Former Empire Station Complex Still Causing Anxiety Despite Revisions

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Empire State Development’s (ESD) proposed revisions to the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Station, known as the Empire Station Complex under the Cuomo administration, have done little to bring opponents around.

During a Thursday hearing, a number of elected officials from the Bronx and Long Island, N.Y. voiced their support for the redevelopment while Manhattanites long-opposed to the plan conceived by disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo persisted in their doubt.

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While the changes introduced in December 2021 to transit amenities are limited and geared toward streamlining options for future improvements, the ESD, under Gov. Kathy Hochul, envisions greater improvements to public space, especially how people enter and exit Penn Station in the future.

Holly Leicht, executive vice president of real estate development and planning at ESD, said New Yorkers can expect 8 acres of public space, including a 30,000-square-foot plaza comparable in size to Rockefeller Center.

“The proposed revisions would increase housing opportunities requiring at least one residential building with approximately 540 units of which 162 would be permanently affordable, and permitting up to a total of about 1,800 residential units across four sides of which 540 would be permanently affordable,” Leicht said during a hearing on the plans Thursday night. “In total, the proposed revisions will facilitate the creation of about 8 acres of public space in the form of new plazas and open space including a 3,000-square-foot public plaza comparable to Rockefeller Plaza which is shown in this slide.”

The divide between residents of Midtown and surrounding areas and those living beyond the direct scope of the redevelopment became almost immediately clear.

Newly elected Manhattan City Councilmember Erik Bottcher expressed dismay that the majority of space would go toward office space, with Vornado Realty Trust owning five of the sites within the project area, instead of going bigger on affordable housing.

Hochul’s revisions cut back on total density allowed in the plan by 1.4 million feet compared to Cuomo’s outline by reducing the heights of buildings to protect views of the Empire State Building along West 33rd Street. The reduced density will not impact the tower that will go up in place of the former Hotel Pennsylvania, according to a representative from Vornado, a point of friction for preservationists.

“This is an opportunity for thousands of units of affordable housing at all income gains and supportive housing to middle-income housing. We need large numbers of affordable housing and it must be guaranteed as part of any project,” Bottcher said. “Should we not attempt to recreate at least some of the majesty of the original Pennsylvania Station? The proposals I’ve seen do not do that and furthermore, will we ever truly get the train home that we need and deserve?”

The governor’s revised plan, however, includes 1,800 residential units, of which 540 would be permanently affordable. One of the buildings in the scope of the plan will be required to be residential, which will include 162 permanently affordable units, according to the governor’s office.

A February 2021 rundown of the plan under Cuomo’s administration does not make any special mention of mandated housing apart from the commitment to find comparable living arrangements for displaced residents.

Key features of the revised plan include a single-level, double-height train hall that doubles passenger circulation space to approximately 250,000 square feet from approximately 123,000 square feet and eliminates the low-ceilinged passageways in the existing Penn Station.

It will also have a 450-foot long sunlit train hall the size of Moynihan Train Hall and Grand Central Terminal combined; creates clear sightlines to exits and entrances; and adds 18 more escalators or stairwells and 11 more elevators to platforms.

While politicians including Long Island Assemblymember Gina Sillitti voiced support for the improvements for Long Island Rail Road commuters, the revised plans did little to win over opponents of the plan.

Rebecca Gelb, a Manhattan resident, brought up the long-standing concern that the state’s involvement in the project supersedes the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), a similar anxiety voiced by state Senator Brad Hoylman in May 2021

“I’d like to just say that there’s a false premise here that you’re either for fixing Penn Station or you’re against it,” Gelb said. “I’ve been in the city for 45 years, and this is the most politically egregious thing I’ve ever seen. … This is the land grab. We want the jobs through the unions, we want the people from the Bronx to get here easily, we want the people from Long Island to have an easier commute. We’re all getting older, we want to be able to get in and out of Penn Station easily, but not to the destruction of a neighborhood.”

Mark Hallum can be reached at mhallum@commercialobserver.com.