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Plan for Penn Station Has Everything … Except a Plan

All day, the sidewalks around Penn Station are jammed — and the conditions underground are worse. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

A new civic group's demand for better conditions at Penn Station had everything going for it on Wednesday — committed urban planners, supportive politicians, major partners and even a few irate commuters — but it lacked one key element: a plan.

The group, Public for Penn Station, admits that it exists only to call for politicians — specifically Governor Cuomo — to create a long-term vision for the substandard rail station and the surrounding hellscape above ground. But the pushing and prodding process has to begin immediately.

public for penn station logo

"The time is now," said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, which is part of the group with the Municipal Art Society, the Riders Alliance, Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and others. "There have been a lot of good ideas for what can happen here incrementally ... so we want to demonstrate today that the public sector and many civic groups will support elected officials who will step up and create this long-range vision for this area."

Wright and others emphasized the need for immediate planning because overall congestion in Penn Station is expected to dip below its current 650,000 users after some Amtrak users are diverted to the Moynihan Train Station to the west in 2020, and many LIRR riders terminate their commutes in Grand Central, thanks to the East Side Access service that begins in 2023.

Plus, Madison Square Garden's permit expires in five years, and many believe the most famous arena in the world will be relocated yet again.

Photo: Regional Plan Association
Photo: Regional Plan Association
Photo: Regional Plan Association

The 150,000 riders who shift away from Penn Station will be more than replaced after Metro-North starts diverting some trains to the western terminus in 2025 and after new Gateway tunnels are built. Eventually, there will be far more commuters using Penn Station than there are today.

"That's why the plans need to be put in place now," Wright said. "We need leaders to support a plan."

Some leaders, including State Senator Brad Hoylman and Manhattan Borough President Gale "Double Parking Is Fine With Me" Brewer, were on hand to show their support, but also admitted that it's up to Andrew #StatusCuomo to paint the big picture.

Cuomo's initial effort — announcing last month that he would permanently close W. 33rd Street to cars and install new entrances to a supposedly enhanced train station below — were praised, but seen as too little.

"All you have to do is look around [Penn Station], and you see we need a comprehensive plan here," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society. "The governor has made suggestions for incremental steps here that are laudable, but he has also agreed to do a comprehensive plan and we demand that he do that. It is absolutely essential to make this a world-class transportation hub...that everyone deserves."

When Goldstein says "everyone," she'll get a friendly ear from Ed Janoff. The urban planner spoke at Wednesday's event as a regular LIRR commuter, and summoned Dantean imagery to describe his experiences at Penn Station.

"This station is a disgrace. It's filthy. It's crowded. It's confusing. It's a dingy basement," Janoff said. "It's cursed. Hell. That's how people feel about Penn St. It's what New Yorkers imagine is the closest thing to eternal damnation on earth. This is the busiest station in the world and it should be the Taj Mahal. We can do better. We have to do better."

The governor's office did not respond to an email seeking comment (update: see below).

Wally Rubin, the district manager of Midtown's Community Board 5, was surprisingly optimistic. He said the governor called him before his W. 33rd Street announcement — which he admitted was strange.

"A governor calling a community board," Rubin said. "But that showed he realizes the importance of this project. "We told him, 'You have to think bigger.' We think he sees that."

After publication of this story, Cuomo spokesman Peter Ajemian sent over this statement:

The Governor has said for years the situation at Penn Station is unacceptable and likened it to the seven layers of hell which is why he’s doing everything in the state’s power to transform the area including building a new Moynihan Train Hall, constructing new entrances and expanded corridors at Penn, making dramatic LIRR infrastructure improvements and pushing the federal government to help replace the crumbling Gateway tunnels.

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