Will Mailmen Gum Up Moynihan’s Big Dream of a New Penn Station?

The new Pennsylvania Station planned for the James A. Farley Post Office on the West Side could lose nearly $2 million a year if the Postal Service wins a battle to limit retail outlets in the huge space, according to a government report.

The state agency responsible for the $315 million project, the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation, estimates that the station will require as much as $1.7 million in subsidies if the Postal Service, which owns the building, retains space for uses the P.S.R.C. believes could be moved elsewhere. The Postal Service, however, insists that it should retain more than half the building, and that the rail terminal should require substantially less space than the P.S.R.C. desires. The Postal Service’s plan would severely limit the P.S.R.C. proposal to develop retail space in the building.

At stake, say worried proponents of the new station, is the economic viability of the project as well as a magnificent opportunity to spark an economic resurgence on the West Side.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has long championed the proposed station as a chance to re-create the lost grandeur of the original Pennsylvania Station, the architectural masterwork designed by McKim, Mead & White that was demolished in 1963. The Farley building is across the street, on the west side of Eighth Avenue, from the old Penn Station site. But the project has been mired in a dispute between the P.S.R.C. and the Postal Service about how much space the station requires. Last year, the Senator took the extraordinary step of appealing to President Bill Clinton to resolve the situation.

Despite the battle between the P.S.R.C. and the Postal Service, the Senator seems optimistic that a deal is near. “I think we’re closing-we’re very close,” Mr. Moynihan told The Observer . “The White House is very much involved. We’re now talking real-life options with real money.”

But Robert Peck, the Federal Commissioner of Public Buildings who is overseeing the negotiations for the Clinton Administration, said the P.S.R.C. will almost certainly have to agree to scale back its sweeping and well-received plans to satisfy the Postal Service. “I think we need to get back to basics,” Mr. Peck said. “The project was conceived as a great train station for New York City. It was not the primary intention to use the rest of the building as some kind of an economic development center”-a reference to the plans for retail outlets.

After so many years of struggling, Mr. Moynihan said he simply wanted to see travelers finally ascending into the building from the railway tracks that already run beneath the structure. “I just think you cannot go wrong getting people up [into the building] from these tracks under the Farley building,” he said. “They figure to be handling 50 million people a year by 2015.”

Other station proponents, however, fear that the new station’s tremendous promise might be lost if the Postal Service refuses to give up more ground. “It is as much a tragedy to squander this opportunity as it was to tear down the original Penn Station,” said Philip Howard, chairman of the Municipal Art Society.

Stakes High for Gargano

The stakes are every bit as high for Charles Gargano, Gov. George Pataki’s chief economic adviser and chairman of the P.S.R.C. “What we build will be judged against the original Pennsylvania Station,” Mr. Gargano warned in a statement to The Observer . “Every so often, maybe every 100 years, the public sector has the chance to stand up and build what it believes in. How well we rebuilt it is going to say a lot about us and what our city will be like in the future.”

Kathleen McDonough, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said the service was cooperating with station planners to bring about a “world-class” rail terminal in the Farley building at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue. She declined go into detail about the P.S.R.C. report or the Postal Service’s own plans.

The battle over the Farley building, another McKim, Mead & White landmark, boils down to a turf war over square footage. The P.S.R.C. says it needs a total of 702,050 square feet-half of the Farley building-to construct an adequate station. In an effort to make the project economically self-sufficient, 257,600 square feet would be leased to stores and other retail users.

According to the station planners, Union Station in Washington, D.C., has roughly the same ratio of retail space and has proven to be such a success that the surrounding area has been revitalized. “The Penn Station station plan seeks a similar critical mass of retail to make the new station self-sufficient,” according to the report.

Robert Futterman, senior managing director of Garrick-Aug Associates Store Leasing Inc., said retail stores would flock to the new station: “I think the revenue they are going to be able to generate from small stores is going to be enormous.”

But according to the P.S.R.C. report, the Postal Service believes that the project needs a mere 433,880 square feet-with only 98,000 square feet of retail space. That’s not enough room for the hordes of rail passengers who are expected to patronize the new station, particularly once the rail link to the Kennedy International Airport is finished, the report warns. What’s more, it argues, the Postal Service plan would drive up the cost of the project by $32 million and require an annual subsidy of $1.7 million in years to come.

