Can there still be hope for the 25-year-old dream of remaking Penn Station from a grim maze to smoothly operating city gateway? The Municipal Art Society think so, and kudos to them for turning up the heat to get it done.
The deux ex machina this time is the expired operating permit for the dreadful Madison Square Garden, which would seem a major roadblock to overhauling the station. The Dolan family, which owns the Garden, seeks to have the permit extended in perpetuity. Advocates would like the city not to renew the permit, which in theory would allow demolition of the arena.
I would love to see the garden gone. But that train — to use an aptly cliche metaphor — left the station when the the Dolans were permitted to sink an alleged $1 billion in fixing up the dump. (Though the remodel is well under way, not one cent of this bloated budget is yet visible to the public.)
Failing to renew the permit would only infuriate countless sports and performance fans, and would likely fare poorly in court. The right answer is to let the Dolans have another 10 years, so that the issue can be revisited in a reasonable amount of time.
In truth, Penn can be vastly improved around MSG. The ugly, useless plazas that surround the arena and the murky portal through the rapidly obsolescing One Penn Plaza office building are fair game to create expanded and more welcoming entrances and to fit in skylights, clerestories or light chimneys to help create a civilized experience for passengers.
The plan and passenger movement in the station can be fully rationalized since it runs beneath the arena. (Amtrak’s grim, low-ceilinged waiting room occupies almost all of its footprint.) The presence of MSG does not prevent rationalizing the services for Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the Long Island Railroad on a single, broad, easily navigated concourse. (Now they are balkanized in separate mazelike concourses on three different levels.) Nor does it prevent the creation of a smooth pathway from streets to platforms through several entrances on what will ultimately be four enormous city blocks.
Part of the deal the city must make, in return for extending the operating permit, is to permit anything the city wants to happen around the perimeter of the arena as long as it does impede its use or safety. And it must insist on a vastly improved flow into the arena, especially at the dreadful entry through Two Penn and over an especially ugly bridge which happens to occupy prime real estate above a no-longer-used driveway.
These are essential improvements that are also architectural opportunities. Architecturally the station could become an extraordinarily exciting gateway simply by choreographing the movement of people among station, subways, and arena into an architectural ballet bathed in gorgeous light drawn in through windows and skylights just as it was at the lamented, demolished McKim Meade & White Penn.
The other Penn wild card is the Tunnel That Christie Killed. This was the connection to New Jersey needed to handle a very large expected increase in travel demand. The grandstanding governor may have belatedly realized he shot his state in the foot, so the plan could be revived and improved — at least so that it will genuinely extend Penn, not pretend to be a completely separate station as the murdered design did.
The Municipal Art Society has asked four teams of architects to rethink the Penn plan. I hope one or more will take on the questions of the continued presence of MSG and of the location and linkage to the Penn tunnel.
There have been plenty of Penn plans. But one that took on what’s doable rather than what’s perfect could get us to greatness at last.