that.
A decade ago, when the permit ran out, they renewed it for another 10 years, with the understanding that they would use those years to explore options for other sites, and then left it at that. It was like, “OK, this time, Johnny, but 10 years from now you’re gonna have to go.” There was no follow-through. And it was clear the Dolans had no interest in acquiescing to that. In the meantime, there are some sites that would’ve been potentially plausible, but they’re not available anymore.
There was one interesting proposal that came from the Regional Plan Association and Vishaan Charkabarti, who’s been involved in envisioning futures for this for quite a long time. He said: instead of trying to push it west, why don’t you move MSG across Seventh Avenue to the east, and put it on the south side of 34th Street? That would mean putting up several towers at the corners of the block to help fund the whole development.
And that’s no longer viable in the post-COVID real estate market, with commercial real estate struggling.
That’s the background issue at the moment. The MTA came up with this series of drawings and ideas for how to move forward. The main idea was to create a midblock, sky-lit concourse, just west of Seventh Avenue. The problem is, you can’t put a grand entrance to the station on Seventh Avenue, because there’s this massive office tower sitting on top of it, and then the entrance to MSG right there. Their solution was to improve the entrance to MSG and put the grand high ceiling space behind it, midblock, running north-south.
This is where the bridge is, connecting the office tower to the arena?
Yes. The MTA plan would demolish that bridge. But the whole question of how to do that has loomed over this plan, because it’s a public plan, which means it needs to be publicly funded. At one point, the governor was calling it the General Project Plan, or GPP. The idea was to use the power of eminent domain to condemn large parts of the neighborhood around Penn Station, override the city’s zoning and allow massive new amounts of FAR in an area that’s largely owned and controlled by Vornando.
This was seen as a massive windfall for one developer. The state would clear everybody out and say, “OK, Vornando, knock yourself out. Build 10 new towers!” So, in addition to some money from the federal government, the developer would pay fees that would have paid for the whole thing. In the current climate, there’s no appetite for that. Vornado killed the plan, saying, “Well, we have no interest in building all those towers in the foreseeable future.” Unless and until that changes, the state and the MTA have moved away from that idea, although they haven’t officially declared it dead.
The MTA did roll out some kind of vague plan in June, at a ceremony which you described as “strangely glum.”
They’ve had multiple announcements. In terms of her public event priorities, Penn Station has risen to the top of Governor Hochul’s list. The most recent thing they did, in June, included a new round of drawings, but the governor said, “We’re not actually committed to any one plan. We’ll listen to ideas.” All of a sudden it seemed like they were kind of—
Yeah. They do have a high-powered design team, which includes John McCaslan, the British architect responsible for the renovation of King’s Cross Station in London. But the real question is whether the governor has the political will to follow through on this, and more importantly, where the money to do it will come from. The MTA is putting a lot of stock in another infusion of cash from the federal government. The Biden administration has been receptive to the idea of investing in the Northeast Corridor, but the focus has been on the gateway project, which includes a new tunnel under the Hudson, to increase capacity. An important and hugely expensive project. The tunnel is part of a series of upgrades to the whole rail system throughout the corridor. Unfortunately, there’s been no sense from Washington that there would be a whole other packets of billions of dollars coming in to renovate the station. And, in any case, the MTA can’t do anything unilaterally, because everything has to be negotiated with these other partners.
Then there’s a second plan, a public-private partnership.
This is a plan by ASTM, an infrastructure company based in Italy. What they’re proposing is a different funding structure. ASTM is in a public-private partnership with the MTA on another project. There’s some history there, but this is not generally how transit gets done in New York. They’re saying, “Look, we can provide the starter capital from our funds, thereby lowering the immediate burden on the public sector. We’ll take the risk of construction, we’ll take the risk of delays, and we will build and operate the station for 50 years.”
Would the public-private partnership still require money from the federal government?
Yes, it would. ASTM says it would require less money from the federal government. What they claim is that while the MTA is engaged in some wishful accounting, they’ve actually worked out all the costs in more detail. In addition to all the political and financial intricacies, the whole project is an incredibly complicated engineering challenge. ASTM claims that they have much more accurate estimates about the cost and the timing, because they’ve done all that homework. Again, it’s difficult for the public to really evaluate the degree to which that’s true.
And these projects typically go over budget.
Yes. But ASTM says the difference is, they commit to a budget and take on the risk. If it goes over budget, it’s their problem. The other crucial difference between the two plans is that while the ASTM plan doesn’t remove MSG, it does remove what they call the Hulu Theater, the 5,000-seat theater that clings to the bottom of the MSG.
