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April 2008
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Archive for April, 2008

Mosaic Benches at Grant’s Tomb, A Place That Matters

mosaic benches grants tombIn the early 1970s, as vandalism and graffiti threatened to engulf the 1897 memorial to General Grant in Riverside Park, the National Park Service had an interesting idea. Rather than try to protect Grant’s Tomb by building a fence to keep people away, why not make the austere memorial and nearby residents feel more like neighbors? The Park Service collaborated with the organization CITYarts to work with artists, architects, and community volunteers to create something wonderful on site. Continue Reading>>

Getting the Word Out to Penn Station Commuters

people crossing walking street midtown smallAround 500,000 people travel through Penn Station each day and, as the New York Times recently editorialized, these “veteran commuters deserve some hope that the new Moynihan complex is not just another urban fantasy.” To that end the MAS has been distributing our spring program brochures and chatting it up with Penn Station riders. We’ll be there again next Tuesday – and we would really appreciate your help. Last week, we distributed several hundred MAS spring program brochures outside Penn Station during the evening rush hour. As one staff member offered each person a brochure, she asked, “Would you like a better train station?” “God, yes!” said one woman. “Of course!” said another. “Do you think it can happen?” asked a businessman. The staff member told him about Jill Jonnes’s recent talk concerning the tremendous obstacles that were overcome when the first Penn Station was built. “Things were no easier then,” she said, paraphrasing Jonnes, “we just have a different set of problems today.” A few people walked by, then doubled back to get a brochure once they understood the message. Please join us in Penn Station next Tuesday, May 6, and volunteer a bit of your time between 4:30 – 7:30 p.m.

NBC News: Amtrak Boom Hampered by Infrastructure Problems

On Tuesday, the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams ran a segment on Amtrak’s rising popularity and the challenges it faces as it looks to improve and expand its existing lines. This includes an expansion of the popular Acela line and a “wish list” of expansion projects – including expanding the Northeast Corridor to Charlotte. But much needed infrastructure improvements to existing services are severely threatened by the lack of support from the federal government. “For the cost of 2 or 3 highway interchanges we could develop a corridor between two major cities,” said Alex Kumant, Amtrak CEO. The segment was part of an ongoing NBC series on America’s infrastructure crisis, an issue frequently discussed on this blog.

Horrible Train Stations: NY Penn Still on Top

Last week we posed the question: “What Train Station is More Horrible Than Penn Station?”
Penn Station has been described as confusing, menacing, and inhumane. It’s been called a rat warren, a stygian chamber, and an underground strip mall. The nation’s busiest rail terminal is crowded, it lacks amenities, there are not enough platforms, not enough bathrooms…the list goes on. That’s not even getting into the horrific pedestrian environment surrounding the station. In our view Penn Station is the Absolute Worst Train Station Ever. Yep, that’s right. The question is: What station is worse than Penn Station? Or if you’d like to admit that Penn Station is #1, what would be #2?
Here are the top nominations: johnstown amtrak station lobbyJohnstown Amtrak Station, Johnstown, PA
The horrible thing about this station is that this historic and beautifully-proportioned 1916 waiting room is closed to the public (see picture at right). There might be a telling correlation in this rust belt city’s declining economy and the decrease in railroad passengers over the second half of the 20th Century. There may also be some hope that a reviving economy in Johnstown and other small towns may mean a revival in intercity rail and sustainable transportation.
chicago union station lobbyUnion Station, Chicago, IL I have learned to navigate New York’s Penn Station in its original form and now since the 1950’s, so while it’s presently ugly and often crowded, I think Chicago’s Union Station, at least for long-distance Amtrak patrons, is worse. Coach and sleeping car passengers are corralled into separate holding pens with insufficient seating at peak times. Many are making connections here with waits of several hours. Since demolition of part of the station years ago, the soaring main waiting room is now too far away from the track gates to be of much use (NPS note: nearly every picture of the train hall shows it empty). Most trains are accessed from terminal platforms, necessitating long walks along narrow platforms for those accommodated towards the front of the trains. Coupled with that, Union Station is poorly run by the station personnel, while Penn Station is rather well operated given what the staff has to work with. Both are excellent nominations, but Penn Station is still #1. We tend to agree with this reader, who nominated Penn Station because it “guarantees an unpleasant arrival and miserable departure by rail from the best city in the world.” Among her reasons:
Penn has neither signs nor a direction to an information booth for people who do not speak English. Signs directing people to the street are confusing. There are no signs informing a person as to what level of the station one is on. Bathroom facilities are inadequate. The information system about arriving trains is archaic. Access to a train, when one learns its track, borders on the dangerous: passengers surge towards the one narrow stairway to the platform. The only way to attempt to board an Amtrak train in comfort is to tip a Redcap in order to be escorted to the train before it is announced. I do not mind paying someone for service, but this is unfair to the public.

MAS Hosts DOT Launch of New Strategic Plan “Sustainable Streets”

janette sadik khan dot sustainable streetsLast night, New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan charted a smarter and greener future for City transportation policy with the launch of the agency’s ambitious plan “Sustainable Streets” at the Municipal Art Society. The plan seeks to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the City’s 6,300 miles of streets and install 200 new bike lanes, including 15 miles of protected bike lanes by 2009, to create new public plazas citywide, to increase the speed of buses, to expand ferry services and HOV lanes, and to establish data-supported benchmarks for measuring these goals. Continue Reading>>

Tenth Anniversary of Place Matters

Wednesday, June 11, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., at the Municipal Art Society FREE Save the date! MAS and City Lore invite you to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Place Matters project! Join us at the Urban Center for a party and awards presentation to 10 great New York City places. This event is free, but reservations are required. RSVP at 212-935-2075 or make your reservation online.

