New skyscrapers near Penn Station are a good idea

Penn Station
Penn Station
Penn Station

New skyscrapers near Penn Station are a good idea

It's the ideal way to finance the station's reconstruction.
April 4, 2018

In most cities, a politician fearing the transformation of a neighborhood into a forest of skyscrapers would describe it as being turned into Manhattan. That convenient metaphor was unavailable to New York state Sen. Liz Krueger, however, when she wanted to inveigh against legislative proposal from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that, in an early version, would have enabled the state to take over the planning of redevelopment around Penn Station, bypassing municipal control entirely. So instead Krueger said, rather confusingly, “I don’t want Singapore in the middle of Manhattan. And I certainly don’t want one person up here to be deciding whether or not we’re going to have Singapore in the middle of Manhattan with no community participation or process or local government role.”

The final legislation passed as part of a budget bill late Friday night is far less ambitious, declaring every New Yorker’s least favorite train station “antiquated, substandard, and inadequate to meet current transportation and public safety needs and present(ing) an unreasonable safety risk to the public.” It calls on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Empire State Development to “coordinate and consult with community leaders, business groups and federal and city government to design a solution.”

The law will facilitate a potential eminent domain claim against Madison Square Garden, strengthening the state’s hand in negotiations over the acquisition of the 5,600-seat Hulu Theater beneath the main arena. Cuomo wants to use the theater area for a new grand entrance to the station on Eighth Avenue, as part of a larger renovation. The governor says that such a claim will not likely be necessary, but it provides additional leverage in bargaining. The Penn Station budget amendment also calls for the allocation of unspecified funds to ESD for redevelopment planning.

Krueger and other critics of the legislation are right to suspect that Cuomo wants to build more skyscrapers around Penn Station, and their concerns about eliminating avenues for local input are well-grounded, but they are wrong to oppose significant new development. New York City needs more offices, hotels and housing; the city’s centrally-located regional transit hub is exactly where they should go. The real risk is not that too many tall buildings will go up, but that Cuomo’s desire for a monument to his achievement will overshadow the more important work of making Penn Station function better for daily riders.

The earlier draft legislation provides a clearer picture of Cuomo’s true ambitions for the area. The governor has previously hinted at his preference for state government leadership in the redevelopment of the Penn Station neighborhood. In his May 2017 presentation on renovating Penn, he argued that the “real solution lays in (ESD) entirely rebuilding” the station. As a shortcut to bringing his ambitions about, the draft included a provision enabling ESD, the MTA or the city to bypass all municipal planning rules – including zoning laws and the uniform land use review procedure – when undertaking the redevelopment of the station and its environs.

Unsurprisingly, a blanket exemption met opposition from local elected officials such as Krueger, who would largely be cut out of the process of planning an important part of Midtown.

Cuomo’s abortive maneuver has its roots in the much more ambitious plans of a decade ago to rebuild the station and surrounding neighborhood, which fell apart in the wake of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s political demise and the financial crisis. Madison Square Garden was built on top of Penn Station in 1963, replacing the soaring spaces of Charles McKim’s grand old building with a warren of ugly, low-ceilinged areas. The original 1910 layout remains intact, and it is woefully obsolete for a station that now mostly serves busy commuter routes rather than the long-distance trains of decades past. It is entirely incapable of handling the 600,000 people per day who pass through the building and its adjacent subway stations.

The loss of the old building mobilized the nascent preservationist movement in New York City, and by the 1990s U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was spearheading efforts to rebuild an impressive new station building that would give the city a landmark to replace what was lost. In the mid-2000s, Spitzer, Vornado – the area’s principal private landowner – and Related Properties were working on a plan to move Madison Square Garden to a new location west of the Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue, which would in turn be transformed into a new station “great hall” named for Moynihan. The arena would be replaced with a large new station and retail complex. As part of the deal for the developers to pay for rebuilding the station, they would receive air rights to build multiple new skyscrapers on their adjacent lands – the “Singapore” that Krueger was concerned about.

Cuomo’s attempt to pre-emptively disarm community groups and sideline urban planners points to the possible revival of such plans. A decade ago, many locals were wary of large-scale development in the area. Preservationists were concerned about the loss of the historic Pennsylvania Hotel for a new skyscraper. Others lamented the interference with the city’s existing skyline.

The inclusion of Steven Roth, Vornado’s chairman, on Cuomo’s committee for planning the rebuilding of Penn Station is also a sign that a larger real estate development project may be in the works.

While completely jettisoning the municipal planning process would be rash and unfair to the area’s residents, the Penn Station area is ripe for densification. The station itself is the city’s largest rail hub, and the area is only a few blocks from the largest subway station at Times Square. It is far better connected than the Hudson Yards development area, immediately to the west, which only has a single subway station. Its infrastructure is also less overcrowded than the Midtown East area, which has also been the site of recent rezoning for added density.

The city and state are going to great lengths to incentivize office construction in Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center, while developers seem eager to build in the better-located Penn Station area. The need for additional hotel capacity in Midtown is evident, as New York also has the highest hotel prices and occupancy rates in the country. The aging MSG arena – the oldest in the NHL and second-oldest in the NBA – will likely not last forever on the site, and Penn Station is in need of wholesale reconstruction. The opportunity to make better use of the surrounding blocks that will be presented by the inevitable MSG and Penn Station reconstruction should not be missed.

Nevertheless, it is clearly a problem that discussions of Penn Station have too often focused on aesthetic improvements when the station has more fundamental problems that hinder its efficient operation. Some are based in jurisdictional squabbles, such as the need for Amtrak, LIRR and NJ Transit to maintain entirely separate concourses with their own information displays and signage. Allowing riders on all lines to use all available access stairs to the platforms would go a long way to reducing congestion. Other options are more complex, and transit expert Alon Levy and the University of Pennsylvania’s Design School have both discussed the possibility of significantly widening platforms, so that passengers can arrive and depart more easily than they can on the present narrow platforms. All of these changes have little to do with what’s above or around the station, and should be more of a focal point going forward.

Cost overruns on pharaonic, aesthetically-driven transit infrastructure projects, like the World Trade Center PATH hub, have also made New Yorkers wary of such massive and arguably wasteful undertakings in the future. A sharper focus on operational improvements would offer more benefits to transit riders.

Cuomo’s legislative proposal may have tipped his hand, indicating that another large-scale redevelopment plan is in the works. If the state is able to develop a good plan for upgrading the station, including necessary operating improvements, selling air rights may be able to help pay for it. Transit riders can hope that this renewed planning will bring about the operational improvements that the station desperately requires – and they should not worry if the city gets a few new skyscrapers in the bargain.

Placeholder blue outline avatar
Jonathan English
is a doctoral candidate in urban planning at Columbia University.