This Train is Not Ready to Leave the Station: Why the State Must Rethink the Plan for Penn

(GOTHAM GAZETTE)  Tony Simone, May 13, 2022

New York State’s plan to reconstruct and expand Penn Station through a complete redevelopment of the blocks surrounding the station will have one of the most transformational effects on our community for the next century. The current station is the result of one of the worst planning decisions ever made in this city: razing the architectural marvel that was the former Penn Station and replacing it with the claustrophobic underground maze we deal with today. It is critical we use this moment to be bold and commit to a new station that New Yorkers 100 years from now will be proud of.

More than a year after the announcement for a new Penn Station and the accompanying above ground redevelopment, we still do not have an actual transportation plan. What we have is a real estate plan that will completely reshape the area around Penn and not necessarily for the better. Our local elected officials, working with the community and other stakeholders, have won changes to the plan from Governor Hochul and Empire State Development but agree more must be done. While the new — but not yet final — plan includes new affordable housing, it is paltry in scale and is proposed for blocks that may not even be developed. 

The plan relies almost entirely on large new commercial towers to finance the project. A recent analysis by New York City’s Independent Budget Office shows that Empire State Development still has not provided details on how the financing for this massive project will be structured, how much revenue would be collected from the new development, and what will happen if revenue falls short of the project cost. It is appropriate for government to fund large infrastructure projects and we should be able to take pride in that. But they must be managed properly and result in a world class upgrade – something New York isn’t always great at. Creating an opportunity for private development to subsidize public infrastructure projects can be beneficial, but only when the public interest is prioritized and comes before real estate coffers are lined through the ability to build new buildings.

Over a year after the project was announced, details are still in short supply. While new development should factor in future commercial growth, a diversity of development that includes housing as well as Class B and C office space for small businesses will create a more secure financial deal for taxpayers while protecting the needs of the local community. Relying on private development to fund infrastructure projects is never ideal and New York State should also aggressively pursue the maximum amount of federal dollars and ensure New Jersey pays its fair share.

Streetscape improvements surrounding the station must be bold and progressive. They must incorporate global best practices for urban planning, create open space, prioritize pedestrians, and connect into the community. The city can make these changes to the streetscape today, and it should, with a robust community engagement process. 

The buildings around all of this must be cohesive and not only planned for the interior experience, but relate to the space outside, too. This must not be another Hudson Yards. But if nothing is done about the giant elephant sitting on top of all of this, Madison Square Garden, these public spaces will be obstructed by the logistical needs of the Garden just as they are today. That is not acceptable. A final plan can only claim to improve the surrounding area if ESD brings the Garden to the table and at minimum requires operational changes.

The plans to renovate and expand Penn Station will soon undergo review through the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA requires the state to propose and examine alternative plans, and the plan to expand the station by razing the block south of Penn in order to add new platforms has an alternative that must be given a thorough examination. The state must pursue  a path to increase station capacity without using eminent domain that would displace local residents and businesses.

One alternative that will be examined is transforming Penn Station from a terminal where rail lines end to a “through-running” station, where trains coming from either direction would continue through Penn as if it was like any other station. This way, a rider heading to Queens from New Jersey would stay on their train through Penn rather than changing to a different train on a different network run by a different agency. Cities around the world from Philadelphia to Paris have transformed their transit networks to through-running with great success, and New York should follow their lead. Through-running would require fewer platforms and transit experts say Penn would not need to be expanded to the south under this plan. 

One of the challenges a through-running plan faces is the fractured nature of the transit agencies that utilize Penn Station. Between Amtrak, NJ Transit, the LIRR, and eventually Metro North, there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen. Penn needs a head chef. The dysfunction of having three disconnected commuter rail lines is an unacceptable situation for a 21st century city and region, and is holding us back from planning a new Penn Station and truly improving our transit system.

While it may be idealistic to think we can unite the rail lines under one agency, it is a conversation that needs to happen. Governor Hochul can break through the dysfunction facing the Penn Station renovation by appointing a singular head to coordinate and manage the entire project. This person will have the power to break through a singular agency’s self-interests and also be held accountable for promises made to riders and the local community, as was done for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center via the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

If we don’t seize this opportunity to rebuild the world class Penn Station that we deserve, we will have failed yet another generation of New Yorkers. They will look back on leaders of this time the way we view those who demolished the original Penn Station: with shame and disgust. 

City residents deserve a transportation hub that seamlessly connects them to the surrounding region. The local community deserves streetscapes that benefit them and new development that meets their needs. Commuters deserve not to spend every day in overcrowded and oppressive passageways and platforms. New York must deliver a better, bold vision for Penn Station, because the current plan can’t yet leave the station.

Tony Simone is a Hell’s Kitchen resident and candidate for State Assembly in the 75th District. On Twitter @tonysimone.

Source: Gotham Gazette