Article and Photo by Farah Javed | May 25, 2022
Every month for the past eight years, Justin Rivers has walked tour groups through the long corridors of Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan. Rivers, the chief experience officer of Untapped Cities, a New York travel agency, highlights the bald eagle statues outside; the winding, metal staircases inside, and other remnants of the original station that still stand today.
His favorite relic is a hand-painted red-and-blue sign near the entrance for the No. 1, 2 and 3 subway lines along the Long Island Railroad Concourse. For years, Rivers urged the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to protect the sign with plexiglass, since people would cover it with stickers or graffiti; in October 2021, the MTA granted his wish.
“I burst out into tears when I saw it,” he said.
Rivers’ interest in preserving history faces new challenges as Penn Station and the surrounding area are poised to undergo significant redevelopment that threatens other historical buildings, including the 103-year-old Hotel Pennsylvania across the street from the station, and some residential buildings as well.
Preservationists say the state’s nearly $7 billion “Pennsylvania Station Area Civic and Land Use Improvement Project” is vague and would demolish historic buildings that include apartments and small businesses.
Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of the land use, housing and zoning committee of Community District Board 5, which oversees Manhattan neighborhoods included in the real estate plan, said the “plan is utterly unnecessary.”
“It is actually very risky financially and it could actually be a huge liability to the state. It is wasteful because we would put six city blocks in the dumpster,” she said. “It is very bad for the environment, and it would be devastating because it would cause the displacement of hundreds of residents and thousands of workers.”
While Rivers rescued that piece of history, preservationists did not have the same success with Hotel Pennsylvania, which sits right outside the station. The 103-year-old hotel, once the largest globally, is the first of many historical buildings that may be demolished as a part of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s almost $7 billion “Pennsylvania Station Area Civic and Land Use Improvement Project.”
Like Penn Station, Hotel Pennsylvania holds historical significance in New York’s history. Count Basie performed inside the limestone walls of the hotel’s restaurant, Café Rouge. Inventor Edwin Land nervously introduced the first polaroid technology there in 1947. But unlike Penn Station, only construction workers enter the permanently shuttered Hotel Pennsylvania, now flanked by wooden planks and asbestos notices.
First proposed under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and then reimagined by Gov. Kathy Hochul, the plan will update Penn Station’s interior by raising its ceilings, adding a 450-foot concourse and adding nine additional new tracks by 2028. Developer Vornado Realty Trust would raze nine city blocks and erect 10 towers with office and retail spaces, 336 hotel rooms, and affordable housing units to fund the project. In total, the development would take four to five years after construction begins.
“The era of neglecting our Penn Station commuters and the neighboring community is over,” Gov. Hochul said in a news conference in November unveiling renderings of the plan. “New York leaders are expected to offer visionary ideas and take bold actions, and that’s exactly what my proposed transformation of Penn Station accomplishes.”
Rivers agrees that the station, the busiest rail station in the nation, needs an interior overhaul.
“It always feels a little scary and definitely feels cramped. Temperature-wise, it’s usually too hot,” Rivers said. “There’s always foul smells and there’s always confusion because people who don’t know it well have no idea where they’re going. Commuters who know it well are sort of very testy and angry people usually because they’re just trying to get to where they’re going. And then of course, in corners and pockets all over there are homeless people.”
“I could go on, but you know, Penn is not a place that you go like Grand Central to sort of celebrate New York or to enjoy the architecture or to even have a pleasant experience in coming in or out of the city.”
Kevin Liu, 26, a Midtown resident for five years, agrees that Penn Station should be renovated, describing it as “murky and dirty.” “I’ve been to Penn Station many times and like, it’s awful, so I think it’s perfectly fine to redevelop Penn station,” Liu said.
According to the Pennsylvania Station Civic and Land Use Project Public Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS), these blocks contain 10 properties eligible for landmark status. They meet the NYC Landmark Preservation Commission’s criteria of being at least 30 years old and having “special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, state, or nation.”
An additional 38 buildings might be eligible for State or National Register status. To be included in this official list of historical buildings, a property must have an association with a historic event, a significant person, architecture or archeology. The Landmark Preservation Commission has not ruled on these properties yet.
“The landmarks commission has been very slow in designating building since the beginning of the fiscal year,” Lorna Nowvé, interim executive director of Historic Districts Council, a historic building advocacy organization, explained. “There are buildings throughout the city worthy of a hearing, and the landmarks commission is just dragging its feet.”
Some properties that would be demolished as part of the plan are the Penn Station Service Building, the Fairmont Building and St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church Complex.
Other landmark-eligible buildings are within 90 feet of the planned construction and could be damaged by debris. These include the U.S. General Post Office and the 23rd Police Precinct Station House. The new development will also cast shadows on historical buildings including the Empire State Building.
Father Thomas Gallagher of St. Francis of Assisi Church believes that “some renovation is a good idea,” but he is worried about how shadows will impact the church.
“I am concerned about more towers and putting things into shadows here downtown,” he said. “I think light is an important thing and our church has some beautiful stain glass windows that just aren’t seen when they’re in the shadows,” he said.
While preservationists urge Hochul to stop the demolition, some people and groups are more concerned about what will happen to residents of the neighborhood.
The DEIS says that by the time the project is complete in 2028, 200 residents could lose their homes. The development plan promises 540 residential units and one building with 162 affordable housing units to counteract this displacement.
Other critics, including Seri Worden, senior field director of the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, say all the planned new office space isn’t needed.
“It’s hard to accept how many millions of miles of square feet of office space we would be adding to Midtown Manhattan when it seems as though that’s retrograde idea considering where office work is going,” she said. “Thinking more about affordable housing would be significant and important.”
A recent survey by the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit representing large employers, found that only 8% of office workers had returned to the office full time; while 62% worked remotely.
“It just seems crazy to add yet more office space to this area at this moment in time,” Worden said.
Louis Bailey, managing director of the environmental consultancy group WE ACT for Environmental Action, questioned the affordability of the planned housing.
At “$2,500 to $3,000 for a one-bedroom, I don’t think a lot of people in that area can afford that,” he said. “Who loses out when they’re not able to take advantage of this new economic development project?”
Kevin Liu asked, “Are people going to get kicked out in the process and then are the costs of rents also going to increase a lot? I know there are like shelters in the area as well, so will those people get kicked out as well?”
Rivers, the tour leader, suggested that certain other neighborhoods without historical buildings could be developed.
“We can improve Penn Station without destroying the fabric of a vibrant community,” he said.