12.2.12

THE MONUMENTS WE'VE DESTROYED.

Years ago, the editors at the New York Times described the "redevelopment" of New York's Pennsylvania Station as "a shameful act of vandalism."  Its replacement, the current editors assert, is a "calamity".
A vast steel, travertine and granite railway palace of the people, the old Pennsylvania Station had declined by the end into a symbol of bygone Gilded Age opulence. It was replaced by Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden, Modernist mediocrities, erected to serve real estate interests, with a new subterranean Penn Station entombed below.

Some 600,000 commuters, riding Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit, now suffer Penn Station every day. That makes it probably the busiest transit hub in the Western world, busier than Heathrow Airport in London, busier than Newark, La Guardia and Kennedy airports combined.

To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.
The Pennsylvania Station presented architects and engineers with a challenge, as trains arriving directly from the west (the New York Central made a virtue of its 140 mile detour to Albany to cross the Hudson as "The Water Level Route") would be some 40 feet below street level so as to get under the river and under the subways and sewer mains.  Thus, a lot of the station would be underground, even without the supposed benefit of building a sports arena upstairs.
But the only way to fix Penn properly is to move Madison Square Garden.

Why? Because the open secret about the Moynihan plan is that Amtrak alone would move across Eighth Avenue. Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and the subways wouldn’t budge. And only 30,000 of those 600,000 people who use Penn Station each day take Amtrak, never mind all the subway riders passing through.

That’s right: 95 percent of commuters will still have to contend with Penn even when the Moynihan plan is realized.

It’s true that the Moynihan plan will eventually improve a few access routes to subways and commuter trains. But it will add no new tracks and have limited effect on the congestion and misery of Penn Station. New tracks aside, the challenge is at the bare minimum to bring light and air into this underground purgatory and, beyond that, to create for millions of people a new space worthy of New York, a civic hub in the spirit of the great demolished one, more attuned to the city’s aspirations and democratic ideals.
We concur in part and dissent in part. It is true that at the time it opened, the station offered departing through passengers a vista reminiscent of a classical train shed, or a conservatory.


What this illustration does not show is the shorter stairs for arriving passengers, who could make their way to street level or to the taxi stand without encountering the light and air.  Nor does it show the Long Island Rail Road platforms that extend to the north of 33d Street, accessible only by stairs from the same level as the arrival concourse.  A subsequent renovation of Penn Station separated New Jersey Transit passengers from Amtrak passengers by building new stairs and boarding gates in space that was left open in the original 1910 station footprint, and simply covered over as part of the creation of the sports arena and office tower.

The Times editors suggest it is time to undo the vandalism, by removing Madison Square Garden from the station site.  What intrigues is their impatience with the time "process" takes to get anything done in New York City.  (Next, somebody will be nostalgic for Robert Moses.  Don't get me started.)  This outlander notes only that Pennsylvania Station was about five years in the construction, and five years to redevelop.  The Empire State Building was less than five years in the construction.  And there's been a hole at Battery Park for the past ten years.

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