Manhattan’s PENN 15 tower shut out of funding in state budget deal

Not In The PENN 15 Club

Manhattan’s PENN 15 tower shut out of funding in state budget deal

Rendering of a proposed mixed-use redevelopment area around Penn Station including the Foster + Partners-designed PENN 15 tower. (Dbox/Vornado Realty Trust)

It’s been a veritable bonanza for spicy headlines this week, with reports that a proposed Midtown Manhattan redevelopment scheme centered around the Empire State Building-sized PENN 15, a name that directly evokes the most puerile of middle school pranks, has been denied funding as part of a state budget deal reached by embattled New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders on Tuesday.

As reported by the New York Post, a $1.3 billion budget bill authorized by state lawmakers does indeed fund the so-called Empire Station Complex, a massive, neighborhood-transforming project around Penn Station that Cuomo has been accused of attempting to railroad into existence.

However, any and all funding, as explicitly spelled out in the final language of the budget deal, must, for now, be used for “transportation improvement projects” and not for “above-grade development.” This means not a cent of state funding can be borrowed for the cluster of ten proposed high-rises that would be built around Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. This includes PENN 15, the snicker-inducing supertall skyscraper at the center of it all. As detailed by the Post, approved funds must go toward track improvement and expansion projects at Penn Station. Slated for completion circa 2038, the Empire Station Complex has been described by officials as a “cohesive, transit-oriented, mixed-use district” that would encompass over 20 million square feet.

Vornado Realty Trust, the lead developer of the project, whose chairman Stephen Roth has been a major benefactor of Cuomo throughout his political career, recently revealed new details and renderings of the Foster + Partners-designed PENN 15, which would rise 1,216-feet above Midtown and is described by Vornado as the “new standard for office building design in New York City.” Among other things, the soaring 57-story tower would feature expansive landscaped terraces—27 in total—on every fourth floor, a ground-level food court, and an offset core that “enables highly flexible lease spans with commanding views and full access to sunlight.” PENN 15 would be divvied up into five unique vertical “neighborhoods,” each of them containing 12 floors. In total, PENN 15 would bring 2.8 million square feet of rentable commercial office space to Midtown.

Redevelopment-anchoring Midtown skyscrapers with phallic monikers aside, pushback to the Empire Station Complex from both local residents, a wide range of city officials, and activist groups of all stripes has been strong.

As previously reported by AN, New York City preservationists have been on particularly high alert due to the fact that the planned development could result in the demolition of six “landmark quality” buildings in the area to make way for PENN 15 and other new large-scale structures. One preservation group, a coalition of local organizations known as the Coalition to Save the Penn Station Powerhouse, have equated the collective potential loss of these buildings as being akin to the destruction of McKim, Mead & White’s original Penn Station in 1963. The coalition, which gets its name from one of the under-threat historic buildings, isn’t opposed to the redevelopment of the area and is more than welcoming of beefed-up transit options. However, it wants to see the preservation of historic buildings play into the redevelopment strategy, particularly since a certain unsightly and non-historic building, Madison Square Garden, is spared under the Cuomo-endorsed plan.

“This is a land grab from Andrew Cuomo, plain and simple,” Bill Neidhardt, press secretary for the New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, recently tweeted. “The whole scheme relies on overriding city rules and Cuomo has refused to answer how he will finance this endeavor.”

Indeed, the Empire Station Complex, classified as a general project plan, circumvents the usual land-use process and other typical bureaucratic checks and balances that come into play with proposed developments of this scale. By classifying the debatebly gritty area around Penn Station as a “blighted slum,” eminent domain could be used to bulldoze away large swaths of the neighborhood.

Another newly formed opposing group comprised of civic and transportation organizations, the Empire Station Coalition, held a press conference earlier this week in front of the Hotel Pennsylvania calling for a pause on the Empire Station Complex project until a comprehensive plan, which “explores legitimate alternatives to demolishing historic buildings and considers through-running train service, is developed.” Per the coalition, Cuomo’s plan “isn’t to fix Penn Station, it’s a plan to build an unwanted ‘Vornado campus’ of buildings. What the city needs instead is a design that will make Penn Station more efficient, welcoming, and easier to navigate.”

“Development should not be done in a fashion that doubles down on dated transit strategies, knocks down landmarks, and destroys the neighborhood’s historic fabric all while continuing to leave Penn Station under Madison Square Garden,” said Sam Turvey, chairperson of ReThinkNYC, in a statement. “The proposed Empire Station Complex amounts to a completely unbalanced and anti-urban juggernaut for a city that needs more holistic, complementary and properly sequenced solutions that will enable the city and region to prosper in the post-pandemic era.”

On March 26, U.S. Congressional Representatives Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney along with Manhattan Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, Manhattan state Senators Brad Hoylman and Robert Jackson, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer—all of whom sit on the Empire State Development Corporation (ESD)’s Empire Station Complex Community Advisory Committee–sent a letter to Cuomo urging him to put the brakes on the project.

Per the latest reporting by the Post and other outlets including the New York Daily News, it would seem that these proverbial brakes have somewhat been applied, as Cuomo’s ability to borrow billions in state funding for non-transportation-related aspects of the Empire Station Complex has been neutered for now.

The ESD had previously scheduled a public hearing on the Empire Station Complex project for May 12; it has since been postponed. Meanwhile, there have been no announcements made as to when the second half of the 14-episode second season of the acclaimed coming-of-age-comedy Pen15 will return to Hulu.