Community groups rally ahead of West Midtown preservation battle

The Work Is Never Done...

Community groups rally ahead of West Midtown preservation battle

The Penn Station Powerhouse, designed by McKim, Mead & White in 1908, is at risk of demolition (Ryan Lahiff/Provided by Untapped Cities)

Nearly 60 years after New Yorkers witnessed the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in Midtown Manhattan, preservationists are preparing for another battle in the same area.

“Don’t Demolish Penn Station Twice” is the rallying cry of groups that have come together to challenge a plan by the New York State Urban Development Corporation, doing business as Empire State Development, to revitalize a large area around Penn Station and the new Moynihan Train Hall by tearing down existing buildings to make way for even larger buildings.

Governor Cuomo says the $16 billion Empire Station Complex Civic and Land Use Improvement Project would build on the progress made in transforming the James A. Farley Building, a former post office, into a transit hub and office center with Facebook confirmed as the anchor tenant.

State officials add it would result in the creation of a “cohesive, transit-oriented, mixed-use district” that would benefit Penn Station, “encourage high-density development around a world-class transportation hub,” and support jobs and economic activity.

The plan would install ten new towers across eight development sites with access to Penn Station, plus “public realm” improvements that would enhance the streetscape by providing more open space, more bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and other amenities. The anticipated completion date is 2038.

a diagram of the area around penn station with 8 different sites outlined
A map of the affected properties around Midtown West (From the Empire Station Complex Draft Environmental Impact Study)

The preservationists say the Empire Station plan would lead to the demolition of at least six “landmark quality” buildings that they believe should be kept as part of any revitalization effort.

They are: The Penn Station Service Building, also known as the Powerhouse, at 236-248 West 31st Street; Hotel Pennsylvania at 401 7th Avenue; the 1929 Stewart Hotel at 371 7th Avenue; the Fairmont Building at 239-241 West 30th Street; the Penn Terminal Building at 370 7th Avenue, and St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church at 207-215 West 30th Street.

Leaders of the new preservation effort include the Historic Districts Council, The City Club of New York, and Untapped New York. They have formed a group called The Coalition to Save the Penn Station Powerhouse, named after one of the aforementioned threatened buildings. Other founding partners include the 29th Street Neighborhood Association; Human-scale NYC; Landmark West!, and the Victorian Society of New York.

Opponents also claim that the state’s plan would override local zoning restrictions and other laws that protect existing buildings and substitute its own design guidelines for the area.

If the buildings on the proposed development sites are torn down, they add, the loss would be as great as the destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963, the demolition that sparked the preservation movement in New York City that grew into the founding of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

The group says they’re not against redevelopment around Penn Station or improving access to transit systems, but they want preservation of landmark-quality buildings to be a key part of the strategy. They note that Madison Square Garden, one of the least-admired works of architecture in the area, is spared under the proposed plan.

“Let’s not demolish Penn Station all over again,” said Justin Rivers, Chief Experience Officer of Untapped New York, in a statement. “Moynihan Train Hall is proof that the past and present can co-exist not only for the sake of utility but also for the sake of beauty. These structures should be preserved and thoughtfully integrated into the Empire Station Complex.”

The Empire Station plan would create about 16 million square feet of commercial space, of which 14 million square feet would be offices in high-rise buildings. Rivers said it would result in the loss of 10 buildings that are potentially eligible for landmark designation by New York City and 38 buildings that are potentially eligible for state or federal landmark status, he said.

An aerial diagram of the west midtown area surrounding penn station
Office towers have been proposed for eight of the sites around Madison Square Garden (From the Empire Station Complex Draft Environmental Impact Study)

“This is not a small number,” he said at the coalition’s first public meeting last Monday. “This is large-scale destruction of potentially landmark buildings, a lot of which are remnants in their own way of Penn Station…It will really destroy quality of life in the area as well.”

Brad Vogel, a member of the preservation committee of the City Club of New York, said part of the challenge for preservationists is that the lead developer is a state entity that may not be required to follow rules and regulations that private developers would.

“It’s been essentially set up to steer through bodies that do not have a significant amount of public oversight,” he said. “We are dealing with a somewhat anomalous situation based on how the governor and others have set this up.”

Development within the Empire Station district may also lead to demolition requests from others who own properties just outside the area and want to replace their buildings, added Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council.

“I cannot stress strongly enough the potential domino effect of the moving of air rights back and forth” and “the encouragement of large-scale commercial development,” he said.

Bankoff questioned the need for 16 million square feet of additional commercial space in Midtown.

“Why should we allow New York State to do a massive, massive land grab in order to expand a couple of subway platforms and give us slightly larger sidewalks?” he asked. “It genuinely makes no sense.”

For the most part, he said, the existing buildings contribute greatly to the area.

“These are buildings that work,” he said. “The Hotel Pennsylvania, while it could be better run and I’m sure the rooms could be upgraded, that is a question for interior design and better WiFi…It is not a question of demolishing a giant building in order to build a new giant building. The only thing that is cured by demolition and rebuilding is the bottom line for whoever’s business it is to build new buildings. For them, it makes a lot of sense. For everybody else and for New York, it doesn’t.”

