Penn Station post Cuomo

Empire Station Complex, blue; Penn Station behind proposed new towers. (Community Board Five)

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.

Rebuilt Penn Station. (by Jeff Stikeman for the National Civic Art Society)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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14 Responses to Penn Station post Cuomo

  1. LazyReader says:

    Lots of buildings that go up, it’s poor design that doesn’t embrace community. Even a touch of classisicm can change WHOLE design.
    modern:

    Classical

    Like

  2. Daniel Morales says:

    Glad you’re calling attention to this. They are slowly erasing New York’s special character with this neo-bauhaus stuff

    Like

  3. LazyReader says:

    The United States has the most efficient and productive railroads in the world. Not coincidentally, the United States also has the most private railroads in the world. Other than Canada, almost every other country that has railroads has nationalized them. Private railroads operate with very different goals from those that are owned by the government. Private railroads seek to maximize profits, and to do so they must be as efficient and productive as possible. Government-owned railroads seek to maximize political popularity, and to do so they must favor actions that are highly visible and often are highly inefficient and unproductive because economic costs translate into political benefits Which is why our passenger railroads suck.

    the destruction of Penn station was unfortunate, it was not a case of it outliving it’s usefullness. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in a heap of financial trouble. It is more than $40 billion in debt; it has a $60 billion maintenance backlog; plus it has more than $20 billion in unfunded health care obligations. Maintenance backlogs are harder to find as government agencies don’t want to admit they’ve been neglecting their physical infrastructure. The bottom line is that rail transit is extremely expensive and the city should have replaced the subway with rubber tire metro years ago.

    Rebuilding Penn Station by would cost $3.5 billion, Money New York doesn’t have.

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    • Costly, Lazy, but more costly not to rebuild the station – all the other options would be as or more costly but would all bring terrible results, equivalent to doing nothing at all. The subway works, if only they could bring its operations under control. Mass firings at the upper levels no doubt would be as helpful as they would be impossible.

      Like

    • thenerdysaxophonist says:

      I should mention that the 1st Transcontinental Railroad was built with government funds, and Washington’s railroad stations were demolished and unified into a Union Station with government funds also.
      Also, do you remember the Beeching Cuts? Those happened because Dr. Richard Beeching wanted British Rail, the government-owned rail system of Britain, to be profitable.

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  4. Pingback: Penn Station post Cuomo | MIDTOWN SOUTH COMMUNITY COUNCIL

  5. thenerdysaxophonist says:

    I’m worried about 2 Penn Plaza remaining in place, even if Penn Station does get rebuilt. ReThink Penn Station’s website says, “If Two Penn Plaza does stay in place, there is ample space around it on which to build the exterior of the station. Thus, the Seventh Avenue portico would be rebuilt as it was. At the same time, Two Penn Plaza would be re-clad with stone to make it architecturally harmonious with the classical station.” Even with the re-cladding, I think that a 2 Penn Plaza atop a rebuilt Penn Station would look rather…….goofy.
    Page 32 of Volume 45 of Munsey’s Magazine (https://books.google.com/books?id=XsTNAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA32#v=onepage&q&f=false ) shows what Grand Central Terminal would have looked like if Warren and Whetmore and Reed and Stem decided to add an office tower on top of the Main Concourse. It looks weird, and I think that keeping 2 Penn in place would look similarly weird.

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    • I’d be worried about that too, NerdySax, but I wouldn’t for a minute consider it an obstacle to moving forward with that plan. Maybe they can find a way to take it down, or maybe, if it must be included, it can be reclad in a way that makes it less obnoxious. If it must survive, it must be accepted, but we cannot know at this point how rebuilding Penn will be configured, so it might possibly be got around somehow. As goofy as it might look (and I do not concede that the Munsey image is necessarily goofy, clunky as it might have been), it is far better than what is there today.

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  6. John the First says:

    This article reads like being entangled in an institutional-bureaucratic-corporate web of complexity. Too many governers, corporations, institutions, networks, industries and etc. What you need out there need is a king and some small network of wealthy funders, it’s much easier than this democratic, corporate, institutional mess.

    Like

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