The campaign to “Rebuild Penn Station” is now being assaulted by a confluence of political power and real estate interests. Critics (including this writer) of Gov. Cuomo’s recent flimsy counter-proposal to renovate the existing Penn Station point out the governor’s “plan” is nothing more than a visual band-aid. Cuomo’s scheme neither gives back to New York the noble public space it lost in 1963, nor does it solve the current abysmal conditions suffered by rail passengers.
Worst of all, Gov. Cuomo’s idea depends upon private developers to pony up about 90% of the cost of this public project. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to recognize that when private developers have this much skin in the game, the public interest will be dumped into a distant back seat.
Despite many obvious flaws in Gov. Cuomo’s proposal, the real estate publicity machine is pounding out ever-louder drumbeats of support. For example, an article in the NY Daily News applauds the modest scope of Gov. Cuomo’s proposal and declares – without a hint of irony – that “Penn Station doesn’t need to be beautiful.” (Happily, that cynical assertion was quickly refuted by Justin Shubow of the National Civic Art Society.)
Then there’s the issue of functionality and passenger environment – which can only be solved by moving Madison Square Garden. MSG squats on top of the current Penn Station – occupying the space from sidewalk level up. All rail passengers are thus funneled into a dismal warren of underground passages. New York’s City Council recognized the need to move MSG when in 2013 it extended the Garden’s license to operate at its current location for only 10 years.
However, the owners of MSG don’t want to move – and Gov. Cuomo clearly doesn’t want to butt heads with them. To support MSG’s right to stay put, NYU’s Rudin Center (named after real estate mogul Lewis Rudin) has dutifully come out with a report asserting it would cost too much and be too inconvenient to move the Garden.
The need to move MSG is encountered daily by rail commuters who are quite specific about the grim realities they face. The much-heralded Moynihan Station won’t help commuters at all. Moynihan Station -- at a cost of around $1 billion -- will serve only intercity Amtrak passengers. Amtrak accounts for just 40,000 riders per day – a tiny fraction of the 600,000 daily users of Penn Station. (The balance is made up of New Jersey and Long Island commuters.) So Cuomo’s proposal devotes roughly 35% of the total project budget to serve just 7% of Penn Station’s users. The remainder of Cuomo’s renovation budget would be used merely to add entrances and more daylight into an existing Penn Station passenger concourse – minor cosmetic improvements.
New York’s civic leaders have a once-a-century opportunity to transform Penn Station into a source of civic pride and a transportation hub that really works. But it will take enormous political will to make it happen. However, with Gov. Cuomo’s decision to go for smoke-and-mirrors rather than a fundamental makeover, it looks his political will has vanished on the 6:15 train to Babylon.