BY JACKSON CHEN | To bring some organized planning to the cluster of crucial transportation projects in Midtown West, Community Board 5 hosted a forum exploring the future options for the area.
Located within a roughly 10-block area, there are four major proposed projects in the neighborhood, including the replacement of the dilapidated Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bus terminal at 625 Eighth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Street, the Gateway Program that would create a new train tunnel underneath the Hudson River, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s launch of Moynihan Train Hall to modernize Penn Station, and the possible relocation of Madison Square Garden (MSG) from its current site above Penn Station to the back of the Farley Post Office Building across Eighth Avenue.
With all these items having been discussed at the community board level at one point or another, CB5 aimed to spur discussion that would connect all the large jigsaw puzzle pieces in a cohesive manner.
“All of these projects fall either within our district or immediately across the street,” said Stefano Trevisan, a CB5 member leading the January 19 forum. “And yet coordinated planning for these clearly interconnected transportation projects between and among the organizations responsible for them was nowhere to be found.”
Trevisan explained that the community board has reached out to the Empire State Development Corporation that is in charge of spearheading the proposed Moynihan Station project; Amtrak to talk about its expansive Gateway Program; the Port Authority regarding its controversial bus terminal replacement; and “anyone we could” for what community board members consider the dire need for moving MSG to pave the way for an improved Penn Station.
In that process, CB5 recognized that there didn’t seem to be any coordination among these agencies.
The board’s forum, “Moving Madison Square Garden and the Battle for a Better Penn,” showcased architectural and planning experts who discussed tying together all the major transit projects that would, in total, completely overhaul Midtown’s western edge.
One proposal at the center of three of the four projects came from the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism and its founder, Vishaan Chakrabarti. Their idea would move MSG to the Farley Post Office and recycle the structure and foundations left behind into a new glass-encased commuter hub. Chakrabarti said that while brainstorming for an idea of what to do with an empty site if MSG moved, he was captivated by an old photo of the building’s skeleton.
“There are foundations down there, there’s a structure that’s actually quite handsome with just an incredibly ugly skin on it,” he said of MSG. “If the Garden were to move… could this structure be recycled, could it be the new commuter pavilion that we need located precisely in that location, that we need above the center of the tracks and platform?”
Chakrabarti’s design would remove several columns of the existing structure to reduce the cramped feeling of the station, have a glass exterior to let in light, and give commuters a sense of where they are in Midtown. The aim would be to make the area feel more like a public plaza than a dejected train station. Chakrabarti said his firm estimates that this reconfiguration would be very feasible with a $1 billion price tag.
“We believe there’s this donut of planning going on with each entity in their own individual fiefdom,” he said of the projects surrounding the current site of MSG and Penn Station. “And we believe this sort of idea injects jelly in the heart of that donut by pulling all of that together in a fairly simple and straightforward way.”
According to Tom Wright, the president of the Regional Plan Association, all the projects tie together stemming from the Gateway Program – which would improve and expand rail infrastructure between Newark and Penn Station – and its expected impact on the region’s growth. Wright’s group proposes that the Gateway effort be broadened to create another station at East 31st Street and Third Avenue and then tunnel under the East River to reach Sunnyside, Queens.
“We have this extraordinary wealth of rail infrastructure that really makes New York City possible,” Wright said. “Both our subways and our commuter railroads are the lifeblood of our city and region. But the weakest link of it is the northeast corridor and the tunnel under the Hudson River.”
In mentioning the northeast corridor, Wright referred to Penn Station’s pivotal position at the center of the Amtrak network that connects Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia with points north to Boston.
At present, he explained, the century-old tunnel between Newark and Penn Station only has a two-train capacity, and it was flooded and damaged during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. But by making the Gateway project as ambitious as possible, he asserted, the responsible agencies could coordinate each project to have a positive impact on the others.
“What we need to see is the Gateway project built with the maximum capacity it can,” Wright said.
Then, referring to a proposal to expand Penn Station with an annex one block south, he added, “We need Penn South, we need Moynihan Station, which by the way will provide an early relief to allow us to do this kind of work on the West Side. And eventually we’re going to need Penn Station to be the station we all dreamed and talked about.”