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New Stations Are Fancier, but Not Better


New Stations Are Fancier, but Not Better

New York Post October 10, 2016
Urban PolicyNYCInfrastructure & Transportation

Fifty-three years ago, investors started tearing down the old Penn Station to build Madison Square Garden. New York has felt guilty about it ever since.

But it’s taking its atonement to absurd levels. The state is harming public transit to brag about new “iconic” transit spaces.

It was bad to destroy Penn. Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable compared it to razing the Parthenon to put up a pizza stand.

Our memorial to the old Penn Station’s destruction is to choose retail “spaces” over train service.

But it’s just as bad to do what we’re doing now: wasting money pretending to conjure up new Penn Stations — supposed gems we don’t need.

First, the “Oculus” downtown, built after the 9/11 attacks.

In 2004, critic Herbert Muschamp said architect Santiago Calatrava’s proposal for the steel-winged PATH station would end New York’s “defeatist attitude . . . since the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station,” predicting it would be a big change from “suburban shopping-mall atrium design.”

The “Oculus” looks ridiculous from the outside.

Inside, well: It takes an odd genius to make a person feel claustrophobic in an 800,000-square-foot marble space with natural light. Unlike in Grand Central Terminal, there is no intuitive way to move from one level to the next.

And for the past month, the Oculus has revealed its true function: a . . . shopping-mall atrium.

Yes, Grand Central Terminal has stores. But Grand Central Terminal, like the old Penn Station, also has a purpose. It was built as a transit terminus, where people disembarked after cross-country rail trips, or waited for traveling relatives.

The Oculus has no purpose, besides providing white walls for animated Lay’s potato-chip ads. All it does is house a PATH station.

Yes, it’s nice to see the outside and not get rained on before you get on your train. In Paris, commuters at Les Halles can also do that. Authorities recently built them a $220 million “canopy” over their underground rail hub. Here, we spent $4 billion.

New York has made this mistake twice.

Two blocks from the World Trade Center, the state used 9/11 money to build Fulton Center for the subways. “It has the potential to be more important than Penn Station,” Columbia Professor Kenneth T. Jackson told Politico.

The above-ground part, though, is just another mall (with the same animated Lay’s potato-chip ads on the walls). The state used eminent domain to displace small businesses (Cookie Island, the New York Stocking Exchange) to make way for global tenants (Shake Shack).

Other than to extract chain-store rents for the government, the space is wasted. Subway riders, unlike long-distance train travelers, (hopefully) aren’t waiting hours for their trains or their relatives’ trains.

The vastness makes it more jarring to get onto a packed subway as you exit the fake-transit world for the real-transit world.

Cost: $1.4 billion. We could’ve spent a fraction untangling and widening the underground subway passageways.

Now, New York is making this mistake a third time, this time at Penn Station itself.

Last month, Gov. Cuomo announced plans to build the “Moynihan Train Hall.” It’s a revival of an old plan to turn the post office on Eighth Avenue into an entryway for Amtrak passengers (and, now, LIRR passengers).

“People are going to walk through this station and recognize that this is New York,” said Cuomo. Sure, because they’re getting used to . . . luxury malls instead of functional transit.

That’s what Cuomo is proposing: another walk-through shopping arcade for people who want to enter at Eighth and walk underground a block east, where the trains are.

If real-estate giants wanted to pay, fine. But the firms Cuomo picked will put up only $600 million. The state (and maybe the federal government) will put up another billion.

Some of this work — creating wider hallways and such — is justified. Much of it isn’t. If Amtrak were to assign seats in advance, people wouldn’t line up for trains in a waiting room.

The state could accomplish the necessary tasks without giving away $1 billion. That’s money we need to build a new Hudson River train tunnel so commuters can get to Penn Station.

The new Penn Station hallways, though, will have “digital screens to convey information.” Good. In between watching potato chips float on the walls, passengers can learn how late their trains are.

Our memorial to the old Penn Station’s destruction is to choose retail “spaces” over train service.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

Photo by iStock