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MAS Summit: Moynihan Station seen as transformative project (not AY)

The Municipal Art Society's (MAS) Summit for New York City October 21-22 featured a panel on a project all participants deemed transformative to the city.

Atlantic Yards? No, Moynihan Station, the transformation of the Farley Post Office into a train station worthy of the city's biggest commuter hub, the underground and much-maligned Penn Station, and the attendant development of the Far West Side of Manhattan.

Sure, the summit was held at a venue adjacent to Penn Station, so a Moynihan Station panel--especially given the groundbreaking that week--made sense.

But had the summit been held in Brooklyn, they could not have made the same arguments or predictions. It's simply impossible to see Atlantic Yards as transformative in the same way. There would be, at most, one commercial building, not dozens.

In fact, it's more likely that Atlantic Yards will linger, as it takes far longer than initially promised for most or all of the planned apartment towers to be constructed.

City's "most important project"

"More people go in and out of Penn Station than all three [metro] airports combined," declared architect and moderator Hugh Hardy, citing the role of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (subway), Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the Long Island Rail Road.

MAS President Vin Cipolla called it "the most important project on city's horizon… By working toward development of Moynihan Station, we are advocating for development of the district and recognition of primacy of public transportation to an ever-growing New York."

He called it "a cornerstone on which the Far West Side must be built... a step to unlocking Manhattan's last frontier." And completing it, he said, would demonstrate that intelligent urban planning can incorporate the beautiful and the wise, a reference to the words of station namesake Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

2016 target

The project will take a while, said Tim Gilchrist, president of the Moynihan Station Development Corporation. Friends of Moynihan Station reported:
Construction of Phase One, which includes new entrances to Penn Station through the Farley building, a wider and longer West End Concourse, more escalators from the platforms and other infrastructure work, started this month and will be completed by 2016. The project is scheduled to take 6 years because work is restricted to nights and weekends.
The funding--"we have cobbled $267 million," said Gilchrist--comes from the federal government, the Port Authority, and the MTA. "We have to work on how we put together financing for train station.. and work with partners on how we develop the rest of the building."

ARC canceled

Tom Wright of the Regional Plan Association lamented that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was about to cancel the project known as Access to the Region's Core, building another tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan.

He called it "the most unbelievably short-sighted decision I've ever seen a public official make," given that it would double the rail capacity and help New Jersey's growth.

Building "two downtown Detroits"

"What do we do to get to 2016?" asked former MAS President Kent Barwick rhetorically. Though some may cite the bad economy, "the fact of the matter is New York has built most of its infrastructure during bad economic times," he said. "What we're contemplating building is the equivalent of two downtown Detroits."

While Moynihan has largely been ignored in the city's recent planning, Barwick said, it should be a centerpiece, helping tie in multiple assets in an around the neighborhood: Hudson River Park, "great retail close by," "Times Square not far away," "the energy of midtown," "the soon-to-be-completed number 7 line, and of course the extraordinary High Line."

Grand Central Terminal, he said, should be an inspiration, not so much for architecture, but the "vision of covering over a railyard, creating a city within a city." The coverage of Park Avenue did indeed help develop the area around the station.

By contrast, the plan for a deck over the Vanderbilt Yard, and housing over it, is well in the distance.

Barwick acknowledged "some issues and problems," including "probably the greatest concentration of bad parking problems in the nation," associated with the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

He also cited the failure to adequately connect the station with "the assets we're talking about." One potential solution: an east-west connection. While Moynihan once favored light rail, more recently the discussion has been of Bus Rapid Transit.

The need for density

Vishaan Chakrabarti, director and Marc Holliday professor of Real Estate Development at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; has been working on Moynihan Station for years, first for the Department of City Planning and then for the Related Companies.

He repeated some statistics he's cited in columns for Urban Omnibus. Some 50% of Gross Domestic Project is generated on 2% of our land mass, according to a University of Chicago study, with New York City a major contributor.

"It's very clear that places in most distress [nationally] are least dense and have economic monoculture," he said. "The denser we are, the healthier we are."

The broader perspective

He cautioned that promoting Moynihan as an architectural project is insufficient, and noted that designs have been updated for 15 years as the cost of the project continues to increase. No longer is there federal money to get it all done.

"Beyond civic architecture, and great agateway for intercity rail, we need to think about four factors," he said, citing additional rail capacity; function as a commuter station; the surrounding neighborhood; and how to pay for it all.

"We clearly need ARC," he said. "If it dies today, we have to bring it back.. and ARC can be better tied to Penn Station." Beyond that, he said that the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit should be brought through Penn Station "so we do not have enormous train parking lots in New York City."

He even criticized the much-nostalgized station that was demolished in the early 1960s. "The vaunted McKim Mead White [station] treated commuters like secondhand citizens," he said, as does almost every plan for Moynihan. While 25,000 travelers are on Amtrak, the remaining 525,000 a day are commuters, he noted.

"I would invite you to walk around this neighborhood," he added, "and ask if that is the neighborhood" that befits being the surrounding area of the biggest transportation hub in Western hemisphere.

The private sector pays for it?

"I don't believe that soaring architecture, in and of itself is going to inspire people to pay" the cost of building, Chakrabarti said. "Government can't do it alone, this has to be a public private partnership. Developers would like to do the right thing… Civic organizations, editorial boards, community boards are critical to working in alliance."

Grand Central has a tremendous amount of retail, he noted. And while it's unfair to blame Penn Station's demise on the lack of retail, the original Penn Station, over nine acres, had "virtually no economic drivers."

From the audience, author Roberta Brandes Gratz offered a word of caution. The summit, she noted, was being held in the Hotel Pennsylvania, slated to be replaced by an enormous office building known as 15 Penn Plaza.

The plan for the tower, she said, "grew unnecessarily with an unexplained upzoning... When you talking about having to pay with development, are we talking about buildings of the scale that replace this? If we are, let's make that part of the conversation... rather than starting after we've endorsed a plan that gives us Shanghai."

"I love Shanghai," quipped Chakrabarti, adding, "I agree with you. I think the city needs to take the lead. There needs to be a comprehensive plan for redevelopment of the area. There needs to be a public process."

He added that he disagreed with Barwick's criticism of the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), saying it's "actually better than in other parts of country." (He spoke similarly at a Charter Review Commission hearing in July.)

Chakrabarti noted that the extension of the number 7 subway line is in part funded by increased development revenues, "so there is a model."

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