“I’m a terrible meditator,” Maura Moynihan confessed. “I can’t sit still for more than five minutes. I tried and failed. I wish I were a monk. I’m not. I’m an angry New Yorker.”
Ms. Moynihan, the daughter of the late U.S. senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was deep into lunch last Friday at Da Umberto, a classy Italian restaurant in Chelsea she chose because of its old European flair.
She was brought up partially in India—her dad was ambassador while she was in high school—and remains entranced by Southeast Asia. In fact, at age 50 and a single mother of a 16-year-old, she is studying for a master’s degree in international development at the New School in order to get a job with the United Nations and travel back, hopefully to Thailand. But something is keeping her here at least in the meantime—the angry New Yorker in her, and also the Moynihan in her.
After a varied life following Andy Warhol, marrying the son of Richard Avedon (and quickly divorcing after having one son) and writing short stories and screenplays, she opened another chapter when her father died four years ago: crusading for a new Penn Station to augment what Ms. Moynihan calls “the pit” underneath the Madison Square Garden arena.
She did this by starting an organization, Friends of Moynihan Station, to act as a cheerleading squad for an immense public works project that has dragged on for some 15 years and is still in the planning stages. Ms. Moynihan dates the genesis even further back, to the late 1980’s, when her father first adopted the idea of using the Farley Post Office, on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets, as an extension of Penn Station, which is right across the street under Madison Square Garden.
Ms. Moynihan carries absolutely no power over what happens, but she has more moral authority than pretty much any other single player. Officially, everyone likes the idea of a better train station, but in reality, there are as many different opinions on this matter as there are agencies, companies and organizations that have stuck their noses into it. And since the Empire State Development Corporation, the state economic development agency, issued its first written outline of the project last month, those differences have become even more urgent to reconcile.
The state wants to keep the cost to taxpayers down. The mayor wants to wrench away a sui generis property tax exemption from his political nemesis, Madison Square Garden. The Garden, which would move to the rear of the Farley building, wants to put up signs and ticket kiosks outside or inside the old post office. Two nonprofit organizations, the Municipal Art Society and the Landmarks Conservancy, want to preserve as much of the Farley building’s 1913 interior as possible.
Ms. Moynihan seems to be leaning toward the developers The Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust, at the expense of the preservationists, because, well, after 15 years on the drawing board, the project is in danger of getting dusty
“Preservation is an important component, but it is not the only component,” she said. “It’s a transportation project first and foremost. My concern is that we don’t get distracted by some elements of the project when we have the heavy lifting to do of the structural engineering that’s going to have to take place to improve the disaster, the nightmare, the insult that is the pit—otherwise known as Penn Station.”
Her way of speaking is to assume that you share her sympathies immediately, so that she enlists you instantly on a ride of enthusiasm, rage, disbelief and hope through a full spectrum of issues: the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Bush administration’s pursuit of war, the decline of trains and the destruction of the environment.
MOYNIHAN STATION HAS all the ingredients for Ms. Moynihan to take on as a crusade. It is a cause where there is a clear right (build it) and wrong (drag it out); where there is an underdog engaged in a long, difficult struggle; where there are great principles at stake; and where there is a chance to avenge a terrible travesty (the destruction of the original Penn Station in the 1960’s).
“Every single meeting I have had with the two Steves, they understand that this is a public works project. They know it is a preservation project,” Ms. Moynihan continued, referring to the chief executives of Related and Vornado, Stephen M. Ross and Steve Roth, respectively. “They have always been extraordinarily open with myself and my mom. We call them up, they hear us out, they’ve shown us everything from the beginning.”
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