A chance to rectify Penn Station’s grime
My employees and I have for decades commuted into New York City using Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Railroad. And for decades, we have endured the indignity of an unsafe, ugly and derelict Pennsylvania Station to greet us upon arrival.
Penn Station is perhaps the busiest transit hub in the Western world and the gateway to one of its greatest cities, and traveling into it remains nothing less than a humiliation. Which is why the New Year’s opening of the Moynihan Train Hall in the historic Farley Post Office represents a new opportunity to rethink the entire Penn Station complex.
Officials must recognize the importance of those who use it to the state and local economy — and seek to inspire our hearts.
Through neglect and half-baked makeovers, the current Penn Station conveys the contempt politicians have for the hard-working men and women who commute. The message telegraphed by its grime and hideous design is: You deserve nothing better than this.
Treated like cattle confined to an underground warren, outer-borough and out-of-state commuters are reminded daily of their low status in the hierarchy of constituents and priorities. Politicians take commuters for granted, forcing us to travel through the worst of human depravity merely so the city can receive the tax revenue we generate.
Employees and companies are more aware than ever of quality-of-life issues as a result of the pandemic. New York has suffered the largest population decline in the nation on both an absolute and percentage basis over the past year — the worst decline since the “bad, old days” of the 1970s.
Other cities and states aggressively recruit workers and companies, promising competitive advantages and a better life. Many New Yorkers have long commutes, making it a key lifestyle issue. As companies reconsider their expensive Big Apple offices, and a large swath of the economy has proved people can work from anywhere, it’s vital that New York accelerate a new vision for Penn Station and quality of life in the city to grant all workers the respect they deserve.
Politicians will be tempted to declare victory with Moynihan Hall, but it’s hardly a transformation. If prior makeovers are prologue, it could serve as an excuse to delay the next phase of development.
Moynihan Hall itself took decades to bring to fruition. While the new hall will relieve congestion from Penn Station, arriving commuters will still travel through cramped, underground Penn passageways to subway and other connections. Train tunnels remain inadequate and in dangerous ill-repair.
The station remains an inefficient terminal, rather than through-running trains to Queens. The unsightly, dystopian, spaceship Madison Square Garden landed atop the station dominates the Midtown complex. I fear only human tragedy — a terror attack, say — which has until now been narrowly averted, will prompt politicians to complete the job.
The Moynihan Train Hall is a step in the right direction to re-welcome workers to the city, to be sure. By building on McKim, Mead & White’s Beaux-Arts masterpiece, the new hall could begin a Midtown classical revival. Each New York neighborhood has its own unique character; what New York doesn’t need is another sterile mall.
If we can’t rebuild the original Penn Station, we can still right old wrongs by aspiring to build a new, classically inspired Penn Station complex compatible with Moynihan Hall. Such a project would welcome workers, inspire travelers, reinvigorate the neighborhood and serve as an architectural counterpart to the nearby glass and steel of Hudson Yards.
This is to say nothing of the willful neglect of the human environment, which has allowed the vagrant, addicted, homeless and mentally ill to overtake the station. It’s degrading not only to those poor souls in need, but also to travelers who must negotiate the station. Any project, no matter how beautiful, threatens to fall back into disrepair without rectifying this problem.
We workers love New York City. My company makes its home here. It’s a beloved second home to my fellow commuters who spend their days in the city. It’s time New York properly greets hard-working people who are vital to the economy and who help foot the bill. I care about the quality of life of my employees. So should New York.
Richard Hough is chief executive officer of Silvercrest Asset Management Group.