Critic’s Notebook: Cuomo Has the Opportunity to Fix Penn Station, but Will He?

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About 650,000 daily passengers, a number equivalent to the entire population of Boston (and steadily rising), use the station entombed below Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. They ride Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, the subways and New Jersey Transit.

Mr. Cuomo’s plan entails hardly more than cosmetic changes to the station. His big idea is a new train hall across the street, in the James A. Farley Post Office Building, to serve Amtrak and provide passengers some access to Long Island Railroad. The plan promises the governor a shiny new building to show off in 2020, a presidential campaign year.


Penn Station, which accommodates about 650,000 daily passengers, needs major improvements. Credit Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

According to an Empire State Development study, however, only about 20 percent of Penn Station’s daily commuters will end up using the Farley building. Most will still suffer the existing chaos. And Farley does almost nothing to prepare for the still-needed new Hudson tunnels. In effect, the governor wants to slap a two-car garage onto a dilapidated split-level and declare the property good as new.

There is a history of politics trumping responsible decision-making when it comes to regional infrastructure. After 9/11, George E. Pataki, New York’s former Republican governor, steered plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center in the wrong direction to suit his own White House dreams. Given the choice to do the right thing for Lower Manhattan or do something quickly, he repeatedly chose short-term gain over long-term vision.

Some years later, new tunnels didn’t serve Governor Christie’s political ambition. He was eyeing the White House, too. Tunnels were costly and took too long to build; so instead he squandered tunnel money on highways. Those tunnels would nearly be built by now, had he stuck to the plan. Like Mr. Pataki, Mr. Christie ended up a joke candidate, and the public, a big loser.

Now it seems to be Mr. Cuomo’s turn. His Farley renovation is a step in the right direction. But he has brushed off more sweeping proposals that might tackle once and for all the whole panoply of problems that plague Penn Station.

It is widely known, for example, that Vornado Realty Trust, a major developer that jointly won the bid to redevelop Farley with Related Companies, has spent years working with architects, planners and city officials on ways to improve public spaces, circulation and safety in and around Penn Station, where the firm owns a great deal of property. Vornado played a role in having the city create a pedestrian plaza on 33rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues — a highly popular move and boon to the area.

Vornado also came up with a design for a new entrance to Penn Station along 33rd Street. Those who have seen the plan describe dramatically increased space for passengers to access and exit the hub where congestion is the worst. At the same time, the proposal is said to bring natural light pouring down to the underground dungeon, widening a major, crowded corridor for commuters, and helping orient travelers now lost in a low, miserable, windowless warren.

But the governor has declined even to make public Vornado’s proposal or one reportedly submitted to him by JDS Development Group, another real estate company. His fix for the existing trouble beneath the Garden widens that same underground corridor — but without making it any easier for people to get in or out of the station, a root cause of overcrowding and stampedes. Instead of natural light, he envisions LED screens on the ceiling, displaying puffy clouds and blue skies.


The James A. Farley Post Office Building, across from Penn Station, where Mr. Cuomo plans to build a train hall. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

As Vishaan Chakrabarti, a New York architect, recently put it: “I think people would rather see an actual blue sky than one on TV.”

Vornado, according to people who have reviewed its plan, proposed splitting costs between the company and the public. State officials working under Mr. Cuomo have argued that developers making money by leasing retail space at Penn Station should be able to pay for improvements themselves, a concept that smacks of President Trump’s fantasy of the private sector alone solving the nation’s infrastructure crisis.

Mr. Cuomo, as Mr. Christie did by rejecting the tunnels, can insist he is saving the public money and simply being pragmatic in declining Vornado’s more ambitious plan. Companies should contribute their fair share. But the public is mostly paying for the revamp of Farley, which will cost $1.6 billion and still not solve the station’s biggest headaches.

The biggest of them all remains Madison Square Garden, which, sitting atop the rail hub, smothers its real future. Mr. Chakrabarti has a way to repurpose that aging arena: Strip it down and create a glass pavilion for a newly light-filled train station. A new Garden could then be erected inside Farley, beside Amtrak. Sooner rather than later, the Garden’s owners, the Dolan family, will need a better arena, and the chance to move next door will be gone. Mr. Chakrabarti has said the Dolans expressed interest in the proposal, which need not undermine Mr. Cuomo’s Farley makeover or Vornado’s proposed intervention along 33rd Street. All three plans could, and should, work together.

But Mr. Cuomo seems to have dropped the ball with the Dolans, too.

There is the added complication of Gateway, the latest plan for passenger tunnels under the Hudson, which awaits federal funding and will require an expansion of Penn Station along 31st Street, a prospect the Farley project hardly begins to address.

Gateway is the nation’s most pressing infrastructure project. Millions of lives and a big chunk of the country’s economy depend on it. A chastened Mr. Christie is suddenly singing the tunnels’ praises, whispering their urgency, or so he says, in President Trump’s ear. Steven Roth, the founder and chairman of Vornado, is an old friend and adviser to Mr. Trump on infrastructure. He understands as well as anyone both the need for Gateway and an improved Penn Station.

This situation presents Mr. Cuomo with a unique opportunity. Mr. Roth, James L. Dolan and he can tackle the whole of Penn Station. They really don’t need anybody else in the room.

They can all benefit by so doing, none more obviously than the New York governor, who could become a true political legend by — and this is what matters most — delivering the public what he promised, which Farley alone won’t achieve: a 21st-century station finally worthy of this great city.

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