Stairway to where exactly?

| 24 Nov 2023 | 02:17

It would be a clear case of New York jadedness to call the spanking new Seventh Avenue entrance to Penn Station a stairway (and escalator and elevator) to nowhere. But it is a stairway to a place that may cease to exist within a few years.

The new Seventh Ave. entrance that just opened is thus an avatar for the strangely tangled saga of Penn Station, where half-century old architecture and development mistakes are, just perhaps, in the process of being unwound, but in a backwards sort of way.

Political and real estate luminaries celebrated the opening of the new entrance the other day. It was hard to blame them. The new Foster + Partners glass canopy brings light shining down into the dank caverns of Penn Station in a reminder, faint as it is, of the original Pennsylvania Stations soaring halls and windows.

The demolition of that landmark station in the 1960’s is the “original sin” that lead to the current plight of Penn Station. The Pennsylvania Railroad, in its long slide to bankruptcy, tore down the station and sold the land from the street up to build Madison Square Garden and two office towers.

That left the train station in the cramped basement. This may have seemed ok at the time, with cars ascendant and rail service in decline. But now, three times as many transit passengers pass through the station every day as were expected back then and, even after covid-19, ridership is expected to grow in the years ahead.

Most everyone agrees the station needs to be fixed.

But who will fix what, and in what order, and in what way?

Ah, there is a Rubik’s cube of a question. The superblock between Seventh and Eight Avenues from 31st and 33d Sts, the site of Madison Square Garden AND Penn Station is probably the most complicated property in all of New York, which likely makes it one of the most complicated properties in all the world.

Here is just one example. Try to move the bridge that connects Seventh Avenue to Madison Square Garden, as one plan for a new station proposes, and the ice the New York Rangers skate on may melt, The Garden warns.

It gets more complicated from there. Amtrak is building a new tunnel under the Hudson which will, in the next decade, allow more trains. But Penn Station, as currently configured, and operated can’t handle those trains. So where will they go?

Those are a lot of moving parts, to say nothing of moving trains.

But while everyone argues over what kind of station to build, various incremental improvements have been made to the current station. Of course, the new Moynihan Train Hall now serves Amtrak, Penn Station’s owner but smallest user, by passenger load.

The Long Island RailRoad, run by the MTA, rebuilt its passenger corridor along the north side of the station, including a considerably improved entrance form 33d street and Seventh Avenue.

Which brings us back to the improved street level entrance that just opened on Seventh at 32d street. The design for this new entrance was paid for not by the Railroads but by Vornado Realty Trust, which owns the office building that towers over Seventh Avenue there.

That building, erected at the same time as Madison Square Garden, is so old it needed a refresh, and Vornado decided a new entrance, which descends under 2 Penn Plaza should be part of the plan.

“Together,” said Vorando’s CEO, Steven Roth, “we have reimagined and transformed one of the world’s busiest transit entrances.”

The challenge is that the reimagining and transforming of the rest of the station is lagging behind. So the three escalators, stairway and ADA accessible elevator–which short circuited only days after the ribbon cutting and had to be closed for repairs–descend to a mezzanine level that the major plans for rebuilding the rest of the station propose to demolish.

That mid-level is a major reason the station feels so cramped. Getting rid of it will allow the station to be opened up with higher ceilings and a glass roofed train hall that will replace a taxi way abandoned after 9/11 for security concerns.

Amtrak says unequivocally that the new Seventh Avenue entrance will, ultimately, be connected to whatever renovation is undertaken for the rest of the station. But other players don’t speak with such certainty.

“The Penn Station reconstruction project remains in the design stage,” said a spokesman for the MTA, which is in charge of that renovation for the railroads.

Renderings of that renovation are posted prominently on Governor Kathy Hochul’s website. They show entrances to a renovated Penn Station from both 31st street and 33d street, part way down the block from Seventh Avenue.

They do not show a Seventh Avenue entrance at all, which does not mean there can’t be one, one official close to the planning said. Just that it is not currently in the plan.

“Is it impossible the physical entrance that just got built could then drop to a step down that drops to another step down that has stairways to lead to the lower level,” the official asks. “Yea, its not completely crazy to think that could happen. But its not in the renderings.

Even the floor it goes to isn’t in the renderings.”

The image of left hand and right hand comes to mind.

And then on the third hand, there is the plan by the private developer, ASTM, which calls for a grand entrance on Eighth Avenue, accomplished by demolishing the Theatre at Madison Square Garden.

The MTA has argued against this plan on the grounds that the majority of Penn Station users enter from Seventh Avenue, although it is not clear how that will effect their thinking about preserving the new Seventh Avenue entrance that is not currently in their renderings.

The landlord of 2 Penn, who paid for the design although not the construction, offered a pragmatic view that with future plans still in the works, “there was a clear and urgent need to expand the station’s busiest entrance and to upgrade its safety and accessibility.”

These reconstruction projects take years, a Vornado spokesman said, “so the redevelopment of PENN 2 was an important opportunity to seize.”

Penn Station, to paraphrase an observation once made of New York City in general, will be a great place if they ever get it finished.