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The New Penn Station: Everything You Should Know

by Rick Anderson

Many not-so-nice things have been said of Penn Station—a good number of them unprintable—but perhaps the late architecture historian Vincent Scully said it best: “To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift,” he wrote in the New York Times in 2012. “To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.”

It’s a humiliation suffered by many: The 34th Street station, which links Amtrak, the New York City subway, the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit trains, and Madison Square Garden, processes more than 600,000 commuters each day, making it the busiest terminal in North America. While most of those have inured themselves to the depressing aesthetics, Penn Station has heaped indignities upon its users lately that go beyond its design. There was the sewage spill , derailments and, of course, the subway’s systemic failure .

But even as commuting in Gotham sinks to a new nadir, it looks like change for Penn Station is finally on the horizon.

The main waiting hall in the proposed new Penn Station.

Advocates may finally be able to marshal support for a much-needed renovation after a (mostly) failed terror plot at nearby Port Authority bus terminal last week highlighted yet another shortcoming of the station: It also isn’t very safe.

“The current station is so hard to navigate that it’s extremely dangerous,” says Justin Shubow, the executive director of Rebuild Penn Station. The group is a nonprofit affiliate of the National Civic Art Society, which works to promote and preserve classical architecture.

“There is no natural light and no place for smoke or, heaven forbid, poison gas to go,” he continued. In contrast, “the perimeter of the [original] station had granite door columns that would serve as a bulwark against vehicular attacks."

Shubow is hoping that one small upside to New York City’s current onslaught of terror acts may be that his organization’s push to redevelop the station gains steam.

The original McKim, Mead & White–designed Penn Station was demolished in 1963 to an outcry of public criticism. Erected in 1910, the building’s exorbitant maintenance costs drove the city officials to replace the Beaux Arts structure—arguably the city’s most famous lost building—with the modernist Penn Plaza that exists today.

After the original Beaux Arts structure was destroyed, in 1963, what grew in its place—a dark, squat, dispiriting place, where wayfinding is far from intuitive—helped stoke the modern preservationist movement. In fact, Grand Central Terminal, which was landmarked a few years after Penn’s demolition galvanized preservationists, owes its continued existence to Penn’s demise.

Rebuild Penn Station hopes to not just recreate the spaciousness and beauty of the pre-1963 hub but also improve upon it. Under the organization’s proposal, platforms would be widened and the number of escalators would be tripled, which should “vastly increase vertical circulation,” Shubow says. More platform space would allow some commuters to wait on the platform, hopefully ending the terrifying scramble riders currently engage in each time a track number is announced.

The proposed new concourse level with wider platforms.

Shubow thinks now may be the turning point. “President Trump has said he wants to spend $1.1 trillion on infrastructure,” he says. And what better than to restore a “crown jewel” of the nation’s financial capital? He also points out that Steven Roth, chairman of Vornado Realty Trust, a real estate investment trust that owns the Penn Plaza properties atop the station, is a close friend of Trump’s. Roth was also a member of Trump’s infrastructure council, before it was hastily disbanded in August, and is part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s task force seeking solutions for the overburdened station.

Of course, there are competing schools of thought for what should be done with the current “modernist mediocrity,” as Scully called it.

Architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, in concert with New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, has suggested a glass enclosure over a repurposed Madison Square Garden . His plan would make what Kimmelman calls “a glass pavilion, which becomes a neighborhood gathering spot.” Kimmelman suggests it would be a relatively affordable solution.

Shubow disagrees. “This is a work of technology not of art,” he says of Chakrabarti’s renderings. “It will never be iconic." Besides, New York City has enough glass buildings already in his opinion.

Travelers wait for train information in the Amtrak terminal of New York Penn Station in May 2015.

Others note that the state’s plan to move Amtrak and some Long Island Railroad trains to the James Farley Post Office next to the station, at a projected cost of $1.7 billion, is already underway and costly. The revised plan for so-called Moynihan Station (named for Senator Patrick Moynihan, who began suggesting the Post Office be repurposed in the 1990s) should ease some congestion, even as it does not expand service. It broke ground in August.

But Kimmelman and Shubow both believe that the Moynihan Station project fails to address the problem of Penn’s persistent dreariness, overuse, and malfunction. It affects only a fraction of daily commuters—fewer than 20 percent, at best.

The changes “will add no new tracks and have limited effect on the congestion and misery of Penn Station,” the Times piece says. Shubow calls the post office project important but inadequate.

“We do not need a cheap fix,” Shubow says. “We need a building that will deservedly last through the ages.”

Of course, building one of those requires political will . . . and a lot of cash. Estimates for Rebuild Penn Station’s restoration project tick in at $3 billion. And that’s just an initial guess. Construction overruns in New York City are almost as unpleasant and unavoidable as, well, trudging through Penn Station.

“Until they have construction drawings, they won’t know what the exact cost will be,” says Marty Burger, CEO of Silverstein Properties, which developed the World Trade Center complex. Plus, “there are all these agencies that have to agree for something to move ahead,” he adds.

Shubow is hopeful that a new ad campaign his group has launched will change hearts and minds . . . and that money and political will will follow. “Classical architecture is the closest thing to the architecture of democracy,” he says. “We will get the support of the 99 percent.”

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