That’s not all. The P.S.R.C. argues that a properly done Penn Station could transform the surrounding neighborhood, and it contends that some Postal Service functions don’t need to be in the heart of midtown. For years, the P.S.R.C. laments in its report, the area to the west of the building has remained shabby and undeveloped because the post office’s loading docks have blocked the sidewalks.

The P.S.R.C. would move the docks into the basement and reduce the flow of mail trucks by moving the Postal Service’s maintenance and storage facilities out of the building. “What is now a monolithic building, whose loading dock blocks pedestrian access to the west, will be opened to the public benefit,” the report says. “Perhaps most important of all, the station will have a front door on Ninth Avenue, presenting a new public facade and gateway to the west … a crucial growth area for Manhattan in the next decade.”

Daniel Brodsky, one of the city’s leading residential developers, said that a well-executed station could spark a renaissance in the area just as Lincoln Center did on the Upper West Side decades ago. “I think the same thing will happen with Penn Station if you let great development happen there,” Mr. Brodsky said.

Postal Service Won’t Deliver

According to the P.S.R.C. study, however, the Postal Service doesn’t want to move its loading docks and doesn’t want to relocate any of its operations in the Farley building. That position drives some station proponents to distraction, particularly those who say the surrounding area is ripe for new development. “You don’t have low-wage workers in a high-value area,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University. “It’s like having clerical workers on Park Avenue.”

Others argue that the Postal Service is clinging to the building simply because it wants to protect its turf and throw its political clout around. Certainly the building isn’t as important to the Postal Service as it once was. The Farley building once housed 6,000 postal workers. Now there are only 2,400.

Recent visitors say acres of the building are eerily vacant. Moreover, they complain, vast portions of the building are devoted to functions that could easily be relocated, such as a huge mailbox repair facility and a cavernous wood shop. “It’s like some kind of Rod Serling movie,” said Richard Nash Gould, an architect who has been studying the Farley building for the Municipal Art Society.

The P.S.R.C. report includes similarly Kafkaesque observations. It suggests that portions of the building are like “unneeded hallways leading to empty rooms … Bottled drinking water … must be provided throughout the building because of old pipes,” it says.

The Postal Service’s Ms. McDonough, however, is adamant that the Farley building still is crucial to the mail delivery throughout the region. “The Farley building is an enormously important part of that network,” she said. “We realize there are other public goods that must be served, but not at the expense of the mail service.”

Crucial or not, the Postal Service seems likely to get its way. Mr. Peck suggests in no uncertain terms that the station planners may be reaching too far. He says the Postal Service is willing to give the P.S.R.C. enough space for the station and that the state agency may be overstating its need for retail space.

What’s more, Mr. Peck warns that the Federal funds set aside for the station may be at risk if a compromise isn’t soon reached. “This is a chunk of money that other people outside New York would not mind getting their hands on if they don’t think we are going to use it,” he said. “Senator Moynihan is aware of that. President Clinton is, too. This is something where you think he has lots of other things to think about. But there is not a week that has gone past where I haven’t gotten a call from the President’s office saying, ‘Where are we?'”

All of this would seem to dim the P.S.R.C.’s hopes of getting 50 percent of the building. However, a source familiar with the negotiations said the agency’s attempts to take so much of the building and to relocate many of the Postal Service’s operations there (to a nearby empowerment zone, no less) may still have served a purpose. “There were some recalcitrant folks in the Postal Service,” the source said. “I think that you have to read some of these plans as being designed to put pressure on the Postal Service.”

Small wonder, then, that Mr. Moynihan is suddenly so charitable toward the Postal Service after having such difficulties up until recently. “Now it’s different,” he said. “We’ve gotten to know them, and the whole atmosphere is one of cooperation and career people trying to get their work done.”

But, Senator, what about those troublesome loading docks? Mr. Moynihan answered with a weary sigh: “Oh, give them some time.”

Will Mailmen Gum Up Moynihan’s Big Dream of a New Penn Station?