On Election Day last November, Vishaan Chakrabarti, the name and face of the private developers that are planning to overhaul Pennsylvania Station and the area around it, called up Patrick Foye, an aide to Governor-to-be Eliot Spitzer, and asked him to have a meeting. The conversation went something like this:
Mr. Foye: “How about tomorrow at 8 a.m.?”
Mr. Chakrabarti: “Won’t you have a hangover?”
Mr. Foye: “It doesn’t matter. This is important.”
And so, just a matter of hours after Mr. Spitzer won, Mr. Foye—not even announced as chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation—began to chart the course of an entirely new office district with a double-headed train station. Since then, Mr. Foye and others who work for him have been moving forward quickly to get Moynihan Station back on track after its demise in the final months of the Pataki administration, expanding the scope of any project to include the so-called Plan B, which would involve a new Penn Station as well.
Mr. Foye, according to sources both inside and outside the Spitzer administration, has organized a working group of representatives of the train lines that use the station—Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority—which has been meeting weekly with the developers, Vornado Realty Trust and the Related Companies, to understand the logistics of a new design.
He has also, according to these sources, come to believe that the private developers need to share some of the approximately $1 billion cost of ripping Penn Station open to the sky and of earning undying fealty from the 550,000 daily commuters who currently snake around the subterranean tunnels that some have come to call “the pit.”
THESE EFFORTS HAVE BEGUN TO PAY OFF.
On Feb. 2, the ESDC signed a memorandum of understanding that extends the state’s option to purchase the Farley Building from the U.S. Postal Service, according to Postal Service spokesman Bob Anderson.
Former Governor Pataki’s chief economic-development czar, Charles Gargano, had been trying to do the same—the purchase price was set at $230 million—but was unable to do so before he left office on Dec. 31.
However, the option only lasts until the end of March, which suggests that Mr. Foye plans a quick purchase or will have to renegotiate yet another extension. An ESDC spokesman wouldn’t elaborate.
In addition, Mr. Foye, who got to know Mr. Spitzer and his wife, Silda Wall, while all three were lawyers at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, has made the Moynihan pitch as part of his meetings with elected officials and civic groups.
“We are taking a fresh look at each of the projects from the Pataki administration, and we are looking at them on an expeditious but deliberative basis,” Mr. Foye told The Observer.
Mr. Foye and the developers declined to be more specific about any talks. But the interest Mr. Foye has shown in reviving and expanding the Moynihan Station plan has made some observers convinced that he has put it at the top of the new Governor’s economic-development agenda.
But in doing so, this genial, bearded Long Islander is diving headlong into a pit of a different kind: Steven Roth, the chairman of Vornado, which already owns a number of buildings near Penn Station and a portion of its air rights, is known as a relentless negotiator. Jim Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden, is known as a capricious one.
The $865 million Moynihan Station plan—according to which the front part of the Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue would be turned into a train hall and stairs would be sunk below to meet the same train tracks that run below Penn Station—died in October when State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver blocked it. The current talks are focused on much broader plans, first floated by Vornado and Related more than a year ago, in which Madison Square Garden would move to the west end of Farley; the Pennsylvania Station would be redone; and that superblock, between Seventh and Eighth avenues and 31st and 33rd streets, would turn into what the developers like to call a new Rockefeller Center—two to four state-of-the-art office towers containing about five million square feet of office space.
The inability to get Moynihan Station started before the end of his tenure was perhaps Mr. Gargano’s greatest defeat in his 12-year reign as ESDC chairman, all the more poignant because he was there when the state first took over the project in 1995 and shepherded it through several different iterations as market conditions and Amtrak’s financial troubles changed its scope and function. Suddenly, in the last year, the developers’ ambitious plans to move Madison Square Garden remade the project yet again into something bigger than Mr. Gargano could control.
In an interview with The Observer, Mr. Gargano said the developers subverted the approval process for Moynihan Station by drumming up support for Plan B among city officials and business and civic groups.
“I thought they got a little too cute. They went a little too far trying to lobby everyone,” said Mr. Gargano, who is now advising his former boss on a possible run for the Presidency. “They recognized, especially Steve Roth of Vornado, what it would do in terms of value if they were able to move the Garden and have the air rights, that it would give them one to two billion dollars in profits, and, therefore, it was a multimillion-dollar deal for them. That was their motivation.”
While Plan B first circulated publicly in spring 2006, its origins go back further, when, according to a source familiar with the original Vornado and Related bid, the developers mentioned the Garden swap and Penn Station overhaul as an alternative to their main proposal. That alternative went largely unnoticed inside and outside the ESDC for at least a year. The state publicized the winning bid as one that would have devoted the western end of Farley to vaguely defined big-box retail.
By March 2006, the Related Companies had engaged a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, Dutko Worldwide, to discuss the project with federal agencies, including the Department of Transportation, which could fund at least a portion of the cost of the Penn Station overhaul. A real-estate industry source said, however, that the developers’ lobbying activities wouldn’t impact financing for the city’s other transportation projects, such as the Second Avenue Subway. The lobbyists, according to the source, are targeting agencies including the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees funding for Amtrak and the nation’s railroads, rather than mass transit.
EVEN WHILE THE DRAMA OVER the Moynihan Station approval was unfolding last fall, the developers were explaining the larger Plan B to members of the Spitzer camp, according to sources.
Since then, the Penn Station project has become a regular feature of Mr. Foye’s presentations to a wide variety of supporters and public officials.
One of his earliest meetings took place in late November or early December with Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and the chairman of the nonprofit organization’s public-policy committee, John J. Kerr Jr. The conservancy is one of two prominent groups that object to plans by the developers to turn the elegant neoclassical foyer of the post office into a ticket-selling area for the Knicks and Rangers.
“[Mr.] Foye said that he was listening to everyone and it was too early to say one thing or another, but he was very gracious about meeting with us early,” Ms. Breen told The Observer. “We think that this can be a great opportunity. It’s clearly great for economic development—the developers are going to do well, the Garden will do well, the improvements to Penn Station are a good thing. But everything started with the notion of a great train station at Farley, and we wanted to make sure that that wasn’t lost; and we wanted to make sure that there really was a separate great train station, and that it wasn’t just a forecourt to the Garden.”
Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society, another prominent group anxious about the Garden swap, said that Mr. Foye needs to be a vigorous negotiator on behalf of the public.
“The Empire State Development Corporation has extraordinary powers. What we saw in the last few years was the state using those powers to achieve what the private developers wanted to do, without appropriate consideration for the public good,” said Mr. Barwick, who is planning to meet with Mr. Foye in the coming week or two. “You need a person—it could be a nicer Bob Moses, or an Eliot Spitzer who can read plans—someone who has the ability to push back when it is required.”
Last month, Mr. Foye spent two hours talking about the project to the Friends of Moynihan Station, an advocacy group affiliated with the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group.
“He was very nuts-and-bolts. He laid out this and this and this—all the things that needed to get done to make this thing happen,” said Maura Moynihan, the daughter of the late Senator after whom the renovated Farley Post Office will be named. (She told The Observer the story about the post-Election Day meeting.) “He is this wonderful Irish gentleman from Long Island who must suffer the indignities of the pit on a daily basis coming in on the Long Island Rail Road. Everybody is stunned and amazed by the energy that the Spitzer team is bringing to this project.”
Follow Matthew Schuerman via RSS.