By Lynn Ellsworth And Samuel A. Turvey, Co-Coordinators, Empire Station Coalition
The original Pennsylvania Station was designed by Charles F. McKim, a partner at the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, legends in their own time, having received commissions for buildings of considerable consequence from far and wide. Mr. McKim was in fact busy on a redesign of the White House for President Roosevelt, when he was summoned to Philadelphia to meet with Alexander Cassatt, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, America’s largest and most important company.
When service began in the autumn of 1910, Penn Station was immediately regarded as one of the finest buildings ever constructed. It was a majestic awe-inspiring space that elevated the most common among us—providing a truly triumphant entrance to American’s most important city. The station’s demolition in 1963, is to this day, regarded as an epic civic crime and an unprecedented architectural desecration.
While politics and money played roles in 1963, the fact remains there was no mechanism in place at the time to prevent a private company from doing what it wished with their property, no matter its role in the civic zeitgeist. The roiling irony of this is that the demolition of Penn Station gave birth to New York City’s Landmarks Commission which went on to save Grand Central, the Empire State Building, Central Park, and many others.
What does it take to kill off bad ideas? Terrible idea number one: Amtrak, the MTA, and New Jersey Transit want to demolish a big chunk of the historic part of the Penn Station neighborhood via eminent domain, especially targeting the block south of the current station. They want to build an expanded underground Penn Station there and then cover up the mess with very tall glass towers. Terrible idea number two: the country’s third largest real estate trust – Vornado – wants to violate our city’s zoning code and build ten towers (eight of them supertalls) for Class-A office space. These will be scattered around the current Penn Station and cast shadows as far as New Jersey. The buildings’ developers will get to make payments in lieu of taxes for a period of 40 to 45 years. Vornado’s CEO, Steven Roth, has admitted in the past that he deliberately blights neighborhoods to get more out of government. In this case, he’s doing it to the Penn neighborhood to get his own version of Hudson Yards, one that will be built-out over 16 years after he demolishes the historic Hotel Pennsylvania. Given that the project was greenlighted by ex-Governor Cuomo after getting nearly $384,000 in donations from Vornado, and that the current Governor, Kathy Hochul, has received nearly $210,000 from the same donors, the justifications for all this are insulting to the public’s intelligence: the neighborhood is “blighted”; there are too many working-class people in the Penn neighborhood’s Irish pubs not earning Facebook salaries; and we need Vornado’s speculative rents on the new towers to fix up Penn Station. We are not kidding.
To be fair, important people have seen through this nonsense. The Public Advocate [Jumaane Williams] has condemned the project as have the community boards. The Independent Budget Office says the financial projections are entirely mysterious and impossible to evaluate. ReInvent Albany called it “a massive public subsidy in disguise to Vornado.’‘ Senator Brad Hoylman called it a “land grab.” He and Senator Liz Krueger called for “slamming the brakes on the project.” Justin Davidson called it “the worst kind of urban renewal.”
But none of that has killed off the project. Neither has our loud coalition of 15 neighborhood and civic organizations from around the city. We have consistently called for chucking the project and studying the obvious, neglected alternative. That alternative is a non-demolition plan that evicts nobody, builds out within the existing generous zoning allotment in the Jane Jacobs manner, thus reknitting the Gotham city of yore into the existing historic fabric, and maintaining a reservoir of affordable Class-B and C office space. That kind of office space benefits the universe of small business that now occupies the old garment buildings, from theater companies to music studios to therapy offices. This alternative doesn’t require demolition of people’s homes, as increased capacity at Penn Station can be achieved through Rethink NYC’s extensively documented through-running plan for the trains and tracks. Icing on the cake for this alternative would be moving Madison Square Garden (even the owners have considered that in the past) and rebuilding an above-ground station in its place, as Penn Station will never be world class as long as it is underground. Sounds rational, right?
So why are the powers that be still allied with Vornado instead of the citizens of New York City?
A recent study commissioned by Reinvent Albany, a state government watchdog group, estimated that the payments in lieu of taxes would amount to about $4 billion, a number that assumed a southern expansion of the station to accommodate more tracks when a new Hudson River tunnel is built several years from now. That expansion, which is in initial discussions, is projected to cost an additional $13 billion. The funding agreement still needs final approval from the state’s Public Authorities Control Board, which oversees project-related financing for the state’s public authorities.
A lawsuit is trying to throw the Pennsylvania Station megadevelopment off the rails. Penn Community Defense Fund, ReThink NYC, the City Club of New York and the residents of 251 West 30th Street, a building that would be demolished under the project have sued Empire State Development (ESD), accusing ESD of breaking environmental regulations to push the renovation of Penn Station forward. The suit criticized ESD for failing to lay out how the general project plan would actually cover the state’s share of the $7.5 billion price tag. It also claims that ESD violated New York state law when it separated the environmental review of the general project plan from the review of the entire redesign of Penn Station to hurry up the approval process. The suit also claims ESD is allowing Vornado Realty Trust, the owner of much of the land slated for development, to improperly influence the redesign’s funding plan.
On Halloween, Vornado’s Steve Ross began to back off. He told the press that “I must say that the headwinds in the current environment are not at all conducive to ground-up development.” His opaque remarks on the Penn District’s future came less than a week after the lawsuit was filed. The overall message of Roth’s call, however, centered around a shifting leasing market with tenants taking less office space. Vornado leased 229,000 square feet in New York City alone in the third quarter, below previous trends, Roth said during the call.