At 2 p.m. on the afternoon of Oct. 8, former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan achieved a deal to transform the Farley General Post Office Building at 32nd Street and Eighth Avenue into a new Penn Station. “We’re through, finally!” said an exasperated Mr. Moynihan, reached by phone at the Carlyle Hotel. The former Senator originated the plan 10 years ago, but has been frustrated by a series of bureaucratic tangles and by the intransigence of the Postal Service, which he called “a pretty opaque bureaucracy” before lauding the few “fine people on the Postal Service board” who helped make the deal possible.
“We need this,” the former Senator said, “and boy, the West Side-my dear old West Side-is going to rise again. And [Governor] Pataki knows this, [Mayor] Bloomberg knows this; now everyone knows this.”
Under the deal, the state would buy the city’s main post-office building from the Postal Service for $230 million, and convert the national historic landmark into a new glass-covered Pennsylvania Station.
The Postal Service board paved the way for the state, in turn, to float $85 million in bonds guaranteed against income from leases in the planned commercial units and retail spaces in the new station’s concourse-nearly two years after Mr. Pataki signed a state law authorizing the bond issue, which already has gotten a favorable preliminary rating from Standard & Poor’s.
The remaining $145 million will come from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
David Childs’ award-winning design has been on hold for a year. The design mirrors the classic train stations of Europe’s world capitals, with a large, 160-foot-high bow of glass and steel that will direct dappled light onto a ticketing and retail concourse.
The new Penn Station will boast flagship facilities for the flagging Amtrak rail service, airport-access facilities for passengers bound for Kennedy and Newark airports, an increase in passenger capacity of an estimated 30 percent, along with improvements to the Eighth Avenue subway station at 34th Street and the restoration of the old Post Office lobby.
With significant changes in the space arrangements between the Postal Service and the state-the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corp. now will control 700,000 square feet of space in the building, rather than the 400,000 originally agreed upon-it’s not certain how extensive the alterations to the original design would be, but sources at the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which is building the new station, said there would be an effort to change them as little as possible, and to arrange for construction to begin quickly.
Those ambitious plans have taken on a heightened significance since Sept. 11, when New York’s resurgence became not just a rallying cry for the civic-minded, but a necessity for the city’s future.
In fact, while the events of Sept. 11 are widely blamed for delaying the plan, it may well be a chance meeting at Ground Zero that got the project back in gear, thanks to then–Mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg.
According to a source close to the Penn Station negotiations, Mr. Bloomberg has been an avid proponent of the project, and in the five minutes he got alone with President Bush at Ground Zero on Sept. 14, he reportedly expressed his interest in making sure the project got a push-and asked for a meeting to discuss the matter, whether he won the election or not.
Shortly thereafter, Senator Hillary Clinton, after taking a train home to Penn Station from Washington, D.C., said she noticed how poor the security was on Amtrak’s northeastern-corridor trains, raising the possibility that a terrorist bomb could be placed beneath the busy Manhattan complex, where Madison Square Garden and Penn Station converge. Security upgrades at Penn Station followed, but major flaws in the design of the tunnels, from a security standpoint, could only be remedied under the auspices of a much larger renovation project-and the Farley plan seemed the obvious way to push those security upgrades along.
“[This] means jobs for thousands of New Yorkers, safety improvements that can save lives, and economic revitalization of the entire area,” Mrs. Clinton said after the Oct. 8 announcement.
So it was easy to see how President Bush might look askance at the Sept. 21, 2001, letter from the Postal Service’s vice president for facilities, Rudy Umscheid, to the PSRC that seemed to say the deal was off entirely.
Charles Gargano, chief of the Empire State Redevelopment Corporation, leaked the news of the Postal Service’s apparent change of heart to the editorial board of the Daily News. A week later, on Oct. 11, 2001, Mr. Gargano accompanied Mr. Pataki to the White House to discuss ways the federal government could assist in rebuilding New York. The two emphasized the importance of the Penn Station project and, many say, asked the White House to put pressure on the Postal Service to come back to the table. Mr. Bloomberg’s Sept. 14 admonition apparently weighed heavily on the President, and he acted quickly.
