Lynn Ellsworth testified at last Thursday’s public hearing of the Empire State Development [ESD] Corporation. Ellsworth coordinates a group of organizations that opposes former Governor Cuomo’s (and now Governor Hochul’s) illegal plan to demolish the area of historic buildings around Penn Station and then erect a forest of towers that would damage New York City in a manner similar to the demolition in the 1960s of the original McKim Mead & White Pennsylvania Station, whose reconstruction is part of a comprehensive alternative proposal supported by the coalition. I have republished her brief testimony below as a guest post.
I’m Lynn Ellsworth, a coordinator of the Empire Station Coalition. I’m an economist and I specialize in economic development. I believe that the project concept and the choice of project site violate the UDC [Urban Development Corporation] Act [of 1968].
Section 2 of the enabling legislation for the ESD tells the agency to find urban areas that are economically suffering, that lack public transportation, are isolated and abandoned, where there is widespread poverty and “substantial unemployment,” where the buildings are “obsolete, abandoned, inefficient, dilapidated and without adequate mass transportation facilities.” The ESD is told to “to develop rental housing that is affordable to persons of low income” and to seek out urban places where there is an “unavailability of private capital.” But none of that describes the Penn neighborhood which is awash in private capital and sits on top of a massive transit network in the middle of the densest county in the entire country. The CEO of Vornado crowed about this in his annual shareholder letter and I quote:
“Day and night, the Penn District is teeming with activity. Our assets sit literally on top of Penn Station, the region’s major transportation hub, adjacent to Macy’s and Madison Square Garden” (Vornado’s Letter to Shareholders 2020)
Vornado Real Estate Trust chairman Steven] Roth repeats that the area is “teeming with traffic and our retail does really well there” and tells us that it has “the highest growth opportunity in our portfolio” He explains that the Hotel Pennsylvania was highly profitable before Vornado warehoused it.
It is circular reasoning to claim that if an area does not show constant demolition and rebuilding with Class A office space, that it is therefore “stagnant” (in the words of the Neighborhood Conditions Study). Since when is a Class A office monoculture the apex outcome for cities? As urbanists have long explained, successful cities require great diversity of office space, kinds buildings, industries, residents and incomes (Jane Jacobs 1992; Sorkin 1994; Sassen 2001). Urban success is destroyed when monocultures of any kind become dominant. Yet the ESD’s logic is that if market forces have not already demolished a neighborhood and replaced it with taller Class A buildings, then the ESD should use state power to force that result “river to river” in the words of an EDC spokesperson. By what legitimate theory of economic growth is that the case? If we apply that reasoning to the rest of the city, all of Manhattan would be demolished and rebuilt every ten years.
ESD also rhetorically equates the “age of buildings” with the words “obsolete” or “outmoded”. This is utter nonsense. The White House is over 200 years old. Should it be demolished?
The ESD bases this project in a discredited hyper-gentrification strategy, that of the “luxury city” model. It fails to provide a credible economic development strategy for working-class people, entrepreneurs, start-ups, or small businesses – all of whom currently thrive in the area. Instead, the ESD seeks to kick them out. Since when is the ESD directed by law to serve large corporations and the high-wage gentry class instead of everyone else?
— Lynn Ellsworth