Building a New Penn Station? It might happen someday. ReThinkNYC offers its visions today

While the Governor and MTA appear paralyzed on the matter, advocacy group pushes three plans ahead.

| 06 Jun 2024 | 03:47

It has been a year since Gov. Kathy Hochul promised to “entertain all concepts” for rebuilding Penn Station. Since that time the state, and its downstate transit agency, the MTA, have publicly reviewed exactly none of the multiple outside proposals for transforming the station, the busiest and probably the worst rail station in north America.

Transit and community advocates are growing increasingly frustrated. In response, one of the principal advocacy groups, ReThinkNYC, has just released three different plans by the architect Richard Cameron for a new station, all variations on Charles F. McKim’s late, lamented Pennsylvania Station, a masterpiece of classical architecture opened in 1910 and torn down in 1963 as the railroad descended into bankruptcy.

ReThinkNYC has long called for moving Madison Square Garden and tearing down 2 Penn Plaza to essentially rebuild McKim’s original. But with the owners of the Garden and 2 Penn Plaza showing no signs of vacating, the group offered new McKim-inspired ideas that leave one or both newer buildings in place.

“In proposing Cameron’s ‘McKim variations,’ we signal no lack of commitment to seeing the original station rebuilt in its entirety and hope this idea will gain sufficient public support to become a reality,” said Samuel Turvey, chair of ReThink. “However, with so many competing interests in play, and in view of the prolonged wait for the Governor to announce the State’s intention for the site and her promise to consider competing designs, we decided to experiment with our charter and produce these images.”

Turvey gave a hat tip to other outside groups who have offered their own proposals for Penn station, including the Italian developer, ASTM, and the Grand Penn Community Alliance.

“While we wait for the Governor to indicate her thoughts, we note that Alex Washburn of the Grand Penn Community Alliance has a proposal that would retain 2 Penn Plaza but not Madison Square Garden,” Turvey noted.

“Accordingly, we now have an entry that leaves 2 Penn Plaza in place. Vishaan Chakrabarti/PAU and HOK propose a design on behalf of the engineering firm ASTM that leaves 2 Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden in place. We also include an entry that has these same dynamics. We want the public to have more choices not less.”

The redevelopment of Penn Station and its neighborhood is one of the most complex development challenges in the city’s history. Originally, Governor Andrew Cuomo had proposed funding part of the rebuilding by skimming revenue from ten super-sized office towers to be built around the station.

The neighborhood never liked this plan and then the principal property owner, Vornado Realty Trust, which among other things owns 2 Penn Plaza, said the post Covid office slump makes new construction unlikely for now.

This prompted Governor Hochul to announce last June she was “decoupling” the Penn Station remake from the redevelopment of the neighborhood. She said she would find the money elsewhere. It was at this same new conference on June 26 of last year that she said she was eager to entertain all proposals.

But since then, the MTA has continued with an internal planning process based on a master plan drawn up by the three railroads that use the station: Amtrak, which is the owner; Long Island Rail Road; and New Jersey Transit. An MTA spokesperson said he had no update on when outside groups, like ReThinkNYC or ASTM, might be invited to submit proposals.

The entire issue is further complicated, dramatically, by New Jersey Transit’s forecast that population growth on the west side of the river will drive a major increase in the number of trains it needs to run in and out of Penn Station. Amtrak is currently building a new tunnel under the Hudson, the first new rail tunnel under the river in more than 100 years, that will double capacity into the city.

But there is no place to put those trains in Penn Station now, meaning that a new train hall above the tracks will need to be matched with a reconfiguring of how the tracks and trains themselves operate.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak want to build a new station just south of the present station to accommodate more trains, an idea community groups oppose because it would destroy more than a full city block.

Turvey and others have proposed an alternative, known as through-running, which they say would increase the capacity of the present station by running commuter trains through from Long Island to New Jersey and vice versa, instead of terminating in the present station. The railroads have said they doubt through-running can produce enough new capacity but are studying the question.

These questions of the station’s habitability and capacity are being handled separately.

While the building of a new train hall is under the management of the MTA, the issue of how more service will be accommodated– whether through a southern expansion, through-running or other solutions– is being directed by Amtrak and Jersey Transit.

“We don’t think ceding this to the railroads is working,” Turvey said.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy, which among other things opposes the destruction of the block south of Penn Station, recently lead a coalition of groups, including ReThinkNYC, in a call for the appointment of an independent commission to review all the interrelated challenges of Penn Station and make recommendations.

“We want to restart a public dialogue on Penn,” the President of the Landmarks Conservancy, Peg Breen, told her members in a message. “We want an independent peer review committee to assess both sides and let the public know which side is correct. Billions of public dollars are at stake, along with homes, livelihoods, and historic assets surrounding the station.”

A similar approach recently produced a consensus plan for the redevelopment of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

“A truly independent process will be crucial to resolving these issues and building trust with the public, who happen to be taxpayers and funding all this,” Turvey said.