New York Governor Cathy Hochul prunes Cuomo’s Penn Station plans

Service Changes

New York Governor Cathy Hochul prunes Cuomo’s Penn Station plans

A new pedestrian thoroughfare envisioned just to north of Penn Station on 33rd Street. (Courtesy Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

New York Governor Cathy Hochul, the state’s former lieutenant governor who stepped into the role following Andrew Cuomo’s resignation after a barrage of sexual harassment allegations, has revealed pared-back plans for a new and improved Penn Station

The transformation of the cramped, outdated, and in Hochul’s own words,“scary,” Manhattan transit hub is a key part of the Empire Station Complex, a larger reimagining of Midtown West that controversially proposes a significant amount of demolition work to make way for a swath of vertical development led by Vornado Realty Trust including 10 new high-rise buildings, a quintet of supertall skyscrapers among them. In his attempt to push the redevelopment plans forward, Cuomo signaled his intent to take advantage of Empire State Development’s General Project Plan (GPP), which allows state officials to override local zoning and land use ordinances. In June, state senators introduced the currently-in-committee Senate Bill 6556 to wrangle control of the massive infrastructure project away from Cuomo as a means of ensuring that the proposal would undergo a full review process.

rendering of a reconstructed councourse in penn station
(Courtesy Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

While the Empire Station Complex plan has largely remained in a state of limbo since Cuomo’s resignation (meanwhile proponents of the megaproject have been urging Hochul to move ahead with her predecessor’s plans), yesterday the Governor shared her vision for the Empire Station Complex and it’s one that, not surprisingly, shifts away from some of the more controversial aspects of the Cuomo-era development plan and places renewed emphasis on taming the waking nightmare that is Penn Station.

Specifically, Hochul’s vision limits the height (but not the number) of the proposed new skyscrapers and reduces density while prioritizing permanently affordable housing and public realm upgrades. (The proposal calls 1,800 housing units in total with 540 being permanently affordable.) Most critically, it champions a dramatic renovation of the existing station while nixing the proposed southern expansion of it, at least for now. Per the New York Times, that expansion would have necessitated the demolition of over 50 buildings along West 31st to make way for eight new tracks.

The total size of the surrounding development, which will help to fund the Penn Station makeover, has been slashed by 1.4 million square feet—a modest but not insignificant reduction of 7 percent. The overhauled station itself, still remaining very much underground, would be reconfigured to be a single-level train hall serving Long Island Rail Road NJ Transit with improved accessibility and circulation, higher ceilings, and, miraculously, more natural light thanks to a soaring, steel-framed skylight that would stretch 450-feet above the main concourse.

rendering of a lively outdoor plaza near penn station
(Courtesy Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Hochul laid out the basics of the plan in a 10-part Twitter thread: “The cramped caverns of today will disappear. Our plan creates a grand, single-level train hall — bigger than the Grand Central & Moynihan train halls combined. And we’ll make it easier to get around, adding 18 more escalators and stairs & 11 new elevators. The area around Penn Station is a community where people live, work and play. After engaging with the community, we are announcing a new path forward.” Reconstruction efforts are anticipated to last between four and five years, and Hochul has stressed that work should commence as soon as possible.

Hochul went on to detail key aspects of the $6 to 7 billion plan including the creation of a sizable new subterranean pedestrian concourse, transit entrances in each newly constructed building, and a multitude of pedestrian- and cyclist-focused upgrades including 8 acres of public green space, widened sidewalks, protected bike lanes, and a major car-free thoroughfare to be located just north of the station along 33rd Street. As detailed in a press statement, the proposal also creates a “Public Realm Task Force comprised of community leaders and stakeholders, which will develop a plan of prioritized public realm improvements, to be funded by a Public Realm Fund, with initial revenue from redevelopment being dedicated to this fund.”

“The era of neglecting commuters and the community around Penn Station is over,” concluded Hochul. “Our plan transforms the crossroads of New York, rights the wrongs of the past, and is forward-looking.”

At an afternoon press conference, Hochul also told reporters that the ”depressing” Penn Station would eventually be bestowed with a new name that has “something to do with how iconic New York State is.” Tongue-in-cheek suggestions have been predictably rolling in since.

Some critics of Cuomo’s plan have reacted warmly to Hochul’s scaling back of things, with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), noting in a statement that “plan is a step in the right direction—increasing concourse space and passenger circulation, improving access from surrounding streets, and making Penn Station more welcoming to hundreds of thousands of daily commuters.”

overhead view of a reconstructed penn station with skylight
(Courtesy Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

“We commend Governor Hochul for advancing her vision of a user-friendly and welcoming Penn Station with better accessibility and improved circulation,” said Renae Reynolds, executive director of TSTC. “Governor Hochul has shown she is open to the engagement and input of stakeholders and the public. We look forward to working with the governors of New York and New Jersey, Amtrak, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and New Jersey Transit, to implement a comprehensive plan and vision for Penn Station that meets the entire region’s transit and mobility needs.”

But as the TSTC went on to call out, the Hochul administration’s proposal does fail to address the core transportation issues plaguing the woefully outdated existing station including narrow platforms and inefficient train operations, which, per the TSTC, “strangle Penn’s capacity, capacity, resulting in routine overcrowding and train delays.”

While Hochul’s reimagining of Penn Station is essentially the Cuomo plan but with truncated skyscrapers and additional public space improvements, others have lamented that the proposal doesn’t detour far enough from the original scheme.

overhead rendering of a pedestrian plaza in manhattan
(Courtesy Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Said Lynn Ellsworth, co-coordinator of the Empire Station Coalition and leader of Human Scale New York, in a statement:

“On the bright side, it is a good thing that Gov. Hochul is at least trying to scale back — in small ways – the unconscionably anti-urban elements of the Empire Station Complex proposal. Yes, we are glad she wants to reduce by 7 percent the size of Vornado’s ten glass towers, glad that she tosses in a bit of affordable housing and some open space by taking over streets (although this space will still be darkened and windy under all the new towers that will arise), glad she throws in some higher ceilings for what will, alas, remain an underground station.”

Ellsworth added:

“On the dark side, the Governor has listened too much to the interests of those closely connected to Big Real Estate and to those lacking vision at  MTA and Amtrak. The net effect, sadly, is that the Governor is merely tinkering with Vornado’s project. The upshot?  They are still imposing on New Yorkers a second, even larger Hudson Yards project to surround Madison Square Garden. This will not serve commuters and residents of the city”.

As previously noted by AN, Hochul officially put the proverbial brakes on another signature Cuomo infrastructure project, the LaGuardia Airport SkyTrain, last month although she hasn’t wholly abandoned it.