Mr. Moynihan’s presence at the bill’s signing was significant not just because he was an originator of the idea; it’s also an indication of the city’s confidence that there are no more surprises on the way for the long-planned project.
It was April when Mr. Bloomberg first called Mr. Moynihan to serve on the board of the agency charged with the rebuilding effort, but the position did not begin until months later. Mr. Bloomberg was able to stage a flashy event announcing Mr. Moynihan’s appointment to the board, without the embarrassment of another yearlong wait for results.
After that, things started moving quickly again, with Postal Service spokesmen telling The Observer that a deal was expected within weeks-though that tale had been heard before.
Now, officials are talking about nitty-gritty details. The deed transfer is expected to take place within a year, Postal Service officials said, after which time work could begin in earnest-and is expected to take five years to complete.
The Postal Service would occupy about 200,000 square feet in the 1.4 million-square-foot Farley building under the terms of the agreement, but would mainly operate out of the Morgan Station and annex on Ninth Avenue. Retail postal services would remain in the building, as well as Express Mail, mail delivery, truck platforms, a stamp depository and the headquarters for the Postal Service’s New York district. Those services will largely be geared toward the Midtown West neighborhood, which is expected to expand when the Farley project gets underway, and as progress is made on city plans to extend the No. 7 line south and west from its current Times Square terminus through the station and over to the Javits Center at 34th Street on the Hudson River.
“We are proud to be a part of Manhattan’s revitalization, but we’re not going anywhere,” said Postmaster General John E. Potter in a statement. “We will continue to serve our customers at this building as we have since 1912.”
After the move, about 900 of the 2,500 current postal employees will remain in the building, opening up about half of the Farley building’s space to retail and commercial development by the state and city.
The deal also fulfills a goal of Mr. Pataki, who, sources said, was eager to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony before the general election on Nov. 5. Since the Postal Service’s special session Oct. 7 to vote on the deal, the rush has been on, with PSRC board members called only late last week to be informed that they may have to be in New York on Oct. 8 to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Postal Service. The deal was inked at 2 p.m., and by 3 p.m. the Governor was on the steps of the Farley building, effusing over Mr. Moynihan’s efforts.
Mr. Bloomberg has reason to smile about the deal as well. Sources said that without the Penn Station revitalization, the Bloomberg administration’s push to revitalize Midtown West with a series of development projects financed by raising taxes for businesses attracted to the area would be hobbled.
Mr. Bloomberg, who has been a big booster of the city’s 2012 Olympics bid, hired Daniel Doctoroff, the head of the city’s private Olympics committee, as his deputy mayor for economic development; Mr. Doctoroff, in turn, proposed a plan for a West Side stadium that is the centerpiece of his Olympics bid. The Farley project is said to be a big boost to Mr. Doctoroff’s ambitions on the West Side.
One concrete sign of that is a stipulation in the agreement that transfers 805,000 square feet of air rights-the right to build upward on surrounding parcels-to the state for further commercial development in the area.
Meanwhile, the speed that the project has taken on is evident; even the new station’s designer won’t be on hand, as Mr. Childs is in Tokyo on unspecified business. Mr. Childs figures prominently in what former Senator Moynihan called his “Penn Station war stories.”
“I set to work on the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, D.C.] in 1962,” Senator Moynihan said. “And we set up a little committee with President Kennedy, the Pennsylvania Avenue Planning Committee, and Nathaniel Owings of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill came on to join us; it was his last big thing, and he brought along this young 23-year-old named David Childs as his assistant. And we’ve been friends for 40 years now.
“My only regret is that David Childs called me last week, before I learned of this,” Mr. Moynihan added. “He said, ‘I gather there’s going to be a ceremony on October 8th; well, I’ll be in Tokyo!’”
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