Governor Kathy Hochul didn’t so much scale down Andrew Cuomo’s plan for redeveloping Penn Station and its neighborhood as turn it on its head.
More precisely, she reversed the order in which things would be done, and thus put the happy news of a new Penn Station ahead of the challenging politics of building ten new office towers and ripping down an entire block to make way for more tracks into the station.
Now, Penn Station will be torn open first, so light shines in and the jostling crowds can disperse through a spacious terminal as well as a new underground pedestrian system that bears some resemblance to underground Rockefeller Center, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary around when this new station complex opens. (Work began on Rockefeller Center in 1929. Governor Hochul says the new station will take four to five years, but she couldn’t quite say when groundbreaking would be).
The governor, two months in office, announced her plan at a news conference that allowed her to display her almost Reaganesque instinct for morning in, well, New York City, in this case.
“Today we are talking about bringing sunshine, happiness to New Yorkers. Because they deserve better,” she said, displaying pictures of the cramped passageways of the current station and the crowded sidewalks above, juxtaposed against renderings of the airy new station.
“I want them to experience light,” her reverie for commuters continued. “I want them to experience an uplifting feeling that they are not getting right now ... It’s a new day, my friends and it’s time for a new Penn Station.”
This new station, she said, should be renamed for a New Yorker rather than, as she put it, a “neighboring state,” although Pennsylvania station was actually named for a defunct railroad that was centered in that neighboring state (and which, tellingly, only an upstate New Yorker would call a neighboring state).
In any case, to get back to the central point, Hochul’s attention to the feelings of New Yorkers, to say nothing of their political representatives, was a striking departure from her predecessor, who had outraged the Midtown West community by trying to strong-arm through his plan, a real estate redevelopment bigger than Hudson Yards to the west.
When last heard from on this topic, the late Cuomo administration was urging West Siders to accept his massive redevelopment plan whole, suffering through the demolition of an area just south of the station to make way for more tracks coming through a new tunnel from New Jersey and then, at the end, somewhere in the 2030s, they would get an improved station.
To get them to swallow this cod liver oil approach, Team Cuomo warned that billions in federal transportation money would be lost if the plans were not approved, an argument last heard on the West Side in support of the ill-fated Westway project more than a generation ago.
There was none of that strong-arming from Hochul. Her staff, lead by Kathryn Garcia, former mayoral candidate and now Hochul’s director of state operations, consulted extensively with local elected officials and community leaders. The so called “Gateway” tunnel under the Hudson will still be built and carry more trains that will need more tracks, requiring the demolition of the block of buildings and a venerable church south of the station, Hochul vowed.
Also, the ten office towers will still rise, to the relief of Vornado Realty Trust, the developer and major contributor to the Cuomo campaign, although the new Hochul plan will trim total square footage back by 7 percent and include affordable housing and more public park and open space.
But the most dramatic and politically potent point was the new order of construction. Giving West Siders and commuters to the West Side the new station first. Gone was the old argument that approving the plan was crucial to getting the Federal money. Hochul acknowledged she had not yet pinned down financing. But she said she was confident Amtrak would pony up to help rebuild the station, of which it is technically the landlord.
She also said the development of the new office towers was still needed to generate revenue for the overall plan, including the local funds to match federal dollars for the tunnel and tracks. Cuomo had argued the revenue generating parts had to get underway before spending on the new station could go forward.
Hochul said not to worry. She’s got this. As she said, “a new day.”
Local officials generally praised the revised plan. “I’m extremely pleased to see the long overdue reconstruction of Penn Station as the central focus of Governor Hochul’s revised Empire Station plans,” said State Senator Brad Holyman, whose district surrounds the station.
Many were just as admiring of the deft way the new governor produced it. “I thought it was brilliant, actually,” said Gale Brewer, the outgoing Manhattan Borough President and incoming City Council member. “I like how she’s going about these things.”
Brewer was among the many officials who embraced that this new plan was the start of a process, not the end of one. “I will continue to work with her, community members, and my colleagues in government to ensure the best possible design for the new Penn Station,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney.
There was some dissent. Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of the land use committee of Community Board 5, said she was not among those consulted and thought the new plan still failed her test of moving Madison Square Garden and running new tracks right through from the Long Island Rail Road to New Jersey Transit.
“Let’s get Penn reconstruction right. Move MSG, do thru running and you won’t need to use eminent domain. We don’t need a land grab. We don’t need another Hudson Yards.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler said: “I applaud Governor Hochul for understanding how vital Penn Station and Gateway are to the region, and providing clear direction that the transportation aspects of this project must come first. I look forward to working with the MTA, Amtrak & New Jersey Transit on how to turn this new momentum into a consensus-driven Penn Station design and shovels in the ground.”
“I will continue to work with her, community members, and my colleagues in government to ensure the best possible design for the new Penn Station.” Rep. Carolyn Maloney