New York State’s recently announced plan to sell development rights associated with the Farley Post Office site, and the resulting controversy, brings the whole Moynihan Station project into a new focus. I’ll get to New York’s proposal later. More to the point, we should take the opportunity to do the right thing and scrap the Moynihan Station project altogether.
Twenty years ago, the idea of converting the McKim Meade &White-designed Farley Post Office into a replacement for Penn Station was a beguiling concept. What better way to right the grievous wrong that is the demolition of the magnificent McKim Meade & White-designed Pennsylvania Station, than to replace it with a new station in another magnificent McKim Meade & White-designed building that, providentially, sits atop the railroad tracks? And so the project began. And stalled. And re-started. And stalled. Again and again and again. The problem was, and is, that it isn’t really a good project. Conceived as it was in an effort to recapture something that is gone forever, it can’t really be much more than an old post office that someone converted into an approximation of a transit hub.
If it had been a good project, and if there had been real support for it, it might have already been done. And had it actually been done, soothed by the knowledge that we had righted some historic wrong, we would have put up with the limitations and deficiencies of the plan, best expressed as recently as last year by David Gunn, who used to run Amtrak, when speaking to the New York Observer:
“From a transportation point of view,” Mr. Gunn said, “it makes no sense.” For passengers coming from the 1/2/3 trains, “what the Farley Building does, is make you walk from Seventh Avenue all the way across Eighth Avenue. You’ll have to go under the Eighth Avenue subway, then climb up to the [new] head house, which is to the west of Eighth Avenue, over towards Ninth Avenue. And then, you walk back to where the train is! The trains are still going to be between Seventh and Eighth avenues.” For passengers arriving at Moynihan Station via the IRT Seventh Avenue Line, Mr. Gunn said, “they’ve gotta walk almost a mile.”
But in the twenty years that the Moynihan Station project has lingered in development limbo, things have changed. The best thing to do today is to abandon the Moynihan Station project altogether and devote our resources and energy to relocating Madison Square Garden and building a completely new Penn Station in its place.
It’s not as farfetched an idea as it seems. This is, after all, New York. And thanks to Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times and the Municipal Art Society, a concerted lobbying effort last year got the City Council to deny Madison Square Garden, which was unceremoniously dropped on top of what is left of the old Penn Station, the license it sought to operate on the site in perpetuity. Instead, MSG got another ten years, and a pretty clear message: move Madison Square Garden.
There are ideas and schemes aplenty as to what the new Penn Station should look like, courtesy of the MAS and the Regional Plan Association, who asked four local architects what a new Penn Station could be (my point is not to critique or advocate one design scheme over another, but if you really want to see them, they can be found here: http://bit.ly/1i9wAsW). At best, they are all conceptual sketches albeit very elaborate and seductive ones; the real design will emerge from the hard work of talented people. But the weakest and least resolved of the bunch is far better than what is there today, and far superior to an adapted post office.
The opportunity here is that, a little more than a hundred years since the original Penn Station opened to the public, we have a the chance to rebuild to build the world-class transportation hub that New York should have, and get a twenty first century arena in the bargain. It will take a tremendous effort but it will be worthwhile.
There are a lot of ideas out there as to how to get this done, and it will take a full court press. Two obvious obstacles loom large: how to pay for a new Penn Station, and where to put Madison Square Garden.
Because none of this is possible without money, let’s start there. In July of 2013, the Municipal Art Society released a report that proposed the creation of a revenue capture district, kind of like a BID, which would collect payments from property owners in the area, actually payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT). These PILOT funds would be the income stream that pays down bonds issued to fund the demolition of MSG and the construction of the new Penn Station. MAS contends that the area property owners would reap the benefits of increasing property values and rising rents, and so should sign on. In the abstract it makes sense, but area property owners, in whatever the final configuration of this new district will be, must be lobbied and made to understand the need for this and the benefits to them; otherwise it’s hard to imagine a bunch of NYC landlords leaping at the opportunity to pay yet another recurring cost. In addition, City and State approval of this new revenue capture district would be required. The MAS report also recommends that the area be rezoned: both Madison Square Garden and Penn Station are already in the Hudson Yards Special District and are subject to its regulations, which favor the creation of commercial space over residential at present. There is also a City Planning proposal from 2007 that may be worth re-evaluating.
Then there is New York State’s latest proposal, which is to sell the development rights from the Farley Post Office to fund Moynihan Station. While it, too, is an intriguing idea, and certainly consistent with the new hypercapitalist concept that government should sell its public assets to the highest bidder, funding Moynihan Station is throwing good money after bad. As an idea, it may also be premature.
As noted above, the Farley Post Office is in the Hudson Yards Special District, which was designed to foster the creation of 28 million square feet of new office space, 12.6 million square feet of new residential space, 1.5 million square feet of new hotel space, and 700 thousand square feet of new retail space. Development of the Hudson Yards district, by which I mean actual construction and execution of the plan, has really only gotten underway in the past year or so, as we crawl out of the real estate slump. Of the 28 MM SF of office space the plan provides for, somewhere in the neighborhood of 4MM SF are either under construction or close to starting, and of the 12.6 MM SF of new residential space, only one new apartment building has actually been built so far. All this tells us that it is early in the process, and that no one really knows what the actual demand, absorption rate, and pace of the buildout will be. It may be more prudent for New York State to hold these development rights until we can see what the demand, and therefore what the real value of these development rights are. Selling them today sets the State up to sell them too low.
There is also the issue of transferring those rights, whether they are sold today, or in ten years. Transfers of development rights in the Hudson Yards Special District are governed by the regulations for landmark development rights transfers in the NYC Zoning Resolution. As the regulations stand, these rights can only be transferred from a landmark site to a receiving site across a street, or diagonally across an intersection. So, under the current rules, there is a very limited set of receiving sites, and therefore buyers, for these development rights. While it would make more sense to expand the set of receiving sites, and therefore potential buyers, of these rights, that would require amendment of the NYC Zoning Resolution, a proposition approached carefully under the best of circumstances. Still, it is worth further investigation, and may be part of a strategy that calls for holding them in in abeyance, as a kind of backstop to other funding efforts.
Lastly, what to do with Madison Square Garden? There are some potential sites within a few blocks of where it currently sits, each with its attributes, and each deserving of further study.
And, inevitably, what of the Farley Post Office? Having rued the last generation’s demolition of Penn Station, and since we think we are more evolved, I believe it should stay in place and a creative new life imagined for it as the development of neighborhood picks up steam.
Time, however, is not on our side. The fact that Moynihan Station has lingered for twenty years, despite the work of many, should tell us that ten years is a blink of an eye. Relocating Madison Square Garden and building a new Penn Station are huge, complicated tasks that require focus and commitment from government at the City, State, and likely Federal levels; lobbying and advocacy from the preservation, design, construction, and development communities; and lots of money from every reasonable source possible. It can, however, be the signature achievement of a new administration, and create a valuable new public benefit for the next century or so to come.