Saturday, April 13, 2013

So Far, Moving MSG Theater is the Most Practical, Cost Efficient Way to improve Penn Station

So Far, Moving MSG Theater is the Most Practical, Cost Efficient Way to improve Penn Station 

By Bob Previdi      Email:    Twitter: @bobprevidi 

In the act of restoring greatness to the look and functionality of Penn Station we should not be encouraging patrons of the Garden to drive – which is exactly what will happen if we push it to the far west side over by the Javits Center.  Having only the #7 train is no substitute for the location of MSG right at Penn Station where there is a multitude of intercity, commuter rail, bus and subway lines.  The Farley Post office is a reasonable relocation position but the main question is who will pay $1 to $2 billion to move Madison Square Garden?  Absent a pot of gold - we need to consider more practical solutions to our dilemma for the lack of space at Penn Station and developer Steven Roth of Voronado has already come up with the idea – move the Theater out and let light into Penn Station. 

Instead of chastising MSG for the long-defunct Pennsylvania Rail Roads blunder – maybe we need to try a new tact.  Why not embrace the idea of a 19,000 seat arena atop our nation’s busiest transportation facility?  Developer Steven Roth of Voronado Reality was quoted in a 2008 NY Observer story recommending carving out the theater below MSG and moving that.  Turns out it is not the arena itself that is choking the main waiting room at Penn Station – it is the theater.  He saw an opportunity to make a big difference and I think this is worth reconsidering. 

Referring to the diagram below, most people are not aware that the ice level of MSG is located on the 5th floor (A), while the 6,000 seat Theater (B), sits between the ice level of MSG and Amtrak’s main waiting room (C).  Let’s move the MSG Theater to the back end of the Farley Post office – which would allow architects to lift the ceilings of the main waiting room at Penn Station from 20 to 50 feet.  Remove the ticket offices to allow daylight into the station and maybe we can truly make something better then what we have as Mr. Roth has suggested.    

Even looking beyond Mr. Roth’s idea so much has been put on MSG, but few mention the office tower that also sits on the site.  Neither the office tower and MSG completely cover the entire block that Penn Station occupies which runs from 7th to 9th Avenue – 33rd to 31st Streets.  There are lots of places to imagine poking new holes in the ceiling and allowing more light and entrances.   Surely with all the architectural talent focused on this issue we can find ways to work around MSG.

We could also close 33rd Street and lift off the ceiling of the LIRR’s concourse that sits directly under the street and install a Milan Central Station-type arch that would help orient people by allowing a clear view of the Empire State building.  A railroad station arch would help accomplish this and opening up the ceiling above the Amtrak waiting areas and rearranging other areas around the office tower and the driveway between the office tower and MSG would offer more opportunity to let light in.  We can be more creative if financially we can’t afford to move MSG and still improve the existing station. 

Penn Station has been there since 1910 - only its magnificent hat was removed.  The tracks and platforms are still there.  And many new corridors have been added since 1910 to improve the circulation within the station.  But these changes within the past 30 years have focused only specifically improving the climate for either Amtrak, LIRR or NJ Transit needs separately – never as one collective station.  Nobody as yet to take responsibility for the old "Hilton Passageway"  It is another example of how there is a lack of a truly regional approach to the redesign of Penn Station – and its rail service provided by all three railroads.  It has not been their job to consider anything more then helping their own customers. Never mind that those very same customers might like more regional service.    

If Amtrak, the MTA or NJ Transit were asked by our elected officials to operate in a more integrated fashion there might be commuter trains reaching into each other’s territory (for example; NJT serving JFK, LIRR serving EWR).  There are also operating budget savings that could be realized and most importantly we could reduce the amount of capital construction - like avoiding building Penn South under Gateway and spending that money fixing the existing station instead.
In our zeal to improve the existing Penn Station we need to be more customer oriented in our approach to how we rethink how Penn Station starting with the train service that is there.  How each of the rail agencies serve relate to each other and the customers is critically important to how we end up designing and fixing the existing Penn Station.  Without question we must increase capacity under the Hudson River, but if we build 1 or 2 tunnels or add 6 terminal tracks to Penn Station will have huge cost and service implications.  If we can improve service to the customer, and reduce operating and capital costs - everyone wins.  And whatever we do we also must plan for how Penn Station will eventually tie into Grand Central.  A unified plan is something we need before we go forward but don’t yet have.

(Next issue – how we might link Penn Station & Grand Central)    

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