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.
“There are a lot of air rights up in the air—we don’t know where they’re going to land,” said Municipal Art Society president Kent Barwick, who added that, despite prior reports, his organization “hasn’t taken any position on the Hotel Pennsylvania.” “It’s a good building,” he said, though the Farley project remains the group’s top priority.
“It could be that there are plenty of places to land the air rights,” Mr. Barwick said. “And that doesn’t mean that the developer that owns the hotel won’t want to knock it down. But he might have less of an argument.
“If the state ever shows its hand on the new zoning district, it will become clearer if [landmarking the hotel] is a concern or not,” he added.
The Empire State Development Corporation has pledged that the Farley project will proceed regardless of the hotel issue. “Moynihan Station and the Hotel Pennsylvania are two separate projects,” ESDC spokesman A.J. Carter said in a written statement. “What happens at the Hotel Pennsylvania will not affect the Moynihan Station project.”
Gregory Jones, lead organizer of the hackers’ Save the Hotel campaign, also downplayed the possible impact his landmarking crusade might have on the Farley project. “The original plans for the post office never included ripping down the Hotel,” he wrote via e-mail. “It was just to turn the post office into the new transportation hub … So our plans to save the hotel have no impact on any of that.
“This is just a plan by Vornado, and the other developers to be as greedy as they possibly can by snatching up every square foot of space,” Mr. Jones added.
Vornado did not comment.
And Maura Moynihan, founder of Friends of Moynihan Station and daughter of the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for whom the new hub will be named, said she isn’t fretting over the hotel issue, specifically: “So many things can go wrong.”
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