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Empire Station Complex vexes opponents who fear displacement and call for public approval process

State Senator Brad Hoylman in front of the Hotel Pennsylvania on April 7.
Photo by Mark Hallum

The Empire Station Complex is problematic in any number of ways if you ask opponents who rallied on Seventh Avenue on Wednesday morning.

Senator Brad Hoylman believes Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pet project that was passed in Albany the previous day is wrought with loopholes that should be reviewed by city officials who at this point have no say in how the development proceeds.

With room for ten towers built into the $1.3 billion plan to beautify Penn Station, chair of Human-Scale NYC Lynn Ellsworth wants to the see legislature to create a new planning process for state projects such as this as the current plan approved in the fiscal year 2022 budget does not seem to provide specifics for transit improvements.

“We call for a state managed public hearing and a temporary commissioner of inquiry enabled by our state senate and assembly to examine alternatives… A creative alternate planning process should include electeds from both the city and state and should include a citizens referendum on the future of this area,” Ellsworth said. “We do not need top-down visions imposed upon us from the real estate industrial complex, real democracy is the answer here.”

According to Hoylman, 20 million square feet of new office space is not justified when the vacancy rate in Midtown stands at around 17%, especially after the $5 billion development of Hudson Yards.

“To date, ESD has held more than 50 meetings with local elected officials and other community stakeholders, including a virtual public meeting attended by 200 people last July. We’ve incorporated public feedback into the project at every step — like adding residential alternatives for three of development sites — and will continue to do so as the process progresses,” Matt Gordon, a spokesman from Empire State Development, said. “By definition, State projects* follow a different process than others, but the community’s voice is no less important. In fact, ESD just postponed a public hearing at community leaders’ request to allow more time for public engagement in the draft plans, and we will continue to work collaboratively with the community to ensure we put the best plan forward.”

Nonetheless, the $1.3 billion approved in the budget essentially puts a down payment on the Empire Station Complex with no cost assessment on the plan as a whole, though a 40% increase in train capacity has been promised.

“How does it make sense that the local community board, local elected officials like myself and the city of New York still don’t know what the Penn Station master plan?” Hoylman said.

The senator believes the project to expand Penn Station through redevelopment a block to the south would displace up to 200 rent stabilized tenants and 500 small businesses. This also includes a 150 year old church and other historic buildings.

“[The language passed in the budget] says transportation improvements connected with the Penn Station plan, it doesn’t define what the Penn Station plan is, and the clause of the bill begins with the premise that the $1.3 billion can be used for the demolition and acquisition of property for the furtherance of the Empire Station Complex,” Hoylman added. “Eminent domain is on the table and will probably be used if the property isn’t purchased.”

Hoylman voted against the Empire Station Complex which seems to be a point of contention among legislators who feared it was a simple giveaway to real estate.

Above ground improvements as well as revitalizing Penn Station itself seem to be a murky concept apart from proposals to bring more natural light into the transit hub. Even proposals to move Madison Square Garden from atop Penn Stations to restore its former glory before it was torn down and rebuilt in the late 1960s and early 1970s does not seem the be getting far in Albany, according to Hoylman, who described the talks as progressing only in “fits and starts.”

“It’s not on the table now because it seems that the people who have devised this plan have taken it off the table,” he told amNewYork Metro.

Cuomo held a press conference over Zoom Tuesday morning, but spoke on taxes while the Q&A session was dominated by noise pollution and limited time for reporters.

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