RETHINKNYC, Sam Turvey, March 31, 2023

ASTM’s Plan, a proposed Penn Station still below Madison Square Garden, joins three other above-ground alternatives to the present Penn Station basement makeover plans and is included in two photo essays below.

The alternative plan for Penn Station proposed by a subsidiary of the ASTM firm and announced recently in the New York Times(Dana Rubenstein, Stefanos Chen) is a significant improvement over the existing plan, especially as it requires no neighborhood demolition for funding, but many questions remain unanswered.

Transit Considerations: The ASTM Plan, while perhaps not part of its specified charter, does not resolve our need to keep pace with projects like London’s Elizabeth line, the Métro extensions in Paris or similar transit modernizations in Madrid, Philadelphia and Toronto. More on this to follow.

Train Station Components/Natural Light: To its credit, the ASTM Plan expands the existing mid-block train hall and increases the natural light flowing into it, among other positive improvements to the present plan. It further increases natural light by inserting a floor-to-ceiling window in the station’s Eighth Avenue facade (the window’s size is limited by the presence of Madison Square Garden’s mechanical services). It is not enough.

Moving Madison Square Garden?: The ASTM Plan leaves Madison Square Garden in place.  We stand by the need for a great above-ground station that does not have to perform a contortionist’s act to fit—Rubik’s cube-style—under Madison Square Garden or 2 Penn Plaza. Madison Square Garden is an aging arena with many logistical challenges caused by the fact that the arena floor is on the fourth story.  It is the oldest arena in the NBA and second oldest in the NHL.

Sooner than its owners want to admit publicly, they will be looking for a new home. It would be tragic if we were to spend billions of dollars on a compromised Penn Station under Madison Square Garden only to have it move a few years later.  The time is now for Madison Square Garden to proceed to its next great and even better home and allow us to have the train station the city, state and region deserve.

Neighborhood Impact: The ASTM Plan implies no need to demolish the neighborhood for funding. We hope it is the end of the perverse notion that Penn Station improvements can only be financed through the sacrifice of its established urban context. We need to retire the tactic of imposing draconian, 1950s-style urban renewal demolitions on the false pretext of blight. This approach was at the core of New York State’s General Project Plan (GPP), now, with any luck, a dead letter.

We need to explore creative ways to fund infrastructure without decimating neighborhoods or throwing our zoning laws out the window. The residents, small businesspersons, and parish communities in Midtown West deserve to have the terrifying shroud of uncertainty lifted.

Questions to ConsiderConcerning ASTM’s Plan for an improved Penn Station, a number of fundamental questions remain:
Do we want to give New York the new commuter and intercity rail paradigm it needs for the balance of this century and into the next?

Do we want to hitch our star to the ghastly MSG/Penn Station hybrid that was a lousy idea when it was new and is nearing its use-by date?

Do we want to spend billions and compromise the largest transit hub in the Western Hemisphere by shoehorning it underneath an aging and antiquated entertainment complex?

Where is the modernized transit plan based on high-speed rail and through-running, upon which the future of the city, state and region depends?

How is New York to compete with peer cities, domestically and abroad, that now routinely adopt these strategies?

Will the new station accommodate through-running in the current Penn Station and Moynihan footprint, which could save as much as $8 billion, or will we allow bureaucratic inertia and the failure of Amtrak and the commuter railroads to “get along” to prevail and cause us to hardwire station operations to the inadequate and dangerous 1910 platform arrangement?

Will the blocks south of Penn Station, including Block 780, still need to be demolished in yet another “big dig” for a superfluous, wastefully expensive and dated subterranean terminal supposedly convertible to through-running—with any luck—by 2080, and only if and after we build additional tunnels in the East River?

Will New York State’s demolition plan, the universally denounced GPP—which most have long cited as a developer giveaway—be withdrawn as it should be, or will Vornado or some other developer be left with an option to demolish much of the neighborhood whenever it sees fit?

Where is all the glass surrounding the station referenced in the New York Times headline? Very little of the proposed station consists of transparent glass which would allow natural light into the station.

The ASTM Plan renderings show a glass opening of apparently no more than 15% of Penn Station’s Eighth Avenue facade. This is much less than the previous renderings released by the Cuomo administration. These prior Cuomo renderings apparently ignored the presence of Madison Square Garden’s mechanicals and serve as yet another reminder to judge renderings carefully.

The mid-block train hall, while larger than the present plan, will not admit much light. It is overshadowed by 2 Penn Plaza and the Madison Square Garden sky bridge, not to mention the on-hold-for-now supertalls. It would also be cramped by Madison Square Garden’s mechanical services.

There will, in fact, be very little natural light percolating to the nether reaches of the station, unlike at Grand Central Terminal, Union Station in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station or various alternate proposals for Penn Station.

Read More: RethinkPennStationNYC