As a metaphor for Penn Station's present and future, the sewage shower is tough to beat. It began one morning earlier this month, a broken ceiling pipe unleashing torrents of waste down into the ticketing area. The leak was quickly confirmed by the MTA—which, along with NJ Transit, pays Amtrak for use of the tracks—and a half dozen dumpsters were carted out to collect the droppings. The excess, flowing toward the eateries, was hastily mopped toward Tracks 18 and 19 of the Long Island Railroad, spreading the feculent stench throughout the building.
The pipe was still leaking by evening rush hour, when Vornado, the realty company that owns the plaza, got around to issuing an apology. By then, thousands of commuters had passed the poop deluge, many of them continuing on to the bowels of Penn Station seemingly unfazed. Others stopped to take note of the building's quickly deteriorating conditions, with one observer praising "the new water feature at Penn Station."
In recent weeks, Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed increasing frustration with the state of affairs at the station. A "Summer of Agony," he's now predicting, for a "literally crumbling" station not expected to improve "for the foreseeable future." Construction on the Gateway Program, which would dig a desperately-needed new train tunnel with two tracks under the Hudson, is supposed to begin by the end of the year. But that $24 billion project has long relied on sizable federal assistance, and the White House doesn't seem to be returning Cuomo's calls.
Assuming the tunnel does end up getting dug, it's not entirely clear what will happen next. On Tuesday, the governor called for the creation of a task force dedicated to coming up with an "aggressive action plan," and is proposing that the state wrest control of Penn Station from Amtrak. His other big idea has been slammed by the Times architecture critic as offering "hardly more than cosmetic changes," a view echoed recently by the paper's editorial board. That proposal involves turning the decaying James Farley Post Office Eighth Avenue into a new train hall for Amtrak, which would help only 20 percent of the station's 650,000 daily commuters, according to an Empire State Development study. Penn, meanwhile, would get wider concourses, new security tech, and a slightly raised ceiling fit with LED lights meant to imitate a blue sky. (That ceiling is only two feet higher, but imagine the view during the next downpour).
If Cuomo was inclined to consider other proposals, there are some ideas for Penn Station that may meet his stated intention to work in a spirit of "creativity and cooperation." One of the most ambitious visions—a cooperative effort between an architecture firm, the National Civic Art Society, and an urban planning think tank—would have Penn Station rebuilt in its former image, while crucially revising the Gateway Plan to reimagine the transit terminal as a through running station. Here's our breakdown of what that would look like (with lots of visual aids, as this can quickly get confusing).
The old Pennsylvania Station. (Berenice Abbott, Courtesy of the NYPL)
Entering the old Pennsylvania Station, Langston Hughes once wrote, was like passing through "some vast basilica of old / That towers above the terror of the dark / As bulwark and protection to the soul." To be in this Beaux-Arts space was a rapturous experience for Hughes, inspiring "a search within each soul" for something larger. That station was demolished in 1962—a decision so lamented that it led to the Landmark Law two years later—and replaced by an entertainment venue with a commuting underbelly. Six decades later, the second iteration of Penn Station evokes its own sort of existentialism, a commuting experience that Gothamist Editorial Director Jen Carlson has described as a "Hellmouth...crushing the souls of those passing through."
The general awfulness of Penn Station today is made all the more painful by the grandeur of the first version. Inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla, the original McKim, Mead and White masterpiece featured 150 foot glass ceilings, pink granite walls, and 84 Doric columns.The general waiting room, large enough to fit the entirety of Grand Central Station, possessed nine acres of travertine and granite. Summarizing the difference between that station and the one that came after it, architecture critic Vincent Scully famously said: "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."
The restoration of this godly entrance has been the project of Richard Cameron, the principle designer at Atelier & Co, since the 1990s. In his "Plan To Rebuild Penn Station," Cameron argues that the reconstruction of the former station could be achieved using the original McKim, Mead and White drawings, all 353 of which are currently archived by the New York Historical Society. He sees it as an "act of civil redemption," the only way to rectify the "cultural war crime" of the earlier demolition.
The first component of the plan, he says, would be restoring the original station's enormous open space, including its classical columns, high vaulted ceilings and thick glass floors that brought light four stories underground. The middle phase, a project of a separate think tank, would see the construction of a modern transit network connecting the station's various trains (more on that later). The third phase would be to redevelop the area in and around Penn Station, with the intention of making the station a tourist attraction similar to Grand Central Terminal.
(Provided by Rebuild Penn Station)
"There's no question that something dramatic needs to be done on that site, so why not just rebuild the old version, which everyone loved anyway," Cameron, who also cofounded the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, told me. "You could do nothing better for this city's architecture than bringing back that historic building."
While Cameron has championed the plan for decades, the idea was given new life after Cuomo announced his intention to overhaul the decrepit station last year. The National Civic Art Society has since thrown its support behind Rebuild Penn, campaigning for the original design while assisting with some "modifications to suit the needs of the present day."
"One of our ideas is to convert the original carriageways into covered arcades that could house outdoor markets, cafes, various retail stores," said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society. Shubow predicts such civic amenities would revitalize the neighborhood, which he estimates to be valued at 30 percent less than equivalent property surrounding Grand Central.
Transforming Penn Station from a transportation depot to a destination could be especially key in getting the blessing of Vornado, which owns most of the neighboring property, including Two Penn Plaza. While that high rise on the east side of the station could be demolished in the Rebuild Penn proposal, Shubow has also suggested re-cladding the building in stone.
A spokesperson for Vornado, which is currently one of the developers on Cuomo's Farley Post Office, declined to comment.
