The Critic: The lat­est plans for Penn Sta­tion are a fail­ure—and a tri­umph

Crit­ics slammed plans for New York’s Penn Sta­tion—but some­times build­ing for pos­ter­ity shouldn’t be the most press­ing con­cern. By Belinda Lanks

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Conntents -

The first week in Jan­uary, New York Gov­er­nor An­drew Cuomo un­veiled a $3 bil­lion plan for a new Penn Sta­tion—the fifth such pro­posal in the past 25 years. “Let’s be as bold and am­bi­tious as our fore­fa­thers,” Cuomo said in his an­nounce­ment. The ren­der­ings were any­thing but an homage to past vi­sions of grandeur. Al­though a 1999 scheme fea­tured a hall with a twofloor con­course, two lev­els of ad­di­tional tracks, and a spec­tac­u­lar steel-and-glass canopy, this one, with low-slung sky­lights, re­sem­bled the atrium at the Short Hills mall. The plans had more de­trac­tors than drunk Rangers fans tak­ing the A train home af­ter a game up­stairs at Madi­son Square Gar­den. “Penn Sta­tion’s 5th Re­design Fails to Charm Some Crit­ics,” read a New York Times head­line. That was about the kind­est sen­ti­ment ex­pressed.

It would be a gross un­der­state­ment to say the cur­rent Penn Sta­tion also fails to charm. It sees 600,000 sub­way, com­muter, and in­ter­city cus­tomers a day, three times what it was built to serve. A dirty, dark, crowded un­der­ground war­ren, it’s a shadow of the orig­i­nal grand neo­clas­si­cal struc­ture de­signed by Mckim, Mead & White in 1910 and torn down in 1963 when not enough peo­ple thought it was worth sav­ing: We were all go­ing to be get­ting around like the Jet­sons soon enough. (Oops.) There was al­most-in­stant re­gret: The de­mo­li­tion fu­eled the for­ma­tion of the NYC Land­mark Preser­va­tion Com­mis­sion, which saved Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal from the same fate.

Cuomo’s plan is, to use an ar­chi­tec­tural term, “meh.” It’s no bet­ter than all right. That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing— maybe this one will get built. (Help­ing those prospects, there’s more space than in past blue­prints for retail, which de­vel­op­ers would have rights to.) What it lacks in aes­thet­ics, it might make up for by, you know, ac­tu­ally ex­ist­ing, a trade-off most New York­ers—and any­one go­ing through Penn Sta­tion on Am­trak— would ac­cept. “Meh” de­sign hap­pens. Why did we ex­pect city govern­ment to have great taste all of a sud­den? How of­ten does that hap­pen?

Yes, in the­ory, we should be able to de­fine good ar­chi­tec­ture as both am­bi­tious and build­able, but it seems you have to choose one in New York City. Just look down­town to the trans­porta­tion hub ris­ing at the World Trade Cen­ter site. Its cen­ter­piece—a strik­ing, bone-white ocu­lus by Span­ish star­chi­tect San­ti­ago Cala­trava—has been plagued by set­backs, in­clud­ing con­struc­tion de­lays and a wa­ter leak. Twelve years af­ter the Port Au­thor­ity pre­sented the de­sign, it still isn’t fin­ished, and its bud­get has bal­looned from $2.2 bil­lion to $3.7 bil­lion— twice the in­fla­tion- ad­justed cost of erect­ing Grand Cen­tral.

This doesn’t mean cities shouldn’t try to build for eternity. But con­jur­ing vast amounts of money and political will for am­bi­tious mu­nic­i­pal projects takes time and pa­tience, and one could ar­gue that 25 years is a long enough wait. Den­ver waited only—only!—10 years for the gor­geous re­design of its Union Sta­tion de­pot by Skid­more, Owings, & Mer­rill, the ar­chi­tects be­hind the new Penn Sta­tion lay­out. Cal­i­for­nia is eight years along in the likely 20-year process of build­ing a high-speed rail line be­tween San Fran­cisco and Los An­ge­les. But what’s eight years? Talk to us when you’ve been through mul­ti­ple com­man­ders-in-chief.

It’s one thing for lead­ers to see what can be done and an­other to see what has to be done—and do it. Cuomo’s father, for­mer New York Gov­er­nor Mario Cuomo, is the one who said you cam­paign in po­etry and gov­ern in prose. The lat­est Penn Sta­tion ren­der­ings are de­cid­edly pro­saic, but we don’t care about po­etry when we’re stuck on an Acela ar­riv­ing from Wash­ing­ton and train traf­fic is pre­vent­ing us from mak­ing a meet­ing in Mid­town. Which is why, last fall, Cuomo and GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and New Jersey Gov­er­nor Chris Christie re­vived dis­cus­sions about the Gate­way pro­ject, an es­sen­tial rail tun­nel un­der the Hud­son River that would re­lieve con­ges­tion. There’s noth­ing sexy about it— and good thing. <BW>

SINCE WHEN IS GOVERN­MENT A GOOD AR­BITER OF TASTE?

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