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty about the future of the office market, he added, “we really need to put the brakes on this particular plan and let the new world that we have shake out a little bit.”

The project area is bounded generally by Sixth and Ninth avenues to the east and west and by West 30th and West 34th streets to the south and north. Located in Manhattan Community Districts 4 and 5, it includes all or portions of nine city blocks, including New York Pennsylvania Station, Madison Square Garden, 1 and 2 Penn Plaza, Moynihan Train Hall, and the blocks around them.

At their kickoff meeting, conducted virtually, the coalition leaders outlined their concerns about the state’s approach and the steps they plan to take to oppose it and present alternatives.

Exterior of the penn station powerhouse, a beaux-arts, 4-story powerplant with boarded up windows
The front of the Penn Station Powerplant (Ryan Lahiff/Provided by Untapped Cities)

First, they plan to testify at a virtual public hearing about the plan that’s scheduled for Wednesday, May 12, at 5:00 p.m. The meeting is being held as part of the state’s Draft Environment Impact Statement process and offers a chance for the general public to weigh in on the plan. Information about how to register and participate is in the legal notice and the Zoom link.

Second, they’re circulating a petition to save the Penn Station power plant and surrounding buildings that are at risk.

Third, they plan to submit a formal request to the LPC to schedule hearings and receive testimony about adding endangered buildings near Penn Station to the city’s landmarks list. LPC listing would mean that any proposed changes to the designated buildings, up to and including demolition, would require a public hearing and approval from the commission.

If all else fails, they say, they’ll write to decision-makers and hold on-site demonstrations to call attention to the endangered buildings.

The group says the threatened buildings fall into two categories: those in locations that the Empire Station plan has identified as sites to be cleared for new structures, and those that could be adversely affected by construction activity such as excavating for new buildings and vibrations from pile driving.

In most cases, they say, the existing buildings are fully functional and occupied, although some could benefit from a renovation. In some cases, the structures under consideration are either dormant or underutilized.

The Powerhouse is considered an ideal candidate for preservation because it’s an intact, above-ground remnant of the Penn Station complex of the early 1900s. Completed in 1908, it predates Penn Station by two years, was also designed by McKim, Mead & White, and provided most of the electric power, steam, compressed air, and water needed to run the neighboring train station. According to the preservationists, it also contains many details that are characteristic of McKim, Mead & White’s industrial work.

“It’s a chunk of Penn Station that we had left behind from the 1960s that people don’t really recognize,” Rivers said. “It’s a real revelation” but “definitely on the chopping block.”

Hotel Pennsylvania is noteworthy, preservationists added, because along with the Farley post office and the powerhouse, it was built as a companion to the original Penn Station.

The building was constructed on land owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad to be a flagship hotel connected to the train station. The first operator, hotelier Ellsworth Statler, sold it in the 1950s to Conrad Hilton and it became the Statler-Hilton, complete with a “Hilton Passageway” leading to the station. Its Café Rouge was the setting for concerts by a number of big bands, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

One of Glenn Miller’s biggest hits was Pennsylvania 6-5000, which is still the hotel’s phone number. Rivers said the hotel claims it’s the oldest phone number in New York City that’s been in continuous service.

Buildings at risk of “adverse effects” due to the plan, preservationists say, include the former Equitable Life Assurance Company building at 393 7th Avenue, St. Francis Roman Catholic Church at 129-143 West 31st Street, and the St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church complex, at 414-424 West 34th Street.

Buildings in the Empire Station study area but under no threat of current adverse effects, they say, include the R. H. Macy & Co. flagship store at 151 West 34th Street; the former Manhattan Opera House at 311 W. 34th Street; the New Yorker Hotel at 481 8th Avenue; the Morgan General Mail Facility at 341 9th Avenue; the Webster Apartments at 419 West 34th Street; the Nelson Tower at 446-456 7th Avenue, and the Arsenal Building at 463 7th Avenue.

In order to succeed, preservationists say, they’ll need to drum up more support for the endangered buildings than the preservationists did in the 1960s, including high-profile advocates who will step forward the way then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy did for Penn Station.

“We as citizens, we as people who care about New York, need to really create a large fuss,” Bankoff said. “We need to tell our elected officials that this is an incredibly important thing and that we will not accept them allowing the governor…to seize the heart of midtown Manhattan.”

The LPC “must act to protect these buildings,” he added. “Because we lost Penn Station so many years ago, it is all the more important to keep as a memory, to keep as part of the cityscape, this very important urban construction which, frankly, works.”

“To save these buildings that may be in danger, we have to cast a wide net,” Rivers agreed. “We do have the law on our side, but the law could be our greatest adversary as well.”

Basically, “when we take the powerhouse down, and these buildings that were built around the fulcrum of the station, we are demolishing Penn Station a second time,” he said. “This is something that nobody thought possible, that we could even have an idea of committing such a heinous act on architecture in New York again, and here we are, proposing it again…It’s just history repeating itself. “

In many ways, “Moynihan has spoiled us,” he said, referring to the new train hall creating within the historic Farley building. “We know what we can do now with landmark buildings and infrastructure. There’s no excuse not to.”