Atlantic Cities

Can New York's Penn Station Ever Be Great Again?

Four architectural firms unveiled grand designs for a new Penn Station and Madison Square Garden at an event this week sponsored by the Municipal Art Society of New York. Whether any of the shiny dreams they floated has a chance of becoming reality is a wide-open question, but those in attendance seemed ready to push for a new vision of what is today a hideous and congested vortex at the heart of Manhattan – an opportunity that seems to be briefly opening as Madison Square Garden’s permit to operate comes up for renewal for the first time since it was built atop Penn Station's tracks nearly 50 years ago.

Two of the firms quoted in their presentations the architectural historian Vincent Scully, Jr., on the contrast between the experience of the grand old Penn Station and the grim facility that replaced it after it was demolished in 1963: "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."


The original Penn Station. Image courtesy of Cervin Robinson, via the Historic American Engineering Record/Wikimedia Commons (Left); Penn Station today. Photo by Leif Knutsen/Wikimedia Commons

The words raised a sad chuckle of resignation in the audience both times, because everyone knew exactly what Scully was talking about. There are few transit terminals in the United States as dismal as Penn Station, even after a renovation in the 1990s that made matters slightly less dire. Greyhound stations in some cities compare favorably.

It’s been half a century now since McKim Mead and White’s soaring Beaux Arts Pennsylvania Station was razed because the auto and jet ages had diminished the importance of train travel. That ethereal building was replaced, in a multipart deal that seems foolish in retrospect, by the squat drum of Madison Square Garden and a couple of blocky office towers. It was an affront to the cityscape that spurred the architectural preservation movement in the city and in the country at large.

Relegated to a hole in the ground underneath MSG, Penn Station remains one of the most important transit hubs in the country, serving more than 600,000 passengers daily on NJ Transit, the Long Island Railroad, Amtrak, and the city’s subway system. This makes it the busiest transit facility in North America, perhaps even the Western Hemisphere. It was designed to accommodate just 125,000 people per day. It is a miserable and frustrating place, and likely unsafe as well.

And according to the architects who presented proposals for a reimagined Penn, the station will never be better until the Garden, whose foundation is sunk into the station itself, is pried off its back. The current plan to relocate some of Penn's traffic to a new Moynihan Station, housed in the old Farley Post Office Building across Eighth Avenue from Penn, has been plagued with delays and fails to address the majority of the passengers who make their way through the crowded waiting rooms and platforms. No one who cares about transportation in the Northeast Corridor is happy with the way things are.

The expiration of the Garden’s permit to operate has advocates of a grand solution convinced, as a representative of the firm H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture put it, that “the time is now.” Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of the New York Times, has been forcefully arguing in that publication that the city should limit the Garden’s owners to 10 more years at the site, rather than the 15 that the city’s planning commission recommends, and that those 10 years be used to craft an implement a radical re-envisioning of the station and the site. He also contends that a loophole that could see the Garden’s presence extended indefinitely without review should be eliminated:

From the broader perspective of the city’s financial future, limiting the permit provides an extraordinary opportunity for long-term economic development in the surrounding district. The area is on the verge of transformation with the coming of Hudson Yards, the extension of the High Line and someday, perhaps, even high-speed rail, all presently held back by the condition of the Garden and Penn Station….

Such a crucial hub could instead become a model of commitment to the future.

And the Garden, which has moved several times before, should profit from another new home, linked to mass transit, in a booming district where the arena would be not a decrepit relic but the best sports and entertainment facility in the city.

The question of whether the permit will be renewed for 15 years will go before the City Council in June.

So what might a new Penn Station and a relocated MSG look like? The four architects invited by MAS to contribute were Diller Scofidio + Renfro, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, SHoP Architects, and SOM. Each came up with a wildly aspirational revisioning of not only the station and MSG, but also of the area for blocks around. There were light-filled arcades and roof gardens, parks and plazas, office towers and apartments, bike lanes and day spas, theaters and “drifting vendors.”

Diller Scofidio + Renfro presented the most conceptual take on the problem, framing their design as “a city within a city” that grappled with “the correlation of time and space” and reimagined “waiting as a virtue” by allowing the traveler to explore the surrounding areas with time-coded mobile apps.

H3 Hardy put forth a pedestrian and bike greenway that would lead out to an MSG  pushed out to Manhattan’s periphery, on an extended pier in the Hudson (no mention of flooding threat).


H3's proposal for a renovated interior inside Penn Station. Image courtesy of H3 Hardy.


An elevated walkway above Penn Station. Image courtesy of H3 Hardy.

SHoP Architects proposed moving the Garden to the site of the Morgan postal facility to the south (reasoning that the mail is on its way out, anyway), and proudly proclaimed the firm’s comfort with the nuts and bolts of financing and wrangling a project this huge.




Proposals for a new Penn Station. All images courtesy of SHOP.

Those nuts and bolts – both financial and political – will be harder to maneuver into place than any glass tower or bioswale. According to Curbed, Madison Square Garden released the following statement after the design proposals had been applauded by the MAS crowd:

It's curious to see that there are so many ideas on how to tear down a privately owned building that is a thriving New York icon, supports thousands of jobs and is currently completing a $1 billion transformation. These pie-in-the-sky drawings completely ignore the fact that no viable plans or funding to rebuild Penn Station and relocate MSG actually exist. Not that long ago, MSG spent millions of dollars and three years exploring a move to the Farley building as part of the new vision for Moynihan Station. That plan collapsed for a number of reasons that did not involve MSG, but did involve many of the same people now pressuring MSG to move, including The Municipal Art Society, which created enormous obstacles to achieving the relocation. The restoration of Moynihan Station has been a 20-year discussion that has led to very little progress or funding. The fact that this exercise does not include anyone who actually has detailed knowledge of this issue or understands the realities of this complex project exposes this exercise for exactly what it is.

The fight over the future of this incredibly valuable real estate in the heart of midtown Manhattan is just beginning. Whether it results in a future Penn Station that is fit for gods, or merely for rats, remains to be seen.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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