Hochul’s Penn Station real estate deal draws heat at lengthy public hearing

Penn Station area redevelopment
A rendering of the proposed development around Penn Station.
Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Governor Kathy Hochul’s massive redevelopment plan for the area around Penn Station came under fire from residents and government watchdogs at a lengthy virtual public hearing Wednesday night, Dec. 8.

The Zoom feedback session drew more than 200 speakers, many of whom doubted the state’s claims that the proposed 10-tower office and apartment development around the station was needed to finance upgrades to the beleaguered transit hub, and accused officials of putting the cart before the horse.

“The greatest cause of concern is that the process is inverted and that we started by looking at how many development rights could be sold to support transit needs,” said Paul Devlin, a co-chairperson of the land use committee on local Manhattan Community Board 4. “Instead, the transit needs should be determined first, then figure out how to move people through the network and public space, then determine funding sources.”

Former Governor Andrew Cuomo first proposed the massive plan in January 2020, then known as Empire Station Complex, proposing 20 million square feet of office, retail, and hotel space, which officials claimed was essential to fund upgrades for the 1968 Penn Station, the busiest transit hub in the Western Hemisphere.

Hochul revived Cuomo’s plan on Nov. 3 in a slightly pared back form, cutting about 1.4 million square foot of space, or down 7% to 18.3 million square feet, which newly includes up to 1,798 apartments — including 539 income-restricted units — on four of the eight development sites.

The state’s development arm Empire State Development is leading the effort, which promises to add 8 acres of public space and proposes a more pedestrian and bike-friendly streetscape in the area.

The scheme, now called the Penn Station Area Redevelopment Project, covers an area bounded by Sixth and Ninth Avenues, and W. 30th and W. 34th Streets, and is still dominated by commercial office space, including a large campus of glass towers to the north of the station to be built by developer Vornado.

The building project will also require almost two blocks south of Penn Station to be razed if state and transit leaders choose to expand the train station to accommodate up to nine new tracks and five platforms underneath that part of the development.

The potential bulldozing has drawn the ire from residents and local preservationists who fear the destruction of some older structures, such as the 1870s St. John the Baptist Church, the 1919 Hotel Pennsylvania, and the Art Deco Gimbel’s skybridge.

Most of the project would be commercial office space.Empire State Development

In November, Hochul said she wanted to fast-track the renovation of Penn Station, with plans create light-filled new entrances and concourses, along with a new underground corridor connecting to the Herald Square subway station.

However, the Wednesday public hearing was solely about the development deal, as the state has separated out the transit upgrade into a different project to be fleshed out with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

One resident who lives on the block of W. 30th Street under threat of demolition accused the state of not being honest about its plans.

“If this plan were good, I would bite the bullet and step aside for the purpose of allowing an improvement to my neighborhood,” said T. Lawrence Wheatman. “This is not an improvement to the neighborhood. This is a — I’m sorry, I’m gonna say the word — a blatant lie.”

The plan calls for more light inside the notoriously dark station.Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

One good government watchdog slammed ESD for not producing details showing how much revenue they expect to come in, or laying out the costs of subsidizing developers through tax abatements. 

“We again ask that the Hochul administration – which has made big claims about being transparent – provide the public with complete information so taxpayers can properly evaluate the Penn Station area project’s financing, return on investment, risks, and potential impacts on the state and city budgets,” said Rachael Fauss of Reinvent Albany. “We strongly suspect the math doesn’t add up for this project and it will be a huge giveaway to Vornado under which the City government loses either existing or potential tax revenues, and state taxpayers have to bail out borrowing for the new Penn Station. That is exactly what happened just blocks away in Hudson Yards.”

Some speakers applauded the state’s move, including one Long Island Rail Road commuter who said it was long overdue that the commuter hub get a facelift.

“Penn Station is an absolute antiquated station that for a long time has been talked about being renovated and I am in complete support of this project,” said Matt Kamper. “I use Penn Station all the time, it is so congested, bottlenecked. The time is now for Penn Station to get its renovation.”

There will be another public hearing sometime next month, but the public comment period is set to end on Jan. 10, before the final plans come before the ESD board in the spring.