Preservationists Want to Save Penn Station. Yes, That Penn Station.Breaking News
tags: historic preservation, New York City, Penn Station, urban history, Jane Jacobs, transportation, Redevelopment
In November, as one of her first major acts since taking office, New York Governor Kathy Hochul pared back development plans for New York City’s Pennsylvania Station set in place by her predecessor, disgraced former governor Andrew Cuomo.
The Cuomo plan would have greatly expanded Penn Station and upscaled the neighborhood; Hochul’s vision narrows the scope of work, but it still stands to dramatically transform the subterranean transportation hub, which has been the focus of various unrealized redesign dreams for decades. On Dec. 8, critics and supporters sounded off on the Penn Station scheme in a public hearing. More than 200 people registered to weigh in on how the 10 new skyscrapers coming to the area (shrunk down a bit under Hochul) would affect the scale and character of the community, and the historic buildings that would need to be razed to make way for new development.
This was the final public hearing before the $7 billion development bid goes up for federal review — debate notwithstanding, the Penn Station plan is priced to move. But it was here, at the eleventh hour, when New York preservationists decided to go for the nuclear option, to make their last stand. New York’s State Historic Preservation Office has said that 2 Penn Plaza, Madison Square Garden and Penn Station — dank, dark, dim, dismal, depressing, dangerous Penn Station — should be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
It happens first as tragedy, then as farce: The story of Penn Station has come full circle. After all, the 1963 demolition of the original 1910 Pennsylvania Station — an opulent Beaux-Arts building modeled on the Roman Baths of Caracalla — was considered such a grave crime against architecture that it gave rise to the historical preservation movement itself. Now that same movement is seeking to provide safe harbor for the reviled underworld expanse that still carries its name.
As Crain’s New York first reported, the state agency is invoking laws that require the historic preservation office to “be consulted throughout the project planning process and have the opportunity to make recommendations.” A nomination for National Register status could slow down the redevelopment of Penn Station, prolonging the misery for the travelers who filter through its begrimed concourses. The head of New York Landmarks Conservancy, a separate historic preservation outfit, conceded that the process could add considerable delays. “The rebuilding of Penn Station is long overdue,” Peg Breen told Crain’s.
The agency’s decision marks a potentially jarring setback in the state’s efforts to set things right at Penn Station, an error immortalized by the architectural historian Vincent Scully: “Through it one entered the city like a god ... one scuttles in now like a rat.”
Prolonging the life of a structure that exists as a kind of embodiment of the perils of wanton development in the name of historic preservation might offer some pause for adherents of that movement, which critics have blamed for fueling sprawl, superheating housing costs and contributing to displacement. In The Week, historian Samuel Goldman writes that the case for preserving Penn Station, which he calls “one of the worst places in the city and possibly the world,” is also reason to reexamine the legacy of Jane Jacobs — and all the project delays, cost overruns and community appeals effected by her followers.
“By subjecting projects to endless processes of regulatory review, multiplying veto points, and promoting the policy that whole neighborhoods, not just specific buildings, deserve historical protection, Jacobs et al. have inadvertently helped choke out the diverse, unpredictable, organic life they hoped to sustain,” Goldman writes.