Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, effective in one week, could provide an opening to rebuild Penn Station as designed by architects McKim Mead & White in 1910. Is the next governor, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, of a mind to support the plan? No one seems to know. First, she would have to stop Cuomo’s plan to expand rather than rebuild Penn Station and demolish up to 50 buildings, including the Hotel Pennsylvania, the Stewart Hotel and the Church of St. John the Baptist – all to make way for 10 towers in the so-called Empire Station Complex, a congestion magnification scheme facing broad opposition and unlikely to win city votes for whomever runs for governor next (including Hochul). She has a lot on her plate.
Also unknown is the view of Eric Adams, the city’s presumptive next mayor, whose campaign focused on NYC’s largely self-inflicted crime wave. Bringing common sense back to law enforcement in the Big Apple is certainly key to any redevelopment plan hopeful of success.
The many public advocacy groups opposed to the Empire Station Complex should join together and place the plan to rebuild Penn Station at the center of both their publicity and political strategies. Unity around a proposal of such likely popularity could have a profound force-multiplication effect.
An opposition umbrella group, the Empire Station Coalition, held a forum Aug. 13 to discuss the situation. It may be seen on YouTube. The 12 organizations include ReThinkNYC, whose plan supports the proposal to rebuild Penn using the MMW blueprints within a broader proposal to bring through service to the station and rationalize regional rail service. And it includes Human Scale NYC, which was founded by panel moderator Lynn Ellsworth, who told the audience:
[T]he real-estate industrial complex of our city has pretty much taken it over. Through campaign finance contributions to our politicians, to ownership, or the regulatory agencies getting their appointees on board, to organizing the legal or legislative systems so that the governor, mayor have all the power.
Ellsworth suggested federal intervention as a possibility, perhaps through President Biden’s transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, and the looming billions of a proposed federal infrastructure bill. New York state legislation to subject the Empire State Development Corporation and its Empire Station plan to the city’s authority (from which it is now exempt) is another option.
With or without the sensible Regional Unifed Network (RUN) proposal offered by ReThinkNYC, the proposal by architect Richard Cameron of Atelier & Co. to rebuild Penn Station using Charles Follen McKim’s design would sell itself easily to any New York leader truly intent upon prioritizing the public interest in beauty and economic growth. It is feasible both practically and financially. It would remove Madison Square Garden from atop Penn Station and rebuild it nearby. The plan envisions redeveloping much of the area to expand the neo-classical feel of Penn Station into a global entertainment district appealing to the traditional architectural tastes of the public. In short, it’s a plan for the people of New York rather than for the owners of Vornado Real Estate Trust, who own most of the property now targeted for redevelopment under the Cuomo plan.
You’d think that as she prepares to govern with an eye to re-election in a year or so, Kathy Hochul would want to run as fast and as far as she can from Cuomo’s priapic Empire State Complex. That means she ought to run in the direction of rebuilding Penn Station, undoing what Ada Louise Huxtable called the greatest cultural crime in American history – the 1963 demolition of the original station.
As historian Vincent Scully notably stated, “One entered the city as a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” That’s not just a big problem for the city but for the nation and even the world. The first female governor of New York State could be the one who fixes that problem.