New York

New train hall opens at Penn Station, echoing building’s former glory

Moynihan Train Hall in New York City.

Moynihan Train Hall in New York City.

NEW YORK — For more than a half-century, New Yorkers have trudged through the crammed platforms, dark hallways and oppressively low ceilings of Pennsylvania Station, the busiest and perhaps most miserable train hub in North America.

Entombed beneath Madison Square Garden, the station served 650,000 riders each weekday before the pandemic, or three times the number it was built to handle.

But as more commuters return to Penn Station next year, they will be welcomed by a new, $1.6 billion train hall complete with more than an acre of glass skylights, art installations and 92-foot-high ceilings that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who championed the project, has likened to the majestic Grand Central Terminal.

After nearly three years of construction, the new Moynihan Train Hall, in the James A. Farley Post Office building across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station, will open to the public Jan. 1 as a waiting room for Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers.

Trains going to and coming from the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station will be using Moynihan station. Thousands of trips to the city made by Capital Region residents will end there.

The Empire Corridor service between New York City and Albany runs several times a day, carrying tourists, business people, state legislators and a variety of government lobbyists. Trains originating at Moynihan and going to Montreal, the Midwest, Toronto and Vermont also pass through Albany. The Albany-Rensselaer station is the ninth-busiest in the Amtrak system, used by more than 800,000 riders in a normal year.

For decades, the huge undertaking was considered an absolution of sorts for one of the city’s greatest sins: the demolition in the 1960s of the original Penn Station building, an awe-inspiring structure that was a stately gateway to the country’s economic powerhouse.

Photo courtesy the Governor’s Office

The destruction of the station was a turning point in New York’s civic life. It prompted a fierce backlash among defenders of the city’s architectural heritage, the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and renewed efforts to protect Grand Central Terminal.

That the project has been completed during a period when the city was brought to a standstill is a hopeful reminder that the bustle of midtown Manhattan will return, Cuomo said.

The train hall “sends a clear message to the world that while we suffered greatly as a result of this once-in-a-century health crisis, the pandemic did not stop us from dreaming big and building for the future,” he added.

The project has its detractors, who fault state officials for not going far enough in reimagining Penn Station. These critics note that the Moynihan Train Hall will serve only some of the passengers who use Penn Station, ignoring the needs of subway riders.

For nearly 30 years, elected leaders have debated transforming the Farley building from a post office to an extension of Penn Station — an idea first proposed by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was known for his innovative, if not always realistic, solutions to urban ills.

Photo courtesy the Governor’s Office

The Farley building, Moynihan argued, offered an obvious solution to Penn Station’s overcrowding: Commuter train tracks ran beneath the large post office, which was no longer a busy mail hub but still had a grandeur that echoed the original Penn Station’s. That building was demolished starting in 1963 as the Pennsylvania Railroad Co. went bankrupt.

At least five versions of Moynihan’s original plan later, Cuomo broke ground for the project in 2017. Two major private developers, Related Cos. and Vornado, contributed $630 million in exchange for a 99-year lease on much of the century-old Farley building; the other $970 million came from public sources.

The train hall is one of several major infrastructure projects that Cuomo has spearheaded as he seeks to make such initiatives a hallmark of his tenure.

Still, only passengers who use Amtrak or the Long Island Rail Road — which account for 30,000 and 230,000 of Penn Station’s 650,000 daily riders — will have access to trains directly from the Moynihan hall, which is atop platforms for both.

The station’s six subway lines run along Eighth and Seventh avenues and Avenue of the Americas — a good distance from the new train hall. That leaves subway riders, who tend to be less affluent than Amtrak users, to the bowels of Penn Station.

“By opening Moynihan, it’s basically like opening the first-class lounge at the airport,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, who founded Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, a New York architecture firm, and proposed a radical plan to move Madison Square Garden and open up Penn Station in 2016.

“Moynihan is a really good phase one; it’s the appetizer,” Chakrabarti said. “But the main station in the subbasement of the Garden is the entree.”

The new hall also does not solve Penn Station’s fundamental problem: a lack of capacity.

In recent years, growing ridership on the commuter rail and subway lines that serve the station has clogged platforms and passageways with bottlenecks.

While the new hall will relieve some of the strain by moving the designated waiting area for all Amtrak trains out of Penn Station, additional trains, tracks and platforms are needed to truly thin the station’s crowds.

Photo courtesy the Governor’s Office

To address the station’s limited capacity, elected officials have proposed two major infrastructure projects — known as Gateway and Penn South — that would require years of construction and many billions of dollars of investment.

The Gateway project, which would fix the deteriorating rail tunnels under the Hudson River and double the rail capacity into and out of Penn Station, needs federal financing and approval. The plans have been mired in a political standoff between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders for the past four years.

In January 2020, Cuomo introduced plans for the Penn South project, under which the state would acquire the city block south of Penn Station and build eight new train tracks. The expansion would allow the transit hub to accommodate 175,000 more riders.

Neither project has gotten off the ground, although elected officials are hopeful that they will move forward under President-elect Joe Biden, an enthusiastic supporter of Amtrak and major infrastructure projects.

Still, even before the projects are complete, the 255,000-square-foot Moynihan hall could help reinvigorate the surrounding neighborhood, which has long been considered a poor cousin to the area near Grand Central Terminal.

Already, there are signs of revival. Apple, Amazon and Google have all leased office space in the area, turning it into an emerging tech corridor. In August, Facebook joined their ranks and agreed to lease all of the 730,000-square-foot office space in the Farley building.

As some of the tech companies’ employees and other midtown office workers return to commuting next year, elected officials and transit experts hope the new train hall could help coax them back onto public transit and breathe life back into the heart of the city.

“The timing of this couldn’t possibly be better,” said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a planning group. “Right now is a time when we need to bring people back to the city and show how transit and public spaces are safe. Moynihan does just that.”

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One Comment

Michael Bailey

Saw the work in progress while staying at a hotel across the street and it is impressive. Unfortunately city is very unsafe now and there are no more reasons for me to travel there. With COVID, technology allowing for remote work, and the Cuomo crime wave NYC already faces an existential crisis. Unfortunately no one with vision of any sort mentioned as possible sucessor to Mayor Putz and only more liberal activists who don’t have a clue. Theater industry and large firms will move to cities that actually take policing seriously. An opportunity for upstate cities like Schenectady and they need to act now.

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