Preservationists Balk at the City’s Plan to Redevelop Penn Station

A plan to redevelop New York’s Pennsylvania Station (or Penn Station) and its surrounding blocks is facing fierce opposition from community members and conservationists. In an effort to halt the plan, which includes razing 50 buildings for 10 new skyscrapers, officials from the New York State Historic Preservation Office have called to list the notoriously congested station in the National Register of Historic Places along with nearby landmarks.

The new redevelopment plan, the cost of which is estimated at $7 billion, was introduced by New York Governor Kathy Hochul in a press conference on November 3. It is a slightly scaled-down version (reduced by 7% in size) of an ambitious redevelopment plan first introduced by her disgraced predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, in 2020. In Hochul’s words, the plan seeks to promote a “commuter-first vision” for Penn Station, the busiest transit hub in the Western Hemisphere, which has been operating over-capacity for decades. As part of the plan, the station’s first subterranean level would be eliminated to allow natural light into the concourse, which would be gated by a soaring, ultra-modern glass entrance. New tracks and platforms would be added and passenger circulation areas, entrances, and exits would be expanded to better serve hundreds of thousands of commuters every week.

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A rendering for a future Penn Station with light-filled concourses (courtesy Governor Kathy Hochul’s office)

“I’m reimagining the New York City commuter experience,” Hochul said at the press conference. “New Yorkers do not deserve what they have been subjected to for decades at Penn Station. The era of neglecting our Penn Station commuters and the neighboring community is over.” 

But it is the second part of Hochul’s plan, which would flatten two blocks around the station for 18.3 million square feet of mostly office, retail, and hotel spaces, that has drawn the bulk of the criticism. Though revised from Cuomo’s original plan to include up to 1,798 residential units, of which 539 would be permanently affordable, plus 8 acres of public space, it still includes the construction of 10 highrises, which would threaten historical buildings like the 1870s St. John the Baptist Church, the 1919 Hotel Pennsylvania, and the Art Deco Gimbel’s skybridge.

A slide from Empire State Development’s presentation of the redevelopment plan during a public hearing on December 8, 2021. The plan proposes 10 new high-rises in the blocks surrounding Penn Station.

During a contentious public hearing on December 8, more than 200 people requested to comment on the plan, many of them decrying the potential damage to the neighborhood’s historical buildings, character, and community. The hearing was set to be the last before the state submits the plan for federal review.

One of the voices opposing the plan during the hearing was Andrea Goldman of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, who described the project as “anti-urban.”

“The state assumes that this neighborhood should be sacrificed,” said Goldman, as quoted by the Gothamist. “The dynamic mix of old and new makes New York unique and successful. The renderings for a campus of new supertalls, and bland public spaces present an anodyne vision that could literally be anywhere in the world.”

An aerial view of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden in the project’s renderings (courtesy of Governor Kathy Hochul’s office)

Others cast doubts over the state’s claim that the massive development around the station, which would be presided by the state-run Empire State Development Corporation, is needed to fund the necessary reconstruction of Penn Station.

“The greatest cause of concern is that the process is inverted and that we started by looking at how many development rights could be sold to support transit needs,” said Paul Devlin, a co-chairperson of the land use committee on local Manhattan Community Board 4. “Instead, the transit needs should be determined first, then figure out how to move people through the network and public space, then determine funding sources.”

In a last-ditch effort to halt the plan, the New York State Historic Preservation Office made the recommendation to register Penn Station, together with 2 Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden, as historical landmarks for preservation. The request was first reported by Crain’s New York on the day of the hearing.

Passengers in the waiting room at Pennsylvania Station (1911) (via the Library of Congress)

Once a marvel of Beaux-Arts architecture, the 1963 demolition of the original Penn Station building has turned it into the squalid, claustrophobic transit labyrinth that we have today. At the time, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called the destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s opulent structure a “monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.” The demolition also made way to building Madison Square Garden and 2 Penn Plaza in 1968.

Outrage of the destruction of the historic landmark paved the way for the legislation of New York City’s landmark-protection law in 1965. And a year later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which gave birth to the National Register of Historic Places

Now, in a twist of fate, the New York State Historic Preservation Office is asking to invoke the same laws that were legislated in response to the destruction of the original Penn Station. However, some disagree with the move, saying it could do more harm than good.

“If the station is designated as historic, it means perpetuating the mistakes of the past and enshrining them,” Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of Community Board 5’s land use committee, told Crain’s New York.

A second public hearing was scheduled for January 20, 2021, and the public comment period was extended to February 22. The final redevelopment plan will be presented to Empire State Development’s board in the spring of 2022. 


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