Friday, March 7, 2008

You Don't Eat the Stone

The folktale of Stone Soup goes roughly like this: a hungry traveler with no money enters a village. The villagers, mistrusting the traveler, hide their food and tell the traveler they have nothing to give. The traveler pokes around in the main square and finds a stone. He asks the villagers to lend him a pot and starts boiling water, which arouses their curiosity. He tells them that he's going to cook stone soup, but that it would be better with a little salt. One of the villagers brings him salt, and then he says it would be even better with a some herbs. This continues until they've brought him the ingredients for a hearty stew, which he shares with them. They offer him a bed to sleep in and give him their wifi passcode so he can email his wife.

The next morning the traveler moves on. In some versions, he puts the stone in his bag to make soup from the next time; in others he gives it to the appreciative townspeople. But in no version does he actually eat it. This is very important. Remember this.

There are many versions of this story, but they all have the same moral: what you can't get by asking directly, you may be able to get just by hanging around and starting an interesting project.

What does this have to do with the Moynihan Station project, you ask? Well, here's the thing: do you think anyone really wants to catch a train in the old Farley Post Office? Look at this picture of the old Penn Station:

Now look at this picture of the Farley Post office by Tom Fletcher:

Whee! Look at all those steps. Now let's say you've been working hard all day at an office nearby and you just want to get on the 5:20, crack your Bud and stare at the embankments for an hour. Are you going to want to walk up all those steps? Now imagine that you're going up to Brattleboro for the three-day weekend with your big wheelie suitcase. You don't want to climb steps! Look back at the photo for the old Penn Station. No steps! Do you know any other train station with steps like that?

The Farley Post Office made a good post office, and it might make a good mall or a good facade for an arena, but it won't make a good train station. Catching a train there would be more glamorous than scuttling like a rat through the Central Corridor, but it won't be any more convenient, especially with the multiple levels that are planned.

Going back to my post from yesterday about what we really want from Penn Station: an end to the scramble, better connections, higher ceilings and daylight. Maybe a nice symbol or two. But this report from the Regional Plan Association doesn't hide the fact that Senator Moynihan's original plan would not have helped much with any of those things. What would be really nice would be to have the old Penn Station back, in its original place next to the Seventh Avenue Subway.

The problem is that they didn't just tear down Penn Station. They built two of the ugliest buildings in the city. These buildings, Two Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden #3, are so bland that they don't even make lists of the ugliest buildings in the city. People don't want to think about them enough to write them down. But they're there, and they're used, practically every day, for all kinds of important things. I've been to Madison Square Garden three times: for the circus, the Garlic Festival and a Nader rally. We need to keep Madison Square Garden in business so that New York may someday host the Garlic Festival again. And what about the offices in Two Penn Plaza?

Well, it turns out that last year Shelly Silver tipped a nice plateful of stew beef into our pot. He convinced the Dolans, the owners of Madison Square Garden, to move it to the Post Office and got some developers to promise that they would build lots more office buildings. Two Penn Plaza may wind up staying, but the Garden will be gone, which will let the government rebuild Penn Station as "Moynihan East." The Municipal Art Society has the rendering.

There are lots of problems with the plan. I won't go into them here, but the Municipal Art Society is doing a good job of keeping track of them, and I encourage you to follow their blog and take action to keep the state from giving too much away to the developers.

The main issue is the cost. I think it's up to $3 billion now. Everything seems to be $3 billion: the THE THE Tunnel, the PATH upgrades, you name it. We've got declining revenues, everything is costing more, and the government is promising $3 billion left and right. The total cost for this project, including all the office buildings that Stephen Ross is drooling over, comes to $14 billion, but my understanding is that the developrs will pay the $11 billion.

What's one way to save money? Drop the Post Office conversion. It's too far from the subway, nobody wants to catch a train there, it won't get rid of the scramble. It's not the old Penn Station, and it never will be. It's got lots and lots of steps. The only people who are still clinging to it are the preservationists who are hoping that they will finally fulfill their oath and have peace. I'll tell you what, preservationists: if you just make sure that something gets built east of Eighth Avenue that has nice high ceilings, lets in natural light and doesn't look too hideous, then I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever.

As for the Farley Post Office, if we don't want to railbank it, then let the developers have it. Keep them from sullying the facade, make sure you can still buy stamps and mail things 24 hours a day, and then they can do whatever they like with it. Make them pay for it, though; that would bring down the price of rebuilding Penn Station, maybe even to something affordable.

Remember: nobody ate the stone. Would Senator Moynihan have wanted us to eat the stone? I don't think so; he was a pretty crafty guy. Let's put his name on the part east of Eighth Avenue and have done. I don't want to see tons of gubernatorial political capital expended on an empty symbol.


Ray said...

Cap'n - Got to agree with you. A few other ideas:

a. East Side Access: Move half LIRR traffic to GCT via East Side Access. Savings: Forget about the new GTC underground concourse. Make it work at GTC.

b. THE Tunnel (ARC): Build it. Savings: Drop the 34th Street Concourse at Penn. Capacity freed up by LIRR move. Spend: Connect Penn to GCT via thru tracks.

c. PATH WTC: What we have now works fine. Savings: Shelve Calatrava's project. Box it up and go.

d. Fulton Street: Savings: Build it but keep it simple. Put in a sky light... not an Occulus. It's not the Pantheon.

e. Second Avenue Subway: Spend: Start Phase 2 NOW.

f. 7 Train Extension: Savings: Do we need this project. Javits? Really?

- - - Things I think we need:

More Metro North West Shore Service

More NJ Transit Service (Speed & Electrification throughout)

More Airport Direct Service

Inter-agency one seat rides! LIRR/NJ Transit

High Speed Rail to Albany and Buffalo

Cap'n Transit said...

Right on, Ray! I wrote about many of those things in a blog post last year.

I think it's great to think big and build big, glamorous structures for transit when the economy is expanding and we're flush with cash. But construction costs are going up, fuel is going up, material costs are going up, and we're staring down a recession in which we could likely see a decline in transit revenue from the MRT. This is not the time to build an expensive memorial to Moynihan and make the preservationists feel better about themselves.