Madison Square Station?

Senator Moynihan’s grand vision for a new rail hub may be losing its civic luster.

Back in the late 1990s, when I first studied Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s grand scheme to transport New York’s Penn Station from its purgatorial basement to the grand Farley Post Office building designed by McKim, Mead & White, just across Eighth Avenue, I was naive. I thought the main issue was whether the new Penn Station would be an embarrassing historic reproduction of the old one or a shining example of twenty-first-century civic architecture. I thought the issue was architecture. But in New York, no matter what people rail against at public meetings, it’s never about the architecture. It’s always about money.

Well, money and politics. Maura Moynihan—daughter of the senator, who has been working as an advocate for the project since her father’s death in 2003—blames the station’s long and tortured gestation period on former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “We could have started construction in ’99, but Giuliani boycotted. Clearly, he has never taken a train in his life.” David Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)—which did a splendid design in 1999 using Farley’s existing steel trusses as the support for a soaring modern glass roof—says “we were within an inch” of starting construction in late 1999 and suggests that the Clinton administration, in its final weeks, simply didn’t have the juice to move the project forward.

Then came 9/11 and the development frenzy that followed in its wake, along with the Bloomberg administration’s misguided quest for a West Side football stadium. Later still was the disquieting news that Moynihan Station would be home only to New Jersey Transit, while the other two carriers, Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road, would stay put in the old Penn Station. Last year Albany put the project on hold.

So here we are at the end of 2007, and the drumbeat for Moynihan Station is once again growing louder. In late October the Empire State Devel­opment Corporation (ESDC), the public authority in charge of the project, issued a long-awaited “scoping document,” a critical step in the approval process. The station appears to be back on track, except that what’s emerged is an entirely different creature than the civic scheme envisioned by Senator Moynihan. What’s changed? The squat eight-acre Farley complex, purchased from the postal service by the ESDC for $230 million in March, has been recognized for what it is—a vast repository of unused air rights, Manhattan’s most valuable commodity.

Long ago, Senator Moynihan secured funding to pay for a $900 million project. It is now projected to cost upward of $14 billion. And the development rights have been awarded to a pair of large private developers, a joint venture between Steven Roth’s Vornado Realty Trust, owner of much of the property surrounding the project site, and Stephen M. Ross’s Related Companies, developer of the Time Warner Center. The entity is known formally as the Venture and informally as the “Two Steves.” The fact that a civic project has become a vehicle for commercial interests is clearly a sign of the times. Or as Maura Moynihan put it, “The public sector can’t do it anymore: this is America.”

So in the new configuration, Madison Square Garden—the hideous hatbox currently owned by Cab­le­vision Systems Corporation, which is in turn controlled by the Dolan family—will move to the western annex of the Farley building into a new arena designed by Brisbin Brook Beynon Archi­tects. At the east end of Farley will be a train sta­tion known as Moynihan West, which will likely still be dominated by New Jersey Transit and designed by SOM. These two components are now scheduled for completion by 2011. Then once the new Garden is completed and the Knicks and Rangers are snug in their new home, the old arena will be torn down and work will begin on Moynihan East, a Foster + Partners project, to be done in collaboration with SOM. What the developers get is the right to build 5.5 million square feet of commercial space: retail, offices, and a hotel or two, either stacked on the east side of Eighth Avenue, around and on top of Moynihan East—perhaps cramping Foster + Partners’ style—or scattered throughout the surrounding neighborhood, which would be rezoned to accommodate taller buildings, making the properties already owned by the Venture partners even more ­valuable.

I want to believe that Moynihan Station, West and East, will be everything it’s supposed to be: “iconic and monumental,” as the scoping document puts it, with not one but two Grand Central–size daylight-flooded public concourses. I want to believe in the civic goodness of this massive undertaking, not just because it’s pivotal to the future of New York, as the linchpin in a series of transportation and development schemes for Manhattan’s West Side, but also because it’s the role of New York City—and other major cities around the world—to be an engine of progress. I would hope that whoever is running this country in 2011 or 2018 is farsighted enough to invest in our transportation ­infrastructure and, as in Europe, develop high-speed rail as a cleaner, saner alterna­tive to our overstressed air and ground transportation systems. But at the moment there is no such federal leadership, so local governments must take up the slack. At its best Moynihan Station could be a symbol of renewed investment in rail ­transportation.

It is indeed fortuitous that Madison Square Garden is willing to move and allow the major overhaul of the train station below—especially since Amtrak backed out of the plan to move west, across Eighth Avenue—but you can be sure that the Dolans are not doing this out of altruism. The arena is one of the oldest still in use and has far fewer luxury skyboxes than newer facilities have. The question is whether the Garden’s desires will further or trump the public good.

According to Juliette Michaelson, a senior planner at Regional Plan Association (RPA), Madison Square Garden seeks a “positive visual link” be­tween the arena and the train station. This means that the western wall of the landmark Farley post office building will likely be removed and replaced with a glass one, jeopardizing some $250 million in preservation tax credits. The result would be a forced camaraderie between commuters and fans, potentially converting the station into the world’s largest sports bar. Madison Square Garden has also expressed interest in having at least part of its ornate post-office lobby, with its long line of service windows, become a ticket office for events. So Moynihan Station would be every bit as entangled in the Garden as the present-day dysfunctional Penn Station is. As Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York, long a proponent of the project, points out, Senator Moynihan didn’t secure the Farley building for use of the Knicks. “Who’s going to push back on the Dolans?” Barwick wonders.

By the time you read this, Maura Moynihan’s Friends of Moynihan Station, working under the auspices of the sometimes influential RPA, will be out rallying commuters with the slogan, “Build It Well. Build It Now.” The idea is to grow public support for the project so that there is a significant force countering the commercial interests. As for the architecture, I don’t think it’s the issue anymore. The designers involved are perfectly capable of turning out a pair of great modern public spaces, assuming there are public spaces, assuming we don’t get stuck with the Knicks and Rangers Station or Steve West and Steve East.

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