Gov. Kathy Hochul has promised “a new era” in New York after a yearslong rivalry between her predecessor and former Mayor Bill de Blasio plagued relations between Albany and City Hall. In yet another effort to distance herself from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Hochul has rolled out a revamped version of his much-hated revitalization plan for Penn Station, a proposed overhaul of the historic train hub and a transformation of the nine blocks surrounding the Midtown station.
But the New York City reception of Hochul’s more modest version has been unenthusiastic at best, and now the project is testing Hochul’s partnership with Gracie Mansion.
Mayor Eric Adams has said little publicly about Hochul’s scaled-back Penn Station proposal, but signaled on Tuesday that his administration is not fully on board with the project in its current form. In a letter to the Empire State Development Corp, the agency tasked with executing the project, the mayoral-controlled City Planning Commission denied approval, citing concerns with financing, public engagement and inadequate open spaces for pedestrians. The letter was signed by Planning Commission Chair Anita Laremont, a de Blasio appointee who is slated to be replaced by Adams’ pick, former Council Member Dan Garodnick.
“The Commission supports the goals of (Hochul’s version of the plan) and is excited to correct historic developments and shortsighted design decisions of the past,” the letter states. “However, there continue to be unanswered questions including but not limited to the financing of this ambitious plan.”
Empire State Development can legally move forward without planning commission approval, but doing so would be an unprecedented move.
The state’s plan centers on the redesign of the existing station, plus a new nine-track station one block south of Penn Station, along with the construction of 10 privately developed commercial and residential towers on eight surrounding sites.
Cuomo’s plan called for revenue from the development of the 10 new towers to be used for the new station, along with other improvements. Hochul, however, has prioritized the Penn Station renovations and construction of the 10 new buildings over the additional train station and long-awaited construction of the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River. Her plan also reduces the square footage of the new towers by about 7%, according to The New York Times, and calls for about 30% of residential units to be affordable housing.
Adams is a strong proponent of the Gateway Tunnel, but it’s unclear how he feels about Hochul putting it on the back burner.
The City Planning Commission forecasted a price tag between $30 billion and $40 billion and said it will not approve the plan until the structure and terms of the financing are “concretely resolved.”
The planning commission’s denial came as welcome news to community leaders who have called for more public input associated with the separate “Penn Station Master Plan” being formulated by the MTA, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. That plan addresses the renovations inside of Penn Station and long-term expansion of the transit hub, including the Gateway Tunnel and potential new train station. Hochul’s plan, dubbed the “General Project Plan” focuses on enhancements to the surrounding area, including new entrances and public open spaces, plus the 10 new buildings.
The lack of transparency regarding the “Penn Station Master Plan” was a point of contention addressed by the letter. “Those discussions are not public, and it is not clear to the Commission how the Master Plan is integrating to (Hochul’s plan for Penn Station),” the commission wrote.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who has called for the project to be subject to approval through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, applauded the Adams administration for withholding planning commission approval, while reiterating the information gaps.
“No development should skirt the City’s land use process. This is especially true for a plan being pushed by the NYS Governor,” he Tweeted Tuesday. Williams is also running for governor in the Democratic primary against Hochul.
Layla Law-Gisko, the chair of the community board that represents the area and who is running for the Assembly on a platform that hinges on her Penn Station activism, called the planning commission’s hesitation “a big step in the right direction.”
“Let’s be clear . . . The Penn Station project is being undertaken by a separate agency, and these plans are not being made public,” she said in a statement.
In addition to the transparency issues, fears that the neighborhood would be overtaken by shiny new skyscrapers, turning it into a Hudson Yards 2.0, have become a major sticking point for community leaders who have waged an opposition campaign against the project.
The planning commission also expressed concerns related to bicycle and pedestrian access.
ESD spokesperson Matthew Gorton said the agency is “encouraged by the Commission’s support for our collective goal, and as is routine with all projects, we are going to continue to work with the Commission” along with “Mayor Adams’s Administration, and all stakeholders to make sure the world’s busiest transit hub is also the world’s best.”
"The plan’s smart growth focus on transit-oriented development, public realm improvements, additional open space, and increased transit access will transform the area’s neglected business district, vastly enhance the commuter experience and provide a foundation for sustainable growth for the City and the broader region,” Gorton added.
Adams’ office also promised collaboration with the state on the project and said through a spokesman “the city supports the state’s proposal for substantial new density along with transit and public space improvements around Penn Station, an area long overdue for upgrades. The City Planning Commission offered thoughtful input as part of an ongoing, collaborative process aimed at making the plan the best it can be.”
State Sen. Brad Hoylman – who proposed legislation to require the plan go through the land-use review process and sent a letter to the city’s Independent Budget Office asking it to assess the financial implications – said he “appreciate(s)” the letter from the City Planning Commission and is “confident” that the state will work with local leaders to iron out the details.
“I'm glad there's a new state administration, which makes I think many of us feel more comfortable about the process, and a new city administration that I think is going to step up to the plate and demand New York City's involvement in this process,” he told City & State. “The de Blasio administration took a pass and let this happen under Cuomo’s reign without a peep.”
Additional reporting by Zach Williams
This story has been updated to include comment from Empire State Development Corp. and Mayor Eric Adams' office.