Penn Station Is a Disgrace. Can a New Plan Improve It?

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. Today we’ll hear from The Times’s architecture critic on something that would change the look of a much-traveled stretch of Midtown Manhattan, inside and out — a plan for a new Pennsylvania Station.

Credit…Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

We learned last month that a private development firm had come up with a renovation plan for Penn Station, a potential competitor to a proposal that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is working on. The Times’s architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, wrote that the alternative plan was better than the M.T.A.’s. I asked him to explain.

You say there’s a lot to like in the alternative proposal for Penn Station. Like what?

For starters, it has a kind of seriousness and plausibility that other proposals that have come and gone didn’t have.

One reason for that, the main reason, I think, is that the person behind this plan is Peter Cipriano, who runs ASTM North America, an infrastructure development firm that has built lots of toll roads in Europe and other places.

Cipriano spent at least a couple of years quietly, behind the scenes, talking to Amtrak, talking to the people at Madison Square Garden, trying to amass a realistic and detailed picture of what it would take to do something with the station that did not involve moving the Garden itself. And so when our colleagues Stefanos Chen and Dana Rubinstein broke the news that this “other” plan existed, it already had a lot of specificity.

ASTM’s plan calls for buying the Theater at Madison Square Garden for one reason and one reason only — to demolish it. That sets ASTM apart from the M.T.A., which seems to want to treat the Dolans, who own the Garden, as adversaries. Janno Lieber, the chairman and chief executive of the M.T.A., said in April that the ASTM plan was wasteful. What are the chances that the Theater will be torn down?

Everybody is upset with the Dolans for one reason or another. When Lieber was talking about the idea of the cost of buying the theater, he was throwing around figures like $1 billion or more, but he had not been negotiating with the Garden to see what a real price was. Cipriano went and said what would it cost and realized that from his perspective, it was a manageable number — somewhere around $450 million, it seems.

But ASTM says that overall, its plan would be cheaper than the M.T.A.’s, by $3 billion or so.

Cipriano said the price would be $6 billion, and he would cover cost overruns.

In the universe of doing something like this, $6 billion is at least a billion less than what the M.T.A. is estimating. And the M.T.A. plan will not be settled for perhaps another year and may go up significantly.

I think we need to be cautious until all those numbers are analyzed. It may turn out that Cipriano’s plan isn’t such a good deal for the public. I think what we can say is that the arrival of this proposal by ASTM has helped to give some urgency to remaking Penn Station and holding the M.T.A. responsible for coming up with something better.

You said the M.T.A. plan, as it exists now, looks like a mall in Dubai.

The M.T.A.’s drawings are full of people. One has to presume it’s a buzzy place. But the plan is unformed. Those drawings don’t reflect the end result of their design, but an early proposition for what they might do.

That has been one of the hardest things to grasp, which is that you’re not comparing apples to apples when you’re talking about the ASTM plan and the M.T.A.’s.

The M.T.A. has another year, it says, to work out the details of its plan, and obviously Lieber and others are hoping to leverage the pending expiration of the Garden’s permit to operate on that site to see what they can extract from the Garden before committing to any particular plan.

When I asked what you liked about the ASTM plan, I expected you to talk about how it would make the new Penn Station worth looking at.

Certainly the ASTM plan would change the face of Penn Station, which right now is so disgraceful and disgusting. It’s a place that people suffer through, they don’t go to. Both ASTM and the M.T.A. understand the station is so confusing that even native New Yorkers like myself have never been able to navigate it comfortably.

The ASTM plan aspires to restore something of the civic monumentality and civic dignity that were attached to the romance of the old station that was demolished in the 1960s. We haven’t seen that in the M.T.A. plan.

All this is complicated by the layers of government involved here. The permit you mentioned that allows the Garden to operate above Penn Station comes not from the state, which controls the M.T.A., but from the City Council.

Right. There may be no more complicated, confusing, frustrating site in New York or maybe anywhere in the country.

It is a bureaucratic hell. You have Amtrak, which owns what is underground — a federal entity. You have Madison Square Garden, a private company, that owns the arena above it. You have a real estate company that owns property that sits above it, 2 Penn Station. You have state and city interests above and below ground. And you have New Jersey Transit, which has another investment in and say over what happens.

Who is in charge? In a sense, that has been why, for 60 years, no one has fixed this problem.

It isn’t just a question of a New York governor or mayor saying, “We’re going to fix this.” There are so many interests that have a claim to this site that can derail almost any kind of project. Those interests do not necessarily overlap and often conflict directly. The question is can there be enough of an alignment.

Well, is there an alignment?

What we are seeing right now is the potential for an alignment. A small window of opportunity.

The financing requires a lot from the federal government, and that requires an administration sympathetic to spending on this kind of project in New York. The Trump administration certainly didn’t seem to be — in 2018, President Trump made clear his opposition to the Gateway tunnel project, which was considered critical to keeping rail traffic moving across the Hudson River. And who knows how long the Biden administration will be in office.

It’s worth remembering that Amtrak poured in $300 million and the M.T.A. spent $700 million fixing one hallway of the station — $1 billion, and the result was largely cosmetic and unimportant. What’s needed is something much more thoughtful, integrated and dynamic.

Does the M.T.A. have the bandwidth to do a project like this right now, when it’s looking to congestion pricing to provide long-term funding for the transit system it runs? Is a public-private partnership involving a firm like ASTM possible?

One of the biggest challenges the M.T.A. faces is it has to provide access to hundreds of subway stations for passengers with disabilities. The contract to do several of those stations is with Halmar International, a subsidiary of ASTM which the M.T.A. has repeatedly praised as one of its best partners.


It will be a hot and sunny day, with temperatures rising near the low 90s. At night, it’s mostly clear and temps will be around the mid 70s.


In effect until Aug. 15 (Feast of the Assumption).

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Toll taker

Dear Diary:

Years ago, I worked during the summer as a toll collector on the Marine Parkway Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to the Rockaways.

One night when I was working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. “graveyard” shift, with only one collector stationed in each direction, I watched as a car careened down the bridge toward my booth.

It was 2 or 3 a.m., so the car had the bridge and toll plaza to itself as it screeched to a halt next to my booth.

I had no idea what to expect. So I was amazed when, instead of handing me money for the toll, the driver handed me a fresh warm bagel with chive cream cheese.

Never saying a word, he quickly drove out of my booth, made a U-turn, deposited a second bagel with chive cream cheese in the hands of my counterpart on the other side of the plaza and sped off back over the bridge.

— Arnie Miller

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero, Johnna Margalotti and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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