Penn Station: New York’s ‘ugliest’ station set for a makeover

For the best part of two decades, New Yorkers have referred to Penn Station as the city’s “ugliest train station”. Now, after multiple frustrating stops and starts, Governor Andrew Cuomo has revealed updated plans to turn the station into a “world-class 21st century transportation hub”.


penn station

In September this year, New York City’s Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled new plans for the refurbishment of the new Pennsylvania Station-Farley Complex. The announcement, given before attendees at the business luncheon Association for a Better New York, marked a much-coveted green light to a project that has stagnated for almost a quarter of a century, much to the desperation of Penn Station’s daily commuters.

Cuomo’s fast-track plan announced not only the station’s redesign, but also the complete transformation of the old General Post Office, housed in the James A. Farley Building, into a “world-class train hall”, complete with ample retail and office space.

At present, Pennsylvania Station – also known as New York Penn Station or Penn Station – is a completely underground structure beneath Madison Square Garden, 33rd Street, and Two Penn Plaza. Despite occasional improvements over the years, Penn Station has become known for its catacomb-like design and oppressive layout.

Cuomo likened it to LaGuardia Airport, mirroring US vice president Joe Biden’s infamous comment that the airport is similar to “some Third World country”.

“Overcrowded and decrepit, Penn Station is an affront to riders forced to use it,” Cuomo’s presentation stated.

The station currently serves over 650,000 commuters daily, far more than all of New York’s airports combined. That also means the station currently handles triple the capacity it was originally designed for. But despite being one of the busiest commuter hubs in North America, its infrastructure has not kept up with the demand, resulting in one of the most cramped underground stations in the city.

All of that is about to change however, with Cuomo’s $1.6bn redevelopment project that promises to deliver a world-class transportation network, worthy of its role as the heartbeat of the 21st century economy”.

The project is much bigger in scale than all previous plans for transformation in the area.

The first and most ambitious part is turning the Farley Building into the 250,000 square feet Moynihan Train Hall that would accommodate both Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and Amtrak headquarters, along with their respective passengers.

Secondly, the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) will rebuild the LIRR concourse and two subway stations in Penn Station, followed by a rebuild of Amtrak’s own portion of the station.

On 27 September, Cuomo confirmed that the preferred developer-builder for the Moynihan Train Hall had been selected and agreed to a fixed price, construction cost and schedule.

This is a crucial detail that goes a long way to confirm the project’s go-ahead, as delivery has been previously been stalled repeatedly by conceptual flaws and inadequate development approaches.

penn station

The Moynihan Train Hall – the core part of the project – is a modern redesign of the James A. Farley Post Office. The hall is named after US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in the early 1990s was the first champion of a station redesign.

Measuring 250,000 square feet and nearly 10 stories in height, it will be larger than Grand Central Station, which only measures 233,000 square feet.

Some conceptual features were kept from the original design, as envisioned by McKim, Mead & White architectural firm, and integrated in its modern version. This includes the hall’s four glass arches spreading over the concourse, with nearly an acre of glass suspended by steel trusses.

Inside, four large high-resolution LED display boards with train information, security alerts and advertising will dominate the concourse, and passengers will be able to enjoy free WiFi, real-time train alerts and multiple USB laptop and mobile phone charging points.

penn station

The station will house both Amtrak and the LIRR, together with 588,000 square feet of retail and office space. It will give access to nine platforms and 17 tracks.

It will also be fully designed to accommodate advanced security technologies, such as video facial recognition technology, real-time chemical and biological contamination detection, and radiation sensors. These will all be coordinated via a unified Joint Operations Command Center.

This project will result in the creation of over 5,000 new construction and permanent jobs, Cuomo’s office promised. Pre-construction has already commenced, with the new train hall expected to be completed by December 2020.

penn station

The chosen developer-builder team is made up of Related Companies, Vornado Realty LP and Skanska AB, who have guaranteed the timely delivery of the $1.6bn project.

According to the Governor’s office, the three firms “will pay the state a total of approximately $600 million in recognition to the value of the development opportunity within the Farley Building”.

The rest of the cost will be covered by $570m from Empire State Development and $425m collectively from Amtrak, LIRR, Port Authority and federal government sources.

“Ultimately, all of these coordinated efforts will result in a bolder, fully modernized Penn-Farley Complex, with increased passenger capacity, inviting entrances and access points, and a state-of-the-art Train Hall at the Farley Building across Eighth Avenue,” a press release reads.

penn station

Governor Cuomo also announced a comprehensive redesign of the LIRR’s 33rd Street concourse at Penn Station and an extensive renovation to the adjacent 7th and 8th Avenue subway stations.

This is a huge undertaking: the original presentation described it as “a complete redesign of an underground labyrinth”, and previous reconstruction attempts failed over the difficulty to carry out work at the extremely busy node.

Penn Station serves the midtown Manhattan area, in close proximity to Herald Square, the Empire State Building and Koreatown. It currently operates 21 tracks via seven tunnels and it is a central passenger node of the Northeast Corridor, a passenger rail line that connects New York City with Boston and Washington.

penn station

The plan will nearly triple the width of the 33rd Street Corridor, one of the busiest at Penn Station, from the current 25ft to 70ft wide.

The ceiling will also be lifted from 16ft to 18ft high, promising to eliminate the current barrel ceiling and replace it with LED video screens that will create the appearance of daylight underground.

The corridor will also be equipped with digital information screens, wayfinding and glass walls for better visibility and an enhanced passenger experience.

It is anticipated that the cost of the new LIRR corridor will stand at $170m, and the majority of the new facilities will be completed in tandem with the train hall’s opening.

penn station

Two adjacent 7th and 8th Avenue subway stations will also be redesigned at a cost of $50m, and are hoped to be finalised by 2019.

Currently, a concourse meant to provide direct access to LIRR and Amtrak tracks and connect Moynihan Train Hall to Penn Station underground is reportedly nearing completion.

“The MTA design team developed a bold and visionary reimagining of the quintessential commuter experience, incorporating best practices from global transit systems, and focusing on our core mission to renew, enhance and expand,” MTA chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said.

“We are going to do more than renovate. We are bringing subway stations to a higher standard than ever before, and the new vision for subway cars will increase capacity and reduce overcrowding and delays.”

penn station

The station’s expansion and modernisation has been pending for a long time, but failings and bad planning meant that all the work has been postponed until now.

The timeline for the project is certainly ambitious, with early work beginning towards the end of this year, followed by the signing of the final contract in early 2017 and the opening of Moynihan Train Hall at the end of 2020.

“This is not a plan – this is what’s going to happen,” Cuomo said. “People are going to walk through this station and recognize that this is New York.”

The Penn-Farley Complex is part of the government’s $100bn ‘Building the New NY’ plan, a co-ordinated approach to improving the city’s public infrastructure.