After years of delays, an ambitious state plan to turn the old Farley Post Office into a gleaming new transit hub is finally coming together.
Could a ragtag gang of computer hackers now gum up the works again?
Last week, the hacker-led long-shot campaign to protectively landmark the Hotel Pennsylvania—site of the techies’ biannual Hackers on Planet Earth (H.O.P.E.) conference—earned the surprising endorsement of the local advisory panel, Community Board 5, which has forwarded its recommendation to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Staffers from that agency previously determined that the dowdy, 22-story, 1,700-room hotel across Seventh Avenue from Madison Square Garden, built in 1919, didn’t merit landmark status. “In this case, it would seem unlikely that we would change our minds,” commission spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon told The Observer.
Then again, no one gave the Internet geeks much of a chance of convincing a room full of aesthetics-obsessed elders otherwise, either.
Preserving the post office and the hotel, both early-20th-century monuments designed by the hallowed Beaux-Arts architecture firm of McKim, Mead & White, would seem a win-win for architectural history buffs. But, in this case, the possibility has created a certain degree of friction.
The hotel-preservation measure passed despite several board members’ professed skittishness over possible repercussions for the nearby Farley building’s complex revitalization plan. “It troubles me,” in the words of one panelist, “that we don’t have a good understanding of the impacts of [the hotel’s] designation.”
The anxiety, at least, is understandable. To many preservationists, the Farley building, with its imposing wide girth (spanning two full city blocks!) and iconic Corinthian colonnade, remains the favorite son among all the city’s underutilized old buildings; the Hotel Pennsylvania, despite its massive stone columns and ornate balustrade, is more of a red-headed stepchild. If sustaining the latter were to somehow jeopardize the former’s bright future, well, then, it’s off to the orphanage with you, carrot top!
The potential conflict lies in millions of square feet of as-yet-unassigned development rights, including air rights.
The hotel, at present, isn’t technically part of the intricate Farley plan, which otherwise involves (a) transforming half of the existing Farley building into a fancy new train station, in the mold of Grand Central Terminal, called “Moynihan West”; (b) revamping Penn Station above its existing rails (“Moynihan East”); (c) demolishing the existing Madison Square Garden and building a new arena on the west side of the Farley complex; and (d) developing some 5.4 million square feet of new commercial space in and around the vicinity.
The state agency in charge of orchestrating the massive project, the Empire State Development Corporation, has indicated its preference that only 1.1 million square feet of that commercial space (predominantly retail) be built where Madison Square Garden now sits. The remaining 4.3 million square feet would then be scattered among neighboring, yet so far unspecified, “receiving sites,” which would fall within a newly created zoning district.
One of the developers involved in the vast Farley redevelopment, Vornado Realty Trust, also owns the Hotel Pennsylvania, and Vornado has made no secret of its desire to demolish the old hotel and erect a soaring office tower in its place.
“If indeed [state officials] are going to let the developer spread those air rights, [the Hotel Pennsylvania] is a logical place to put them,” said Peg Breen, president of the nonprofit Landmarks Conservancy.
Landmarking the hotel, she added, is a hard sell given the political realities with the larger project.
The uncertainty over how the hotel site may or may not come into play with the Farley building’s redevelopment has other preservationists biting their tongues on the landmarking issue.