BY LYNN ELLSWORTH AND SAMUEL A. TURVEY, CO-COORDINATORS, EMPIRE STATION COALITION | What does it take to kill off bad ideas? Terrible idea number one: Amtrak, the MTA, and New Jersey Transit want to demolish a big chunk of the historic part of the Penn Station neighborhood via eminent domain, especially targeting the block south of the current station. They want to build an expanded underground Penn Station there and then cover up the mess with very tall glass towers. Terrible idea number two: the country’s third largest real estate trust – Vornado – wants to violate our city’s zoning code and build ten towers (8 of them supertalls) for Class-A office space. These will be scattered around the current Penn Station and cast shadows as far as New Jersey. Vornado’s CEO, Steven Roth, has admitted in the past that he deliberately blights neighborhoods to get more out of government. In this case, he’s doing it to the Penn neighborhood to get his own version of Hudson Yards, one that will be built-out over sixteen years after he demolishes the historic Hotel Pennsylvania. Given that the project was greenlighted by ex-Governor Cuomo after getting nearly $384,000 in donations from Vornado, and that the current Governor has received nearly $210,000 from the same, the justifications for all this are insulting to the public’s intelligence: the neighborhood is “blighted”; there are too many working-class people in the Penn neighborhood’s Irish pubs not earning Facebook salaries; and we need Vornado’s speculative rents on the new towers to fix up Penn Station. We are not kidding.
To be fair, important people have seen through this nonsense. The Public Advocate has condemned the project as have the community boards. The Independent Budget Office says the financial projections are entirely mysterious and impossible to evaluate. ReInvent Albany called it “a massive public subsidy in disguise to Vornado.’‘ Senator Hoylman called it a “land grab.” He and Senator Krueger called for “slamming the brakes on the project”. Justin Davidson called it “the worst kind of urban renewal”.
But none of that has killed off the project. Neither has our loud coalition of 15 neighborhood and civic organizations from around the city. We have consistently called for chucking the project and studying the obvious, neglected alternative. That alternative is a non-demolition plan that evicts nobody, builds out within the existing generous zoning allotment in the Jane Jacobs manner, thus reknitting the Gotham city of yore into the existing historic fabric, and maintaining a reservoir of affordable Class-B and C office space. That kind of office space benefits the universe of small business that now occupies the old garment buildings, from theater companies to music studios to therapy offices. This alternative doesn’t require demolition of people’s homes, as increased capacity at Penn Station can be achieved through RethinkNYC’s extensively documented through-running plan for the trains and tracks. Icing on the cake for this alternative would be moving Madison Square Garden (even the owners have considered that in the past) and rebuilding an above-ground station in its place, as Penn Station will never be world class as long as it is underground. Sounds rational, right?
So why are the powers that be still allied with Vornado instead of the citizens of New York City?
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