Monday, January 14, 2008

Of Rats and Gods

This is the second of a planned series of posts about New York's Penn Station; the previous one gave some background about the original station and its demolition in 1964.

As I mentioned, the destruction of Penn Station inspired the historical preservationists to make sure that nothing like it could happen again. Much was made of the structure that replaced it. On the west side of the superblock, the fourth Madison Square Garden arena was built; on the block between 33rd and 34th Streets, the One Penn Plaza office tower and on the east, Two Penn Plaza.

All the tracks and platforms remained, but when passengers climbed the stairs, instead of emerging into the Great Hall, they found themselves in a maze of low passageways filled with fast-food restaurants, newsstands and convenience stores. There were no grand spaces and no daylight. In the famous words of architectural historian Vincent Scully, "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."

I was born several years after the demolition of the original Penn Station, so I don't have firsthand knowledge, but my understanding is that none of the changes affected the physical process of getting off the train and onto the subway, or out onto the street. It was just as convenient (or inconvenient) as it had been since the Eighth Avenue Subway was opened in 1932. This is the central observation I want to make in this post: from the point of view of actually getting from one place to another, the difference was entirely psychological, and almost entirely symbolic.

In fact, in the past ten years, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road have both added new stairs and new concourses. While they have not been able to bring daylight in, they have at least raised some of the ceilings and made it less cramped and more convenient. They're not finished, either: New Jersey Transit plans to build a new entrance to its concourse to reduce crowding at the 32nd Street entrance.

Let's keep thinking about the practical side of getting from one place to another. I don't have any data on the final destinations of people coming in to Penn Station, so if anyone reading this can point me to the data, I'd appreciate it. However, many of the arguments for the LIRR East Side Access project state that a large number of LIRR commuters are actually heading for destinations near Grand Central. In any case, some very large number of Penn Station travelers change to the subway. There are job sites nearby, but they're a small percentage of the commuter destinations. The Javits Center is a few blocks away, but they're long, unpleasant blocks.

There may be more job sites within walking distance in the future. The current $14 billion "Moynihan Station" plan includes several new office buildings to be built in the immediate area, and the "Hudson Yards" plans call for office and residential development between Penn Station and the river. Even with all that development, though, the vast majority of the people who pass through Penn Station will be transferring to subways or walking to job sites east or north of the station. Very few will be headed west.

This is the critical thing: the new Moynihan Station, as planned, will bring almost no practical benefit to people traveling through Penn Station. The benefits will be almost entirely psychological and symbolic.

I'm very aware of the importance of psychological and symbolic victories, and I think it would be great to bring light back into Penn Station, to put an end to a shameful episode in the city's building history, and to restore to rail passengers their rightful status as gods.

But is it worth fourteen two billion dollars? By comparison, it's estimated that it would cost $13.3 billion to build the entire Second Avenue Subway, from 125th Street to Hanover Square.


Gary said...

cap'n, that $14 billion figure includes all the neighboring real estate development in the plans . . . I don't believe that reflects public costs.

Cap'n Transit said...

I stand corrected, Gary. Thank you for pointing that out.

However, the estimate for the station renovation is still $2 billion, which is a lot of money for a symbol. That $2 billion could make the "T.H.E. Tunnel" addition to Penn Station more functional than a six-track, 175-feet-below-surface stub terminal.