Speaker Silver on Moynihan: Deal by June ’07

Fresh from vetoing the project to turn the Farley Post Office Building into Moynihan Station, a new rail hub, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver nevertheless sounded chipper about a bigger, better train-station plan in his offices on the evening of Oct. 24.

“We’re talking probably sometime before June,” said Mr. Silver, a Democrat, in an hour-long interview with The Observer, when asked when he thought the project could get its final approval. “If it’s given a priority, it will come together, probably in the next four to six months. The deal is already together. When the developers came here to make a presentation, they gave me the full plan. That’s all they talked about. They laid it out right on that table with plastic models and everything.”

By June, he said, the private developers will agree to contribute some $700 million to $900 million to renovate Penn Station; the Mayor will have to extend Madison Square Garden’s tax break; and all of the paperwork will be redone for the new project.

On Oct. 18, Mr. Silver made history of a sort: He blocked the $900 million renovation of the Farley Post Office Building into a much-hyped new train station that was, in some ways, really just a glorified entryway.

But what a glorified entryway it would be: a spacious waiting room covered by a skylight, overpriced bars and restaurants just like in Grand Central, and the same McKim, Mead and White architecture that distinguished the original Penn Station until it met the wrecking ball 40 years ago.

It was the second time that Mr. Silver’s representative on the Public Authorities Control Board—a three-vote panel that approves major capital contributions by state agencies—killed a project. (Last year, he abstained from voting on the West Side Stadium, and the item therefore died.) But it couldn’t have come at a more strategic time: Governor George Pataki, who had turned the new station into a signature item, was nearing the end of his term and was therefore politically helpless. As Mr. Silver, and his wingman, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, nitpicked the plan apart, the Governor became increasingly helpless, finally threatening to undo the entire deal unless Mr. Silver gave his approval. That didn’t do the trick.

Mr. Silver hotly disputes the notion that he cast his vote to earn a chit from the likely next Governor, Eliot Spitzer, who has generally sided with Mr. Silver on the issue.

“If we are going to do Moynihan Station, the idea of the Governor incorporating a phony groundbreaking into his legacy is not the motivating factor in getting this done,” Mr. Silver said. He spoke from his office in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, where he pointed out that Mr. Pataki laid a cornerstone for the Freedom Tower in 2004, long before the plans were final. The cornerstone will not be used in the current scheme for the tower. “That is what his 12-year administration has been about: photo opportunities.”

Mr. Silver said that Mr. Spitzer, who happens to also be a Democrat, will be able to forget about ceremonials and undertake the bigger project that has lurked in the background but never been publicly proposed. Under that plan, the developers that won the bid to redo the post office, Vornado Realty Trust and the Related Companies, have proposed moving Madison Square Garden, which sits above Penn Station and across Eighth Avenue from Farley/Moynihan, a block west, into the rear half of the post-office building. (The train station would go in the front half.) Then, since Vornado owns pretty much all of the real estate nearby, it could construct three or four new gleaming modern skyscrapers, leaving space for a skylight that would shine down onto a newly renovated and expanded Pennsylvania Station. Moynihan would also go forward at the same time.

No one else has suggested that all of those moving parts could come together by June. A spokesman for Governor Pataki said it would take between 12 to 24 months to get a revised plan to the PACB. Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society and the main opponent of the larger plan, has estimated that it would take even longer. (Moynihan Station, after all, dates back to at least 1992.)

There are just two catches.

One: Who will pay for the new Penn Station, on top of the $550 million that the public is already contributing to create Moynihan? A spokesman for Mr. Pataki called the speaker’s veto a “back-room deal to finance a new Madison Square Garden on the backs of taxpayers.”

Mr. Silver suggested that the developers contribute “70, 80, 90 percent of the cost,” though he said it would depend on how much value Vornado and Related would get out of the right to get rid of Madison Square Garden.

Two: The Garden will reportedly only move if it gets to take its property-tax exemption—valued at about $10 million a year—with it to a new location. That would be a city decision, and as recently as Oct. 19, Mayor Michael Bloomberg­—who battled Madison Square Garden’s owners over the failed West Side stadium last year—stood his ground, insisting on taking that tax break away if the arena should move.

Mr. Silver said he’d heard that the Mayor would be willing to relent, “even though he doesn’t like it.”

And if Mr. Bloomberg sticks to his guns and refuses to give in, Mr. Silver said, “then it will cost him a billion dollars to renovate Penn Station.”