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Penn 2023: Making the Case for a New Penn Station, MSG, & Midtown West

This past summer, after the City Council voted to limit Madison Square Garden’s operating permit above Penn Station to ten years, the Municipal Art Society of New York and the Regional Plan Association charged four architecture firms (SOM, H3, SHoP, and Diller Scofidio) with imagining a new Penn Station in the context of a broader plan for Midtown West. Now, in the first of a series of reports that will build on those efforts, MASNY and RPA’s Alliance for a New Penn Station organization has released an important overview of twenty-first century New York City’s most important planning and infrastructure challenge in a report titled Penn 2023: Envisioning a New Penn Station, the Next Madison Square Garden, and the Future of West Midtown.

This initial report (available here) sets forth key arguments for a new station in a compelling statistical context. For example, Penn Station has seen a 26 percent increase in LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak passengers over the last decade. And NJ Transit passenger traffic is still expected to increase by 28 percent by 2030. But each of these railroads are already operating at capacity and two of the three (Amtrak and NJ Transit) share just one, century-old tunnel in and out of Manhattan (with dim prospects for additional capacity via the ARC thanks to Chris Christie’s “unsound and deceptive” 2010 decision to kill that important project). Yet overall Northeast Corridor passenger traffic is expected to grow from 13 million to 23 million by 2030. So what’s most compelling is how Penn 2023 casts he arguments in favor of a new Penn Station as underpinning much broader regional issues that impact the quality of life for millions of people from Boston to Richmond, Virginia.

The report also makes a strong case for replacing Penn Station based on its safety hazards alone. For example, the station’s 1100 columns (that support the 20,000-seat Garden above) punch all the way through to subgrade platform levels, choking passenger flow and preventing meaningful renovation or expansion efforts. Plus, the station was only built to accommodate 200,000 passengers daily – not the 500,000 that pass through today, 70 percent of whom enter through just two entrances: on 34th Street at 7th Avenue and the other at 7th Avenue and 32nd Street. Each is overwhelmed by an incredible 8200 and 10,200 people, respectively, every hour during peak morning commutes. So it’s not a matter of if, but when, Penn Station in its current configuration becomes not just a hindrance to New York City’s economic development but a public safety hazard. Many – ourselves included – would argue that’s already the case.

Still, there is some hope on the horizon. Amtrak’s Gateway project – which would build a new concourse and tracks just to the south between West 30th and 31st Streets, served by a new rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River – coupled with the first phase of the Moynihan Station project on the other side of 8th Avenue – are underway, but a long ways from completion. If realized though these projects would do much to relieve existing Penn Station congestion and accommodate additional capacity. But meaningful, transformative change can only take place if Madison Square Garden moves and the entire station is rethought.

To that end, the Alliance’s subsequent reports will focus on reviewing potential sites for a new Garden (several of which we’ve suggested here previously) and detailing the economic feasibility and financial and real estate-related benefits of a new Penn Station in more detail. So far this latter rationale has been mostly overlooked. For example, according to Cushman and Wakefield, the Penn Station submarket has the highest vacancy rate in Manhattan. Its outdated office stock, dingy streetscapes, and lack of retail opportunities and cohesive planning vision are placing New York City at a competitive disadvantage, particularly as other global business centers – like London, Hong Kong, Paris, and San Francisco, among others – have used reconfigured, world-class transit stations as catalysts for new business district developments. In that context, we were also pleased that Penn 2023 calls for sustainability and advanced building technologies to be a priority in the submarket’s redevelopment.

Penn 2023 is an important first step towards continuing to build public consensus (74 percent of New Yorkers support building a new Penn Station) and a cohesive planning vision around what the report describes as “the critical infrastructure project of our era.” Indeed, Pages 18 and 19 of the report provide an overview of all the development that will take place across Midtown West – from Hudson Yards and Manhattan West to the planned and ongoing infrastructure improvements, underscoring just how important that consensus will be. The future of the West Side is an important topic for us here at gbNYC+ for these and many other reasons, so we’ll be following it closely here in the months ahead.

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