Pressure Mounts on Gov. Hochul to Develop New Plan for Penn Station

The old plan is dead but the path forward is not clear and local businesses are worried anew that they may be forced to move.

| 29 Sep 2023 | 02:17

A coalition of civic and community groups pressed Governor Kathy Hochul to get more directly involved in determining the future of Penn Station, complaining that the present process was rife with “conflicting information, and confusion, about what is happening and what could happen at Penn.”

The coalition, composed of 21 groups ranging from Community Board Five to the Landmarks Conservancy, framed their appeal to the governor as a request for transparency and engagement on three crucial questions about the design of a new station, the operations of the railroads that use it and the future of the plan for developing office towers in the surrounding neighborhood. But implicit in the letter was the idea that only the Governor could bring coherence to the separate activities of the three railroads and multiple government agencies that all have a hand in the future of Penn Station.

“She is the elected and enough of her constituents want to know what they are getting for the billions involved,” said the organizer of the letter, Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Responding to the letter, a spokesperson for the Governor said: “Governor Hochul remains committed to revitalizing Penn Station and will continue to work with stakeholders to deliver a station worthy of New York.”

Part of the challenge is that what a New Yorker might think of as the Penn Station project is actually several separate but interrelated decisions, each under the supervision of different agencies. The MTA for example is in charge of renovating the existing station. But Amtrak and New Jersey Transit are overseeing whether to expand that station when the new “gateway” tunnel under the Hudson increases traffic into the station.

In the meantime, a private company, Madison Square Garden Entertainment, holds the decision of whether to move the famous arena, which impinges on both the question of renovating the station and expanding it to handle more trains. The City Council recently gave Madison Square Garden a limited extension of its permit to operate the arena, saying this would give the railroads and the Garden a defined amount of time, five years, to work together on a larger plan.

“There has been an absence of ownership of the entirety of the Gateway/Penn Station project,” said Samuel Turvey, chair of ReThink PennStation NYC, who helped draft the letter to Hochul. “There is need for accountability and leadership which could most naturally come from Governor Hochul.”

The tangle was well illustrated just last week when the New York Post reported that the railroads who use Penn Station had analyzed three-multi billion dollar plans for expanding, two of which would require demolition of a city block or more to the south of the station.

Janno Lieber, chair of the MTA, was asked if this report meant that the railroads had concluded that a proposed alternative, known as through-running, in which the railroads integrate their operations so more trains can pass through the present station, had been eliminated as an option. He gave a one word answer: “no.”

But he then referred further questions to Amtrak and Jersey Transit, which declined to comment. “We are not involved with the design of the Penn expansion project,” Lieber explained. “It is underway. It’s the project of Amtrak and New Jersey transit. The expansion, if and when it happens, is a Gateway second or third phase project and we are not involved with that.”

When a reporter suggested to Lieber that the Long Island Rail Road, an MTA operation, was as integral as New Jersey Transit to the question of through-running, Lieber said only that the MTA was consulting with the other railroads as part of a required environmental review.

Through-running was one of the three topics raised in the letter to Governor Hochul.

“Many experts support through-running to expand capacity, but prior documents from the railroads have dismissed it as not feasible,” the letter said. “Yet, another analysis of through running is being conducted now by the railroads. The public deserves a full explanation of why it is or isn’t suitable, with all studies released in full to the public, including detailed information about their methodologies. ”The civic groups also pressed the governor on the debate around designing a new station, in which a private developer from Italy has directly challenged plans drawn by the MTA itself: “Will there be a public bidding process for the design? Will the State comment on the other designs that have been made public? The MTA has announced its own plan. How would that coordinate with a new design? With the future of Madison Square Garden’s location in question, how will any plan accommodate for its potential move?”

A state official noted that architects picked by the MTA in a competitive process had been instructed to proceed with a preliminary design for Penn station, which will “inform an RFP for public bidding, which is expected next year.”

Finally, the civic groups demanded to know why the Governor had not abandoned the so-called General Project Plan for multiple office towers around Penn Station, a proposal Governor’s Hochul’s predecessor had developed with the largest property owner in the neighborhood in part to help pay for renovating Penn Station. A judge last week rejected community efforts to shut down that plan.

“You publicly ‘decoupled’ the GPP from Penn improvements,” the letter to the Governor said. “Yet Judge Billings’ decision noted that Empire State Development said the State is in talks with Vornado about certain sites. To what benefit, if there is no longer a connection to Penn? Why does the State still keep the GPP when other plans for Penn do not? Why has the GPP not been withdrawn?”

When she said in June she was “decoupling” Penn Station renovation from the GPP, which has been delayed by the downturn in office use, Hochul stressed that this did not mean office towers would never be built. “We have 600,000 people that come through here [daily], it makes sense for them to be able to work in the same place where they commute to,” she said at that time. “So, we'll get that done over time, but I no longer want that to be a delay, a delay to this process, which is moving forward today.”

The letter to Hochul concluded: “The loss of historic Penn Station left a scar that generations have tried to heal,” the letter said. “If this is the moment when this loss is rectified, NewYorkers must be a part of that discussion. We look forward to a robust public dialogue that leads to the Station which New York needs and deserves.”

Here are the 21 groups that signed the letter to Hochul: Art Deco Society, City Club, CNU NYC, Community Board 5, Council of Chelsea Block Associations, Environmental Simulation Center, Historic Districts Council, Human Scale NYC, Limited Equity and Affordability at Penn South (LEAPS), MidTown South Community Council, Murray Hill Neighborhood Association, New York Landmarks Conservancy, Penn Area Residents Committee, Preservation League of New York State, ReThinkNYC, Save ChelseaTake, Back NYC29th Street Block Association, Union Square Community Coalition, Untapped NYC, Victorian Society

“The loss of historic Penn Station left a scar that generations have tried to heal. If this is the moment when this loss is rectified, NewYorkers must be a part of that discussion.” A group of 21 civic and community groups calling on Gov. Hochul to reexamine the Penn Station plan.