33rd-street-penn-station A possible look for the 33rd Street entrance to Penn Station. Rendering: governorandrewcuomo/Flickr

Penn Station, the century-old rail station that serves about 650,000 people daily, is set to undergo a $3 billion renovation. So far, the reactions to the proposed designs have been less than pretty.

In January, Governor Cuomo announced a request for proposals for developers while outlining five possible scenarios to redevelop Penn Station. The scenarios include wider corridors and improved connectivity between levels, reconfigured ticketing and waiting areas, Wi-Fi, expanded retail, new displays and major exterior renovations. In one of the proposed plans, the Farley Post Office will be redeveloped into an expansive train hall for Amtrak, also hosting the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and the new Air Train to LaGuardia Airport.

Although the goal is to have construction crews break ground on the project by the end of the year, already many have put forth sharp criticisms of several key aspects of the plans.

It’s not pretty enough.

Some have questioned the aesthetics of the new plans. Many hoped to restore some of the opulence of the old Penn Station and others just wish the new design was better. Of the new Farley designs, Mary W. Rowe, the executive vice president of the Municipal Art Society, said, “I worry that we’re getting into incremental good-enough-ism…This lack of ambition is distressing to us. You need to fix it, and fix it right. It should reach the highest standards of design. I mean, we are New York City.”

These criticisms are familiar. Back in 1966, “A Vision of Rome Dies,” by Ada Louise Huxtable, lamented, “The passing of Penn Station is more than the end of a landmark. It makes the priority of real estate values over preservation conclusively clear. It confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance, of conspicuous, magnificent spaces, rich and enduring materials, the monumental civic gesture, and extravagant expenditure for aesthetic ends.”

What about Madison Square Garden?

Frederick Iseman of New York Daily News wrote that the proposals falls short in that it keeps Madison Square Garden attached to Penn Station. “The two have nothing to do with each other. Would we put Yankee Stadium on top of Grand Central?” said Iseman. He sees this as an opportunity to revamp one of the country’s oldest arenas in anticipation of increased development on the city’s west side. This sentiment has been echoed by numerous transit experts.

Who’s paying for all of this?

Last month Cuomo received criticism for his overall infrastructure budget, which amounts to $100 billion. Mike McAndrew of Syracuse.com noted that taxpayers will be responsible for only $29 billion of the $100 billion in capital projects in the budget, and the rest is spread among private investors, the federal government, the MTA, Port Authority and others.

For the Penn Station project, Cuomo announced limited responsibility for the federal and state governments. Private investors pay $2.6 billion and Amtrak will pay $325 million, according to the plan.

But some question the influence and feasibility of private investors. “The $3 billion Penn plan isn’t really a full financing plan, but just a request to developers. Developers would pay the cost of the renovation to the old post office, the cost of overhauling what is now the MSG theater to bring in outside light, etc., in return for being able to build commercial and retail properties,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow for conservative think tank Manhattan Institute.” She adds that it will be difficult to find a developer to pay for “the real capacity upgrades that Penn needs.”

But the reactions to the plans haven’t all been negative.

The plan has functional merits.

Mitchell Moss of the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management said the plans will successfully address Penn Station’s congestion problem. The station was designed to serve only 250,000 people a day and is typically at nearly triple capacity.

“The Penn Station Experience is [presently] really difficult because there’s not enough space for the people who are coming both on a regional basis, on a city basis as well as coming on an interstate basis,” said Moss.

It doesn’t have to pretty; it just needs to work.

“Why did we expect city government to have great taste all of a sudden?” an editorial for Bloomberg Business asked. The editorial’s author Belinda Lanks cheekily admits that the designs are “meh,” but what the complex lacks in aesthetics is a fair trade-off for a much needed revamp. What New Yorkers need is a transit hub that serves the present population and has an eye toward the future.

Regardless of the feedback, Governor Cuomo estimates doubling traffic into Penn over the next 15 years and developers have 90 days to submit proposals. “Penn Station is the heart of New York’s economy and transportation network, but it has been outdated, overcrowded, and unworthy of the Empire State for far too long,” said Cuomo. “We want to build Penn Station to be better than it ever was, and that is exactly what we are going to do.”

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