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Op-Ed by MAS Chair Fred Iseman: Redevelop Penn Station Without MSG

Glorious.

Glorious.

Published in The Daily News, February 1, 2016 View the original »» Unsafe, grossly inefficient, and asphyxiated by Madison Square Garden, Penn Station was built in the 1960s as a sorry proxy for the grand Roman rail-temple designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1910. The philistines who tore down the old Penn Station believed that cars and planes were the only future of transit. Sixty years later, the northeast region’s powerful economy depends heavily on rail travel, which is now channeled through a stygian labyrinth underneath the Arena. Some 650,000 daily passengers on Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, Long Island Rail Road and the subways need wider, safer platforms and unfettered access to the transit maze below. And New York City needs a train station worthy of New York. Last month, Gov. Cuomo presented what he called “a transformational redesign of New York Penn Station.” He is soliciting bids for a public-private partnership to end this “blight on the greatest city in the world.” Respondents are asked to consider specific design changes, including new entrances and closing 33rd St. between 7th and 8th Aves. to create skylights. Most dramatically, the RFP asks developers to redevelop the James A. Farley Post Office, both the imperial front building and the annex behind. Also by McKim, Mead & White, Farley looks out in silent rebuke across 8th Ave. at the stupifyingly banal complex designed by Charles Luckman Associates. To nudge contestants in the right direction, the governor provided drawings. These present future travelers bathed in ethereal light gliding through new halls and retail spaces. Very nice, but not enough.
Terrible.

Terrible.

Where Cuomo’s proposal falls short is that it fails to separate Penn Station from Madison Square Garden. The two have nothing to do with each other. Would we put Yankee Stadium on top of Grand Central? Both should be great civic spaces. And if they will not be separated in this new vision of the key nexus, when will they ever be? The permit to operate MSG runs out in seven years. It was awarded in 2013 to the Dolan family with the understanding that 10 years did not mean forever. Removing the Garden, in fact, is essential to accommodate another grand project coming on line in the future: the Gateway rail tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey. There is no point in settling for half measures. In 2007, developers created a plan to liberate Penn from its jail and repurpose the Farley building as the new MSG. This proposal had broad support from crucial partners including Amtrak and the Dolan family — but was derailed by politics, money, the sudden departure of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer and some preservationists — including our own Municipal Art Society — who were concerned about alterations to the landmark post office. We’ve changed our mind. For instance, in sketches of the time, a barrel-vaulted arena fit snugly into the annex, but required removing the west wall of Farley to accommodate ticketing, retail, restaurants and Amtrak. A single wall in a virtually empty building should not thwart sensible change. This is a moment to seize. The Garden is the oldest arena in the NHL and second oldest in the NBA. Even after recent renovations, it’s no match for its new local rival, the Barclays Center. Meanwhile, the West Side of Manhattan is exploding. First, the High Line; now, in a few short years, the Hudson Yards redevelopment site near Penn Station will decant thousands to new apartments, offices, shops, public parks and the new Culture Shed. The governor can redeem New York’s sinful 1963 demolition of Pennsylvania Station by envisioning a new and equally glorious station for the 21st Century — and an Arena that stands on its own. Then and only then will the old Penn Station not have died in vain. Iseman is chairman and CEO at CI Capital Partners and chairman of the Municipal Art Society of New York.