Four architectural firms presented plans to developers in closed-door meetings late last month for a redesigned Penn Station—with Madison Square Garden chopped off the top and moved one block west, and traded in for office towers arranged around a pedestal that would house the train station.
Lord Norman Foster, Cesar Pelli, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill presented models showing anywhere from two to four towers of varying heights arranged around a pedestal that would house Penn Station, according to sources who would speak to The Observer only anonymously, in part for fear of prejudicing the process, and in part because each firm came up with two or three variations and it was hard to talk about them all.
But from their rather broad descriptions, some key points in the four plans emerged: Skylights would bring light down into the Penn Station waiting rooms belowground. In addition to the towers on the current Penn Station block, the models tended to show another tower, of about one million square feet, on the northeast corner of 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, on a parcel where a low-lying Duane Reade now stands.
The plans were commissioned by the Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust, the two firms that won a contract last year from a state agency to turn the Farley Post Office Building—at 32nd Street and Eighth Avenue—into a new train hub.
But since then, the developers have been working—at first secretly and then less so—on the logistics behind a much larger and more profitable Plan B, which would cover the blocks between 31st and 33rd streets, from Seventh to Ninth avenues, as well as part of the block to the north, east of Eighth Avenue.
In the past two months, the developers tapped the four architecture firms to come up with designs for remaking that five-block section of midtown west with a bright, airy and commuter-friendly Pennsylvania Station at its core.
The architectural bake-off, while customary for a project of this scope, signifies that the developers are moving forward even though—or perhaps because—the official status of both Moynihan Station (as the Farley building project has come to be called) and their own newer Plan B are uncertain.
Last month, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver blocked the Moynihan renovation. Governor George Pataki had threatened to pull the plans from the table if they were not approved, but has yet to do so. Plan B still has months or years to go before it is even officially presented to the state economic-development agency.
All of which means that the developers have a strong incentive to come up with the pretty pictures to show Albany as soon as possible: The next Governor will largely determine the pace and the course of the project, as well as just how much of the $1 billion estimated cost of redoing Penn Station will be carried by taxpayers.
“If I were in their shoes, I would be trying to put together the most persuasive plan possible,” said Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society, who added that he had no knowledge of the four architects’ designs. “You have to satisfy all of these people who have invested all these years and money in the Farley building. And then you have to make a persuasive case to the public to finance the thing.”
A spokesman for the developers, Bud Perrone, wouldn’t comment on particular architects and discounted the idea that a competition was underway.
“There is no competition or any such thing,” he told The Observer. “It is business as usual for Related and Vornado, which are constantly interviewing architects about various projects.”
Plan B, as the larger plan has come to be known, is at once a dream for commuters, a nightmare for preservationists and the commission of a lifetime for the winning architect. It is also pure gold for the developers. Steven Roth, the chief executive of Vornado, has said that the project would bring his company as much as $1.2 billion in profits.
Under Plan B, the Moynihan Station project would get done more or less as planned: The front section of the 1913 post office would be turned into a grand entrance to the train platforms below, complete with tony commuter shops à la Grand Central Terminal. But while the original plans for Moynihan Station were vague about what would happen to the rear half of the post office, Plan B calls for moving the Madison Square Garden arena there. That would free up most of the super-block between 31st and 33rd streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues for an office complex of about 5.5 million square feet. In the process, planners would get a chance to undo the claustrophobic corridors that came to define Penn Station when it was submerged in the 1960’s.
The redevelopment, Vornado’s chief executive has said, would boost rents on the five million square feet of office space that the company already owns in the area by making it a reputable destination for companies, as opposed to a holding ground for Irish bars and backpack stores. One of those buildings, 2 Penn Plaza, which sits on the east edge of Penn Station’s super-block, would either be razed or refaced under Plan B, according to sources.
All four of the architects that came up with designs have worked with the developers recently or are an obvious choice in some other way. David Childs is already designing the Moynihan Station renovation for the developers and has earned kudos for another project that he did for Related—the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Mr. Pelli did Vornado’s Bloomberg Tower on Lexington Avenue. Kohn Pedersen designed the ill-fated West Side Stadium, which also would have been built on a platform above railroad tracks. (The same tracks run below Penn Station, in fact, though three blocks to the east.)
Mr. Foster, meanwhile, spent much of this year basking in praise for the Hearst Tower at Eighth Avenue and 57th Street. (Mr. Barwick called him “everybody’s favorite something or other.”) On the other hand, Mr. Foster just presented another of his designs, this one for a 30-story tower on the Upper East Side, and has learned that the public’s enthusiasm diminishes the closer he comes to their homes.
The owners of Madison Square Garden, the Dolan family, are reportedly working with Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects, a Canadian firm, to design the new arena, which would go in the western half of Farley, the Annex. (A Garden spokesman wouldn’t confirm the choice.) Moving the basketball arena is Plan B’s most controversial aspect, for two reasons. First, preservationists believe that the arena would burst the walls of the 1935 Annex and necessitate other physical changes, like flashy signage on the Eighth Avenue façade.
Second, the Dolans are also reportedly insisting that they get to keep their $10 million annual tax breaks, while Mayor Bloomberg says that the tax breaks are specific to the Eighth Avenue location.
The entire Penn Plaza project is expected to cost $7 billion, with $1 billion of that going toward a new Penn Station. Mr. Silver—the one who killed the smaller Moynihan plan—last month told The Observer that the developers should pay for “70, 80, 90 percent” of the new station’s cost, although people involved wonder if he’s really serious and say that the public will bear most of the burden instead.
Mr. Silver, a Democrat representing lower Manhattan, said that he rejected the Moynihan plan because he wanted to wait until Plan B came together. Others have speculated that he was either trying to curry favor with State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who faced almost certain election as Governor, or was doing a favor for Madison Square Garden. (A former top aide to Mr. Silver is a lobbyist for the Dolans.) Governor Pataki, who contended that work could begin on Moynihan Station while the details of the larger deal were worked out, charged that Mr. Silver’s rejection was part of a “back-room deal to finance a new Madison Square Garden on the backs of taxpayers.” That is in part because the total bill for the public—now about $550 million—could triple in order to pay for the Penn Station renovation.
The whole project is several steps away from even getting approval, much less being completed. Not only does the property-tax issue for the Garden have to be worked out, but a new arrangement must be made with the U.S. Postal Service, which will no longer have any room to operate in Moynihan Station, as first planned. And the city, state and various transit agencies—New Jersey Transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Amtrak—will have to give their nod. Plus, it could take several years just to secure the funding from federal or local governments to pay for the train-station portion.