Among those who care about this sort of thing, the destruction of the old, grand Penn Station is considered one of the greatest crimes of Robert Moses’s reign as New York City’s building-knocker-over-in-chief, even though Moses himself had less to do with it than did the station’s owner, the Pennsylvania Railroad. To look at pictures of the old building, which came down in 1963, it’s easy to see why people like Jane Jacobs — the loudest voice, as per usual, in the upswell of public sentiment against the destruction — hated the demolition so much. And of course anyone who has been in the new Penn Station, which went up in 1968 and boasts a freaking Houlihan’s as its defining stylistic grace note, knows well how poorly that decision worked out. But while the current Penn Station stands out as one of Manhattan’s most easily improvable spaces — dial back the smell of old fried things 20%, swap out the depressing-industrial-basement lighting, and you’re there! — the process of actually improving upon it has been a decades-long study in frustration, indecision, mega-developer grandiosity and general failure. For nearly a decade, now, New Yorkers have known what the new Penn Station would look like — the design, by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, has changed somewhat since 2001, but not all that much — as well as where it would be and even what it would it would be called. The biggest question, though, and the only one that truly matters, was when the planned Moynihan Station in the old John A. Farley Post Office, across Eighth Avenue from the present-day Penn Station, would actually happen. And no one has ever really had a good answer for that one.
The last few years have been interesting ones for the station, as a hilariously grandiose boom-market plan to surround Moynihan Station with a totally reasonable six new-construction high-rise office towers was first held up by State Assembly capo Sheldon Silver and later obliterated by reality in the form of waning interest and, more practically, the real estate and credit crash. In 2009, Sen. Charles Schumer began angling to get $100 million in federal transportation stimulus funds for the project, and planning on a new, scaled-back, multi-phase development — in contrast to the boom-era one, in which those six high-rise office towers would spring from the earth around the station like glassy toadstools, to be instantly be filled with financial types — began to come together.
In the first phase, Amtrak would move to the Farley building, while the LIRR and New Jersey Transit would remain in the old, smells-like-sad-pretzels Penn Station. It was not exactly the revolution in urban planning initially discussed, but certainly a start. The Friends of Moynihan Station (band name?) website describes it thusly: “[Phase 1] is to build new entrances to the platforms through the northeast and southest corners of the Post Office, to double the width of the West End Concourse and 33rd Street Connector, provide 13 new ‘vertical access elements’ (escalators, elevators, stairs) to the platforms, and other infrastructure upgrades. Phase 1 will begin construction by the end of 2010 and should be completed by 2015.” Again, this is a $267 million project to expand some platforms and underground concourses and build some escalators — not necessarily the most exciting news on its own, and not necessarily the sort of thing you’d ordinarily read about in gbNYC, especially considering that even the most grandiose plans for Moynihan Station (puzzlingly) never included any green design elements. But, as the FoMS website concisely puts it, “It is a prerequisite to Phase 2.” That would be when things really get interesting — Phase 2 is the billion-plus dollar part of the project, in which a new, “intermodal” mixed-use station is constructed, featuring new retail, the grand hall depicted above, and all the other stylistic flourishes one expects from a grand big city train station designed by a big-ticket architecture firm.
And while the funding for Phase 2 is nowhere to be found at present, the fact that both funding and approval for Phase 1 appears set is newsworthy enough in itself. The state’s Public Authority Control Board approved Phase 1 of the Moynihan Station project on Wednesday, which finally lent a bit of momentum to a project that had been fully stalled for nearly a decade. “With each additional approval (of which there are many), it’s actually looking like the project, which would eventually move Amtrak into the Corinthian column-lined Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue, will see the start of construction,” Eliot Brown writes in the New York Observer. “The approval was for $267 million in infrastructure construction that would expand a concourse and complete ventilation work–most certainly not the sexiest or visually appealing part of the project.”
One could argue that all this doesn’t mean all that much, given that Phase 2 is still something of a longshot unless and until the flat-broke state government — or a Congress hobbled by appallingly cynical and risibly shameless faux-deficit hawks on one side and weenies of only the vaguest principle on the other — can turn up $1-to-$1.5 billion for an eminently worthy transportation project of the kind that people used to believe it was the state’s job to fund. Brown aruges as much in the Observer, writing that, “on its own, this probably isn’t worth $267 million in value for riders, as the spending rests on the assumption that the state will eventually find money for the rest of the project.” Phase 1 will certainly relieve the hellish congestion at Penn Station, though — no word on the sad pretzel smell, alas — and that’s not nothing. And while we don’t like to deal in sports section cliches here at gbNYC (I save that for my actual sportswriting), there is one other benefit that Phase 1 would confer — a fundamental and important momentum that makes Phase 2 seem possible.
Even without any green design elements, Moynihan Station and improved commuter and AMTRAK rail service would obviously confer a huge environmental benefit not just to New York City but to all surrounding areas. And from a more Manhattan-centric perspective, Moynihan Station would do much to improve the already surging fortunes of the previously sagging Hudson Yards area. Factor in expanded 7 train service on the west side (one, and possibly two, new stations coming in 2013) and a crop of planned and extant new rental and condominium construction — including the Related Companies’ blockbuster LEED rental building, Emerald Green — and greater Hudson Yards could become a very interesting neighborhood indeed. Anyone who remembers that neighborhood from even a few years ago might find that hard to imagine, and anyone who has followed Moynihan Station’s glacial progress over the past two decades surely finds it difficult to imagine the prospect of a Farley/Moynihan building as a neighborhood jewel. But both those former long shots have become a bit easier to imagine of late, and that’s something worth celebrating — and not entirely because it would mean retiring both the current Penn Station and its panoply of depressing odors.