The old Felt Forum …
It’s located towards Eighth Avenue, on the western side of the station. The ASTM proposal would buy that from MSG in order to demolish it. MSG appears to be amenable to that plan. They have a price for it. But the specific numbers haven’t been released. ASTM says that the billion dollars that they would front the project is enough to buy the theater, demolish it, and begin construction on the whole project.
From an urban design point of view, the question is whether that makes sense, because the reason you remove the Hulu Theater is to create a big, high-ceiled public space. But that moves the train hall experience over to Eighth Avenue, and the MTA says that doesn’t make sense. Most people come into the station from Seventh Avenue. The MTA says if you build a big train hall there, as lovely as it may be, that’s not where people want to be. ASTM says, “You’re looking at the present. The future is going to be different.” It’s true that Hudson Yards and all the construction from Eighth Avenue over to the river is creating a new West Side office district. The only part of the region that’s creating new housing is New Jersey, the fastest growing commuter population. ASTM claims the mental geography of that area is shifting, which may be true but is also kind of imponderable, crystal ball stuff. There are reasons to buy into both arguments. But you’re talking about making massive investments, not just financial but engineering decisions, based on one of those projections. It’s hard to know, with any certainty, which one of those makes sense.
There’s the alternative plan that would recreate aspects of the old Penn Station, but would address the elephant in the room and require the Dolans to leave the site. You described that as a nonstarter. Why?
For a long time, many people said the real obstacle to creating a grand Penn Station is the presence of Madison Square Garden. Interestingly, one of the people who was saying that the loudest and most convincingly, because he backed it up with a design, was Vishaan Chakrabarti, who in 2016 created a design commissioned by the New York Times opinion section. That plan envisioned moving MSG and using the circular framework of the garden as a kind of framework for a new Penn Station. Chakrabarti was very insistent that you could not get a great Penn Station without moving MSG. Well, he has now joined that ASTM design team, along with the firm HOK, and in doing so has basically given up on the idea of moving MSG. I think the Rebuild Penn Station thing is less about whether you go back to the original design than it’s about moving MSG. If you do that, then there are many more options.
I agree. The urban planning move, stay or go, is a much bigger question.
And, if it goes, then there are a whole lot of questions: Where does the new one go? When does the old one go? There’s been this sense of ongoing slow-burning urgency. We need to have a new Penn Station now, and we’ve been saying that for 30 years. If you move MSG, you can’t even really get started until all those questions are resolved, and that’s probably 10 years away. But in order for them to move, you have to make a deal, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a deal to be made there. You can’t force them out. There’s no mechanism that allows any public agency to say: you have to go.
And yet just last week a city council subcommittee voted unanimously to give MSG a five-year extension on its special permit. The Dolans wanted more. The public groups trying to move MSG off the site hailed this as a victory. What do you make of this development?
I think that’s one more way of kicking the can down the road. The 10-year deadline didn’t create enough urgency to resolve the situation, so I don’t see why a new five-year deadline should either. The main import of that decision is the declaration that the Garden—in its current form—is not compatible with the future needs of Penn Station. That should prod the Garden into wanting to make a deal with someone so that they can design new truck access and back-of-house to align with transportation needs. But it still doesn’t force them to get out of Dodge.
And what do you think happens in the immediate term. Anything?
In the short term, that depends on the governor and her priorities. She has been weakened politically since she was elected. If she decides there’s no percentage in it for her politically to stick her neck out and make big decisions on this, then we’re just going to get more of the same. If she decides that she can do some good here and she makes a set of firm decisions, then what needs to happen is that the MTA plan and the ASTM plan need to be reconciled.
It’s easy to think, “OK, now we just bought ourselves another decade or two of entertaining design possibilities that we’re then going to reject. Great.” But I’m moderately hopeful about this. What the MTA is saying is: “We’ve done a lot of planning work. We know what the options are. We’ve decided that we’re going to work around MSG, instead of pursuing the dead end of trying to get them to move. Let’s look at the alternatives.”
And settling on a vision—whatever that is.
Yes, a vision backed up by a deal to actually get the work done. And do it in a complete way, instead of piecemeal. Because you can keep on changing the signage, replacing the crumbling acoustic tile, rewiring and cleaning up the station, and make it seem like you’re renovating, but you’re not solving the heart of the problem. The MTA recognizes that. But whether, organizationally, they can move forward, I don’t know the answer to that.
Featured image via the Municipal Arts Society.