PAUL GUNTHER IS AN OPINIONS CONTRIBUTOR TO ARCHITIZER. HE HAS SPENT NEARLY 40 YEARS AT THE SERVICE OF VARIOUS CIVIC AND CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS, INCLUDING THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY, MUNICIPAL ART SOCIETY, AND THE AMERICAN CENTER IN PARIS. MOST RECENTLY HE SERVED AS PRESIDENT OF THE INSTITUTE OF CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE & ART AS IT EXPANDED ACROSS THE COUNTY IN FULFILLMENT OF ITS EDUCATIONAL MISSION. THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HERE ARE HIS OWN. INTERESTED IN CONTRIBUTING TO ARCHITIZER? EMAIL EDITORIAL@ARCHITIZER.COM.
The next mayor of New York, to be determined today, in partnership with a re-election- (and perhaps White House-minded) governor, has the chance to sustain the social contract at its most essential in upholding collective wellbeing. And along the way, he may well garner enduring glory: immortality as only a “bricks and mortar” building can ultimately lend testimony.
Its name is Penn Station.
Concerned citizens need to make noise to this urgent end. The groundwork is laid by many civic-minded figures, exemplified recently by the Municipal Art Society and Regional Plan Association, which have released the "Penn 2013" vision. It is just the latest envisioning of the adjacent Farley Post Office, preceded by the Moynihan Station conversion proposal to an Amtrak terminal, first promulgated more than a decade (and three governors) ago.
Penn Station today. Photos by Syd London.
Conservative estimates of Penn Station's use over the next century adds up conservatively to more than 18 billion individual commuters—otherwise known as tax-paying workers—whose combined dreams and according labors are the very stuff of New York’s existential wellbeing and future potential. In sum, no other design and capital priority comes even close in comparison to the urgency of upgrading this piece of infrastructure.
Penn Station now handles at least this half million number daily—and even at that level is already nearly three times the maximum threshold in place when designed in the wake of the old Pennsylvania Station’s destruction exactly 50 years ago. Two-hundred thousand daily users were envisioned in what in retrospect fell far short of true demand. And in any case all of them at any quantity were condemned to what Vincent Scully famously described as entering like rats instead of gods as the original Pennsylvania Station allowed with its ingenious passage from below-grade to city sidewalks with light-infused pomp.
Original Penn Station waiting room (top), and track level and concourses. Images via Library of Congress
With that volume in mind, New York is clearly just one disastrous accident away from a calamitous interruption to its very existence. It doesn’t take a terrorist organization to conjure the possibility of some platform fire and ensuing stairway stampede. Is it only such a prospective calamity that is requited for comprehensive action? Tragic, if so, and yet that eventuality seems inevitable unless elected and appointed officials at the top level finally are together summoned into a room by the governor and new mayor for a session framed by the proverbial, “We’re not leaving until this is resolved.” Only that resolute will can set in motion such a specific action plan as called for. The sooner the better: The new municipal leadership team has the chance to act in the clarifying spirit of the “first 100 days.”
Penn Station proposal by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Image via MAS
They should do this before some minute group of vested owners manage to place their business interests before regional survival. For example, the Madison Square Garden owners, the Dolan family, vs. the very fabric that ultimately the Dolans are relying upon to make their arena such a precious jewel in their commendable crown. Surely that is why they just invested $1 billion in the redo of the present Garden, despite not knowing their long-term proprietary status. It was worth it no matter what unfolds in ten years time.
Penn Station proposal by SHoP Architects. Image via MAS
While outgoing Speaker Christine Quinn and her City Council colleagues are to be amply applauded for limiting the present MSG operating agreement to just one more decade (hence the Penn 2023 blueprint moniker), it is only the prospect of such strong comparable political leadership continuing in the wake of the upcoming election that will not only assure that this action by the City and its Planning Commission sticks, but also that the opportunity ahead in light of this agreement termination can lead immediately to a fixed and irrevocable action blueprint . That means a new nearby MSG, a new Amtrak gateway at Moynihan Station, a new station for the LIRR and New Jersey Transit, and new zoning codes for all else that can be built alongside this mother lode of urban development potential.
Penn Station proposal by SOM. Image via MAS
If bank officers and other business leaders have yet to appreciate how much their respective enterprises need this design priority, then informed citizens have even more reason to demand its inevitable implementation. The plangent fact that cities across Europe and Asia have placed such 21st-century transportation hubs at the top of their enlightened growth scenarios adds more urgency still for New York to do likewise. The plan to rezone the area around Grand Central Terminal as a way “to compete with China” pales in relative comparison. Instead, Penn Station is where attention is owed and where limitless development dividends can be best repaid. And the answer is not by smearing ads on the risers of the main exit stairs like some two-bit carnival.
After more than a decade of political pussy-footing and attention diverted to Ground Zero and what has been its untouchable vote-gathering siren call and resulting multi-billion infusion from willing, witting tax payers to all layers of redevelopment, it is now time to refocus on what is without question the existential lodestone of the entire economic and social matrix of the U.S.'s largest city for the next 100 years. Demand action.