It's clear from speaking with both Shubow and Cameron that they see their Very Big Plan as increasingly within reach, even if the principal stakeholders—Cuomo, Port Authority, MTA, Amtrak, and Vornado—have thus far remained silent. Cameron estimates the cost at $3 billion, adding that it's "perfectly feasible, and less than the cost of the Oculus, which deals with a fraction of the passengers."
That price tag doesn't include the relocation of Madison Square Garden, another hurdle that proponents of the Rebuild Penn plan see as conquerable. The arena is owned by the Madison Square Garden Company, which since 1982 has enjoyed a yearly tax exemption—last year it was nearly $50 million—in exchange for not relocating to New Jersey. But Cameron speculates that "if someone let them take the tax credit, they’d move in a second."
The most pressing obstacle right now, according to advocates, has to do with Albany. "It's amazing how defeatist their attitude is," said Cameron. "It's entirely possible to do this, and it really is a question of someone like Cuomo deciding that this is going to be his legacy project."
The tricky thing about an infrastructure crisis, Jim Venturi tells me, is that "a solution needs to be found immediately, but in order to succeed, it needs to be planned over decades." That's one of the reasons that Venturi, the principal designer at urban planning firm ReThink Studio, has thrown his full support behind the Rebuild Penn plan. Another reason: both he and Cameron agree it would make a perfect centerpiece for Venturi's equally ambitious transit infrastructure proposal—one aimed at "rethinking" Penn Station, and ultimately, the entire commuter map of New York City.
Venturi's ReThinkNYC plan is based on a critical revision to the Gateway Program. While the firm supports the building of a new train tunnel under the Hudson River, ReThink is adamantly against the second phase of Gateway: the creation of a new terminal a block south of Penn Station, called Penn Station South, estimated by Cameron and Venturi to cost $7 billion.
"It's just a terrible idea that no one smart supports, but since Amtrak is running it, and they're just concerned with getting NJ Transit out of their hair, they're not thinking about the wider system," Venturi said. "An obsolete transportation instrument that requires the demolition of an entire city block, including a church from 1871—it's crazy."
Instead of Penn Station South, Venturi wants to "elongate the concept of Penn" by transforming the transit hub from a terminal (where NJ Transit and LIRR lines end) to a through-station (where they don't). In this vision, the LIRR would travel along existing lines to a new station in Secaucus, while NJ Transit would continue on to a new transit hub in Sunnyside, before terminating at a rail yard in the Bronx. (Additional menu items, like a Sunnyside terminal connected to Metro North and an expanded light rail network in New Jersey, could come later).
Because most of the infrastructure is already in place, Venturi believes this initial modification to Gateway could be done within the original $24 billion budget, provided the $7 billion earmarked for Penn Station South is reallotted for through running. Here's what that would look like:
Reached for comment, Amtrak spokesperson Craig Schulz highlighted the additional capacity provided by the new terminal, adding that "even if you could reconfigure the platforms in a way that would alleviate some of these issues, the magnitude of disruption it would cause to do that work would be tremendous."
But in Venturi's view, the loss of Penn Station South would be easily offset by the added efficiency of this through running approach. For one, he explains, the streamlined system reduces the number of required tracks, freeing up space for wider platforms, and "solving the main passenger-oriented bottleneck of the station." The wider platforms would also allow for three escalators to sit side-by-side, instead of just one.
Ending Penn's status as a terminal for LIRR and NJ Transit would offer plenty of unseen improvements as well, according to Venturi. Presently, trains returning to the railyard have to go back in the direction they came, cutting off access for those arriving in the station. Conductors also have to check each car to make sure no passengers remain. That unnecessary knot, combined with scheduling chaos that often leaves trains lingering at the station for as long as 30 minutes, accounts for much of the misery associated with Penn Station commuting. "It's so incredibly inefficient, which is why no sane transportation planner supports new terminals."
A rendering of the new tracks. (Provided by Rebuild Penn Station)
Venturi's soft-spoken but sharp-tongued declarations have generated some conflict with his fellow transit planners. Following a ReThinkNYC presentation at Cooper Union earlier this month, a polite sort of beef has emerged between ReThink Studio and the Regional Planning Association, a separate think tank set to release its own ambitious transit plan in the fall. In back-and-forth blog posts, RPA president Tom Wright argued against Venturi's proposal to scrap Penn Station South, among other things, leading to a lengthy rebuttal from ReThink, which notes that "our approach has been vetted and supported by some of the foremost transit experts in the world."
Meanwhile, the leading architectural plan, proposed by Vishaan Chakrabarti, strikes Venturi as "really problematic on a lot of levels," due in part to its approval of Amtrak's Penn Station South. That $2 billion proposal would move the Garden and turn its skeleton into a glass pavilion—a "budget Penn Station," in Venturi's view. The idea received similar reviews from Richard Cameron: "First of all, we've got enough glass and steel buildings to last us a lifeline, and it doesn't really create an iconic building at all. It's basically a glass donut."
Chakrabarti, whose plan was presented in stunning detail by the Times last year, declined to comment on anyone else's project, but he did acknowledge the benefits of through running stations. In his blog post, Tom Wright also clarified that the RPA "strongly supports running trains through Penn and providing direct service between New Jersey and Queens."
So there is some consensus, at least in theory. For now, while we wait on the president's generosity to relieve the Summer of Agony, it's mostly just fun to imagine a brighter future for Penn Station—whether it be a classical restoration, a modernist update, or something else entirely. At the very least, it's something to think about the next time you're stuck on a train.