Wednesday at the MAS: World-Class Train Stations

waterloo grimshaw train station awningWednesday, April 30, 6:30 – 8:00 p.m., at The Municipal Art Society Join Hugh Hardy, FAIA, founder H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, LLC, Alexandros Washburn, chief urban designer, NYC Department of City Planning and former public works advisor to the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, photographer Christopher Brown, author of Still Standing: A Century of Urban Train Stations, and architect Andrew Whalley, partner in charge of the New York office of Grimshaw Architects, for a wide-ranging discussion on the design of today’s train stations and those to come. $15, $12 MAS members. Purchase tickets or call 212-935-2075. Coverage of our previous Moynihan Station programs: ”Jill Jonnes Bucks Up the Moynihan Station Crowd” ”What if They Gave a Crisis…”

CitiYouth Maps the Five Boroughs

citi youth classroom planningOn Saturday April 5th, 2008, CITI Youth interns Tiffany Williams, Latoya Herndon, Eric Kenny, and Peejay Howard joined over 100 students from across North America at the 2008 PLANet Youth Conference. This inaugural conference, organized by the Young Planners Network, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick, marked the start of “… an international movement to empower young people, educate adults, influence planning trends, and exchange best practices.” The conference featured sessions led by young people from various cities, covering topics ranging from gentrification to rebuilding New Orleans. Continue Reading>>

Planning for All New Yorkers: An Atlas of Community-Based Plans

atlas mapThe Municipal Art Society Planning Center, with assistance from the Community-Based Planning Task Force, has developed an interactive, online tool that compiles community-based plans in New York City. Planning for All New Yorkers: An Atlas of Community-Based Plans in New York City contains 87 individual plans, created since 1989, the year that the City responded to pressure from communities to simplify and strengthen provisions in the City Charter for 197-a planning (197-a plans are officially-recognized, community-initiated local plans). Continue Reading>>

Jill Jonnes Bucks Up the Moynihan Station Crowd

jill jonnes program talk penn stationOn Wednesday at the MAS, historian Jill Jonnes delivered a fascinating presentation on the construction of Penn Station and its tunnels, the subject of her recent book: Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic. With the aid of some amazing photographs rescued from the depths of the Pennsylvania Railroad archives, Jonnes recounted the “titanic battle with nature” that culminated in the construction of the original Penn Station. “The received wisdom was that this whole project was a folly,” said Jonnes. She contextualized the construction story within a political and human drama involving a determined PRR president, Alexander Cassatt, a corrupt politician, Boss Croker, who ran Tammany Hall by cable from the UK, and Samuel Rea, a brilliant young engineer and eventual PRR president who lost his own son in one of the project’s many horrific accidents. And of course she also told the bittersweet story of Charles McKim’s last major building in New York. Jonnes did not hesitate to draw parallels between the subject of her book and the current attempts to “re-conquer Gotham,” Moynihan Station and ARC. conquering gotham bookApparently, she has even been offered a ride in the ARC tunnel machine when the project starts rolling! In conclusion, Jonnes noted that Penn Station “was a work of many decades, not unlike Moynihan Station.” In fact, the full project, from its earliest conception in 1871 to its completion in 1917 with the opening of Hell Gate Bridge lasted over four decades. “I do want to buck everyone up,” she said. “And remind you how enormously difficult it was to build the original station. Everyone always says, ‘Back then they knew how to get things done.’ No they didn’t! When Penn Station opened it took them another 8 years just to build the first subway connection. And the second subway stop took another 8 years!” Please join us next Wednesday for a panel discussion about “World-Class Train Stations.” Click here for more info Click here to purchase Conquering Gotham

What Train Station is More Horrible Than Penn Station?

train commuters people stationPenn Station has been described as confusing, menacing, and inhumane. It’s been called a rat warren, a stygian chamber, and an underground strip mall. The nation’s busiest rail terminal is crowded, it lacks amenities, there are not enough platforms, not enough bathrooms…the list goes on. That’s not even getting into the horrific pedestrian environment surrounding the station. In our view Penn Station is the Absolute Worst Train Station Ever. Yep, that’s right. The question is: What station is worse than Penn Station? Or if you’d like to admit that Penn Station is #1, what would be #2? Here’s the deal: You send a couple of sentences (or poem?) explaining why another station is more horrible than Penn Station along with a photo (if possible) by Monday at 5pm. E-mail your response to, with “Worst Train Station” in the subject line. We’ll post the responses here and select the top 5 submissions. Each winner will receive 2 free tickets to next Wednesday’s event, “World Class Train Stations.”

Rail and the Earth

energy used btu transit comparison In celebration of Earth Day we thought it would be fitting (or rather obligatory) to provide some data on the environmental advantages of rail travel. According to U.S. Department of Energy data, rail is 17 percent more efficient than domestic airline travel and 21 percent more efficient than auto travel on a per-passenger-mile basis. When combined with all modes of transportation, passenger railroads emit only 0.2 percent of the travel industry’s total greenhouse gases. energy used btu transit comparison table This reminds us of what Walter Zullig said during our recent program on the future of rail: “The biggest opportunity for rail is the environmental considerations, especially as energy prices continue to climb,” said Zullig. “Education about the benefits of rail – in terms of energy, air quality, quality of life – can go a long way. We need to create a ground swell of public demand. Then the politicians would be forced to listen.” [images courtesy of Amtrak]