The plan to turn the Farley Post Office building at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street into a commuter-rail hub named after its early champion, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is turning into a political skirmish pitting Governor George Pataki and his administration against the city.
Charles Gargano, the Governor’s development czar, is anxious to get a spade in the ground on the new Penn Station by the end of the year—and, some say, the end of his boss’ term.
But the Bloomberg administration and city business leaders say it’s worth waiting until two of the city’s largest real-estate developers complete a deal to move Madison Square Garden into a new arena space taking up the western half of the Farley site. That, they say, would leave the current site of Penn Station open for an ambitious redevelopment plan.
Under the $7 billion deal, the Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust would take the land currently occupied by the Garden and turn it into a new development of office towers that city leaders say would turn the dreary West 30’s neighborhood into the next Rockefeller Center.
About two weeks ago, executives from Related and Vornado began a campaign to convince the city’s political and business elite that the deal is worth waiting for.
They took some plastic and wooden models of the Penn Station area to show off in a series of meetings with City Hall, important business associations and the New York Times editorial board. The different models were meant to show that the plan was very much in its infancy, but participants in those meetings say they showed a new sports arena fitting on the back half of the Farley Post Office, along Ninth Avenue. Three or four high-rise office towers would rise on the Garden’s old site, between Seventh and Eighth avenues. An aboveground Penn Station would stretch for most of the block beneath them. A 200-foot-high glass dome would permit sunlight to reach commuters for the first time in 40 years.
Along with the models, the executives brought some numbers: The whole project represented a $6 billion investment by the developers, which would yield $1 billion in tax revenues for the state and the city.
The lobbying worked. The business groups came out on May 31 strongly in favor of the Garden swap plan at a public hearing before the state economic-development agency.
If the new plan—which would require, among other things, the cooperation of the prickly Dolan clan at Cablevision—delays Mr. Gargano’s plan, it could meet opposition.
“The chairman and I have said it is critically important to start Moynihan Station this year,” said Robin Stout, president of the Moynihan Station Development Corporation, referring to Mr. Gargano, chairman of the MSDC as well as its parent agency, the Empire State Development Corporation. “I personally have not seen plans for months that are anything more than back-of-the-envelope plans and are obviously quite speculative both in design and financial construct.”
“It has been eight years since everyone stood on steps and said construction will shortly begin. It will be embarrassing to the Governor if nothing actually happens in his term,” said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society and the most vocal opponent of a Garden swap.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, senior vice president at Related, said that his company would be able to begin work on Moynihan as planned and complete the larger deal before it created any delays. Mr. Barwick scoffed at the suggestion.
“It is like saying, ‘I haven’t decided whether to have a one-bedroom or two-bedroom or five-bedroom house, so I will start with the front door and the hallway and figure out where to put the bath later,’” he said.
Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff was less skeptical.
“I’m not 100 percent sure that you have to hold it up or not, but it is worth exploring,” he told The Observer. “We will have to wait and, over the next few weeks, we should know more.”
Less than a year ago, before this larger scheme came about, refurbishing an old half-used post office into a train hall and leaving Madison Square Garden where it was sounded good enough.
And it was said to be plenty: When Vornado and Related were named last July as the developers who would outfit the station with shops and a hotel, Mayor Bloomberg called it “a gateway to the vibrant new neighborhoods that we are building over the Far West Side” and “a world-class destination.”
That more modest plan to turn the post office into a train hall is 70 percent designed, and within three months of full approval.
But the Vornado-Related team, according to participants in that and other presentations, emphasized that Moynihan would attract just 20 percent of Penn Station’s commuter traffic. (Mr. Stout said that number would increase to 33 percent once the rezoned Hudson Yards area gets developed.)
“I think what is incumbent upon everyone,” Mr. Doctoroff said, “is that while there is an existing plan, albeit in a very preliminary stage, we should stop and think about whether there is not a combined deal that makes more sense and can be done more expeditiously.”
That’s a complex problem. For one thing, Madison Square Garden, which would not comment for this story, says it will not move unless it gets to bring its property-tax exemption to its new location. Mr. Doctoroff has so far refused. (Its primary owners, the Dolans, fiercely opposed his West Side stadium plan last year.)
For another thing, it took about 10 years to cobble together the half-billion dollars in public funding for acquisition and construction of Moynihan Station. The resurrected Penn Station would cost, by one estimate, another billion dollars—and Vornado and Related are not going to pay for all of it.
The catch is that, eventually, certain decisions will have to be made. The larger plan will add about 12 months to the design and review process, along with any time that Related, Vornado, the Dolans and City Hall spend negotiating final details. Will those details be ironed out by the time construction reaches critical junctures?
Under the original plan, the intermodal hall—an area where people could check into their flights and take the train to J.F.K.—would go between the east and west halves of Farley. If the Garden deal comes through, the hall would go on the east side of Eighth Avenue as part of the new Penn Station.
The Dolans are also reportedly insisting that its patrons be allowed to enter from Eighth Avenue, through the train station.
“There is a reality that if you go this route, you would not go as quickly,” said Richard Anderson, the president of the New York Building Congress, which gave measured support for the arena swap at the public hearing. “It will certainly take longer to do. On the other hand, the straightforward Moynihan Station plan has not gotten off the ground.
“If you have the right project,” he said, “sometimes it will take less time than the wrong project, especially if there are powerful economic incentives on all sides. If this is the right project, everyone will rally behind it.”
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