At the 2014 Summit for New York, the Municipal Art Society and Regional Plan Association presented the latest development in their Penn 2023 campaign to remake Penn Station. The 42-page report, Madison Square Garden: Shaping the Future of West Midtown, highlights two options for the future of the station and arena, along with a feasibility study for turning the surrounding neighborhood into a cultural district. The first option, presented as the ideal scenario, would relocate Madison Square Garden one block southwest, replacing the Morgan postal facility on a site bounded by Ninth and Tenth avenues between 28th to 31st streets. Without the arena above it, Penn could rise above street level, restoring a semblance of what was lost when the original was demolished in 1963.
A second option, developed for MAS & RPA by architecture, design, and consulting firm Woods Bagot, was presented as the backup if the first option’s “grand bargain” to move MSG can’t be reached. It focuses on reconfiguring the complex at street-level to create an entrance hall for Penn Station. Woods Bagot’s website says the proposed hall would be as large as the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal, contain retail and dining, and extend around the arena to the station’s Seventh and Eighth avenue entrances:
Director Jeffrey Holmes discussed removing the theater that sits under MSG on the Eighth Avenue side and opening up that facade to be a big entrance hall with steps down to the concourses. The floor of the arena, which is currently elevated, would serve as the hall’s ceiling. A similar move could apply to Seventh Avenue, resulting in a more prominent entry hall there, too, which would “open up the center of the site” and bring light down to the concourse level.
The multi-level, glass-enclosed expansion flows around the arena and 2 Penn Plaza tower, framing a second, east-facing entry hall on Seventh Avenue and bringing street-activating retail and dining to the block’s north and south edges. The four-story-tall expansion mirrors the civic scale of the Farley Post Office, recalling the cornice line of the historic Pennsylvania Station, and supports a new rooftop public garden. The arena, which gains additional program space as part of the expansion, is clad in reclaimed timber to complete the “new” Garden.
The “grand bargain” proposal to move Madison Square Garden and rebuild Penn without the arena above it is visionary, but a brand-new, above-ground station building doesn’t fix the most urgent issues with Penn Station. Worse yet, it could divert attention and resources from them at a time when the region can’t afford to wait. The century-old North River Tunnels are already operating over capacity, and the brackish water that inundated them during Hurricane Sandy has caused deterioration that may force Amtrak to shut them down for repairs. Any disruption in service to the only intercity rail tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey would be felt along the entire Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington, and as far west as Chicago.
Furthermore, Penn station itself is trifurcated into three separate passenger environments, which inhibit smooth passenger flow, complicate transfers between Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and New Jersey Transit, and make an already limited underground space even more congested and unappealing to travelers. As the new towers at Hudson Yards open over the next five years, their residents and workers will put additional strain on the existing station and tunnels, long before the vision of a new Penn Station is realized. These problems are too critical to wait for the “grand bargain” to become reality.
Woods Bagot’s proposal, by contrast, appears significantly more feasible and politically practical. It would address several of the station’s most critical needs–street presence, passenger flow, lighting, seating, and access to tracks–in a much shorter timeframe, and at lunch lower cost, than relocating the Morgan postal facility, building a new MSG, and demolishing the current arena, just to reach the point where a new Penn could be built. It would also be more palatable to the Madison Square Garden Company, because it preserves the $1B invested by the company between 2010-2013 to modernize The Garden.
MAS and RPA’s successful 2013 campaign to limit The Garden’s operating permit to ten years put its owner on notice that staying put wasn’t a given, and was a major victory for political awareness of the critical problems surrounding Penn Station. Now it’s time to use the leverage gained from that victory to engage MSG, city and state politicians, and the three transit agencies that occupy Penn to make the Woods Bagot proposal and Amtrak’s Gateway tunnels a reality well before 2023.
Update: Cap’n Transit suggests converting the Farley post office building into a new bus terminal:
We know that there’s a shortage of places to catch a bus in Manhattan, particularly near the Lincoln Tunnel…There is a lot of space (with skylights!) inside the old building where the postal trucks used to go, and more along the sides…You could even build a flyover across Eighth Avenue, or maybe even an underpass next to the train tracks, if you wanted to spend some money. Back inside, there are big open spaces for concourses.
The Port Authority is seeking funding to build a bus storage facility on land it owns between 40th and 41st streets between 10th and 11th avenues:
In March, the Port Authority applied for a grant from the Federal Transit Administration to construct a bus facility on the Galvin Plaza site. This grant would help fund a one level facility for bus parking and staging, with direct access to both the Lincoln Tunnel and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, reducing the need for buses to enter the local street network. The proposed bus annex would have 112 highly flexible storage spaces that could be used for either bus parking or bus staging and as possible swing space for the PABT during its reconstruction/rehabilitation.
Imagine if intercity and long-distance bus service was moved from PABT to a new bus terminal at Farley/Penn. This would free up capacity for local and commuter bus services, currently subject to quickly-compounding delays during morning and evening rush. Popular, low-cost services like Bolt Bus and MegaBus could be moved from their makeshift, on-street pickup points to the new terminal, improving the street-level environment around Hells Kitchen and the emerging Hudson Yards neighborhood. The Port Authority’s proposed bus storage facility would be in the vicinity of both PABT and the Farley building, so it could provide bus layover space for both terminals. Together, a renovated PABT, new layover storage facility, and intercity bus terminal at Farley/Penn could form a long-term, dynamic solution to Manhattan’s bus capacity needs.