Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, March 22, 2013

(Re)Conquering Gotham: Penn Station, railroad stations, arenas, and Manhattan revitalization

Yesterday's New York Times has a great article, "At Penn Station, Seizing a Chance to Right a Wrong," about the long term potential for revitalizing Manhattan's West Side by moving Madison Square Garden--the arena and office complex on top of the modern Penn Station--and re-creating a grander Penn Station complex.  From the article:

New York is at a crossroads. After half a century a fleeting opportunity has finally arrived to address the disaster of Penn Station, the nation’s busiest and most appalling transit hub, and to reimagine a new West Side for Midtown Manhattan that could be a center for development and innovation.

For decades public officials and countless city skeptics have insisted nothing can be done. Penn Station is a black hole of politics, they say. ...

But there are precedents for achieving the impossible.

The Kings Cross area of London, where the St. Pancras and Kings Cross railway stations converge, was a crime-ridden nexus of seemingly intractable poverty, filth and despair going back generations. But through a creative mix of public and private investments — in which the refurbishments of the stations themselves were vital — the area has changed beyond recognition. The two stations have been become major attractions for locals and tourists who don’t even use the trains: they dine and shop there. New housing and an arts university have moved nearby. Google has chosen to locate its European headquarters at Kings Cross because of the stations (which include the London terminus of the Channel tunnel service to the Continent). What had been a drag on the London economy has become a boon to local property values and a Europe-wide emblem of innovation.

The same could happen in New York, with imagination and political moxie.

The article goes on to explore the possibilities, centered around the extension of the special use permit which allows Madison Square Garden to operate. I didn't realize that the zoning approval requires regular renewals, it wasn't granted in perpetuity.

This provides a long term opportunity for change. Of course, the owners of MSG want the permit to be converted to a perpetual one. But Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of the Times, suggest that a 10 year renewal be granted (as voted on in a resolution by Community Board 5--it's rare for community boards such as DC's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to be so proactive and future oriented, see "MSG’s push to stay put concerns community board" from the Real Deal and the CB5 study, The Penn Station Study Area) and that the city begin to plan for something different, especially because Penn Station's use as a train station is going to increase significantly. From the article:

... demands on Penn Station are about to explode, with the development of the Hudson Yards and the third phase of the High Line; the prospect of Metro North’s trains and its commuters coming into Penn Station after the completion of East Side Access; and Amtrak’s proposed Gateway Project, a first step toward high-speed rail, which could double the number of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains coming into Manhattan.

It’s not only that Penn Station, designed a half-century ago in a declining city for what seemed then an unlikely capacity of 200,000 passengers a day, is now handling more than twice that number. It is also a shabby, hopelessly confusing entry point to New York, a daily public shame on the city.

It happens that I just read Conquering Gotham, which covers how the Pennsylvania Railroad built tunnels under the Hudson River (for the PRR) and the East River (for the Long Island Rail Road, which it owned) and a new railroad station, the original Penn Station (which was demolished in the mid-1960s), in Midtown Manhattan, just over 100 years ago (the creation of this station led their competitor, New York Central, to build the very grand Grand Central Station).

The book mostly focuses on the politics of getting the agreement to build, dealing with New York City political corruption, acquisition of land for the station, and the difficult process of constructing the tunnels, as well as the impact of the station as an urban renewal type initiative, being that it was constructed in one of the city's more unseemly districts, the Tenderloin.

Sadly, the book covers only briefly why the station didn't have the kind of impact on the area that Grand Central Station has had (this is understandable as the book focused on building the tunnels and the station).

Part of the problem was that for many years the station didn't have a direct subway connection, unlike Grand Central, which had two.  And with the decline of long distance rail passenger services, the station ended up being far more important to LIRR commuter railroad service anyway.

The biggest reason that Penn Station did not bring about a broader revitalization of its area is that the PRR didn't think it was necessary for them to take on the role and become an active real estate developer, to fully realize the real estate value that could be created around the station.

Map of the Grand Central Station district, from a promotional book c. 1939By contrast, the Grand Central Station was seen as the anchor for a broader ranged commercial district.

I picked up a promotional book on Grand Central Station (the publisher is unidentified) published around 1939 and it highlights the various hotels, apartment buildings, and office buildings that make up the "Station Area."

This is the crux of the argument on "transit oriented development" in who captures the financial reward from the real estate development opportunities that derive from the investment in this type of infrastructure.

If high speed rail service becomes a reality over the next few decades, "short" long distance trips of a few hundred miles, say from DC to New York or even Boston, could make much more sense by rail than by airplane or bus, and rail passenger transportation could once again become a much more significant element of the regional and national transportation system.

Union Station in DC was successfully rehabilitated in the late 1980s, and is now undergoing planning for a massive expansion, because like for Penn Station, projections are that the station will get many more passengers, as rail service expands.  Grand Central Station is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  (The 100th anniversary for DC's Union Station was 2007.)

And in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Denver, rail station expansion and planning efforts are also underway. 

30th Street Station in Philadelphia is undergoing a variety of improvements, although Amtrak's big plans in the late 1980s for a massive building program over the railyard there are likely never to come to fruition because of a relative lack of market demand for new commercial space.

That's the difference between NYC (plans to build over the Hudson Yards in Manhattan and the long term project in Brooklyn at Atlantic Yards) and DC (plans to build over the Union Station railyard between the station and K Street NE) and Philadelphia.  In hyper strong real estate markets, crazy expensive projects--it costs upwards of $1 billion today to build over a railyard--make sense.  In weak markets they do not.

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At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

The Times article on Penn Station is disappointing because it is entirely superficial. It conflates the grand architecture of the old Penn Station with efficient transit operations, which was not the case then and is not the case now.

Penn Station's problems are not that it lacks any grand spaces, but that the spaces it does have are poorly configured.

Grand Central is an architectural gem, yes, but it is also far better designed as an actual train station (ramps, tracks, platform access, concourses, etc).

Simply removing MSG and building a large edifice in its place won't solve a damn thing about Penn Station's real problems.

At 2:32 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

True. But the Times article did acknowledge, but did not address in any depth, those configuration and throughput problems which will only get worse with the increase in ridership. Plus they mentioned that the proposed new Penn Station at the Post Office building is only for Amtrak, not LIRR or NJT, which serve the bulk of the ridership.

At 2:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good episode of Charlie Rose recently about Grand Central. I'm sure its available online.

At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

You still have an issue of capacity into and out of the tunnels there. And that's not relieved by a new station. There's still only one tunnel from NJ.

As Alex mentioned there are a lot of things that can be done with the existing station to deal with traffic flow. Better connecting the existing space, removing some of the retail, getting rid of the Amtrak offices. To name a few.

And yes, MSG is a dated arena that has a terribly loading area, among other problems and does probably need to be replaced.

But the area around Penn Station isn't a hell hole. It's not seedy, it's got tons of pedestrian traffic. Big office buildings. Retail on 34th not far away.

NY has a lot of transit needs in the future, building another large edifice isn't maybe the best way to spend meager transit dollars. Unless there is an innovative public-private way to pay for a new station, I question whether it's the best use of money.


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