The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s vision for a new transit hub in Midtown Manhattan took an unexpected lurch toward reality on September 13, when Amtrak president Joe Boardman agreed to move the carrier’s trains from their home at Pennsylvania Station into the Farley Post Office across the street. With that, the stage was set for a new round of design work, and possibly a new dawn for the reincarnation of New York’s legendary rail station.
The announcement was a sorely needed boost for the project, which has stalled in recent years in part due to the reluctance of Amtrak, which owns its current home, to move out of Penn Station and become a renter for the first time. But federal stimulus money for intercity rail made the idea seem newly feasible, and a persistent campaign from Senator Charles Schumer won Boardman over to the cause.
Still unknown at this point is whether any of the previous station designs, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s original 2001 version, will survive in this latest iteration. The Moynihan Station Development Corporation, which has not yet named an architect, has commissioned HOK to generate planning studies and possible designs. HOK had worked on a 2005 station plan with James Carpenter Design Associates, after the Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust proposed an $818 million mixed-use development scheme for the project.
For now, HOK’s plans envision Amtrak’s operations spanning both the original 1912 post office building and its 1934 annex, with the remainder of the program consisting of dining, retail (including potentially a big-box tenant like Target), and about 250,000 square feet for a post office. A grand main entrance would open onto 33rd Street, with two additional entrances on 8th Avenue and 32nd Street. In addition to moving Amtrak’s passengers into the Farley building, proposed renovations to the existing Penn Station would widen corridors and provide a pedestrian connection to a new station underneath 2 Penn Plaza, which will house New Jersey Transit’s planned Mass Transit tunnel across the Hudson.
Like many post offices of the era, the Farley was built with a low roof so managers could monitor their employees from catwalks under the trusses, said HOK principal Wayne Striker. To create a sense of grandeur reminiscent of the original Penn Station, HOK is proposing to remove the building’s first floor, and is considering three options for replacing or re-using the current roof. One option would retain the existing trusses but replace their opaque cladding with glass skylights, preserving the current floor-to-ceiling height of 50 feet. A second option would retain only the east-west trusses and top them with a glass ceiling, while a third possibility would remove the current ceiling and install glass skylights suspended from new trusses at a height of about 100 feet.
The completed project would advance the Department of City Plannings’s Hudson Yards redevelopment plan, with 32nd Street forming a pedestrian corridor that would extend into a retail arcade in the annex and then descend, via a grand stair, into the main concourse. “I think a very nice retail project could happen here, along the lines of Union Station in Washington, D.C.,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, president of the Moynihan Station Venture, a joint venture of Related and Vornado. “As Maura Moynihan said to me, when was the last time you heard anyone say, ‘Let’s meet for a drink at Penn Station?’"
Officials at the Empire State Development Corporation, who declined to speak publicly about ongoing discussions, said the agency was waiting until after a decision on federal stimulus funds to select a designer for the project. "We’re still weighing our options," one official said.
Receiving those funds will be critical to covering the station’s estimated $1 billion cost. “I’d say they’re probably short about half the budget,” said Chakrabarti. “It’s very contingent on making sure the federal stimulus money comes through.” However, with Amtrak now on board, and given the Obama administration’s commitment to funding intercity rail, insiders are optimistic.
“I’d say our chances are highly likely,” said Striker.
A version of this article appeared in AN 10.07.2009.