The Many Ways to Fix the Awfulness That Is Penn Station

"One entered the city like a god," moaned the architectural historian Vincent J. Scully Jr.; "one scuttles in now like a rat." He was referring, of course, to New York City's insufferable hellhole of a West Side train terminal, Penn Station. You can't get New Yorkers to agree on much—but no one doubts the awfulness of Penn Station.

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"One entered the city like a god," moaned the architectural historian Vincent J. Scully Jr.; "one scuttles in now like a rat." He was referring, of course, to New York City's insufferable hellhole of a West Side train terminal, Penn Station. You can't get New Yorkers to agree on much—but no one doubts the awfulness of Penn Station.

Most solutions involve costly, ambitious construction projects. But those—if they happen, pending billions of dollars—won't come to fruition for decades.

In a new op-ed for The New York Times, former New York City Transit planner Robert Previdi suggests some solutions that don't involve, you know, razing the whole thing to the ground. To start, he writes, the ticket and scheduling centers for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and Long Island Rail Road need to stop "acting as if the other two don’t exist." Plus—and this one is jaw-droppingly obvious—the departure and arrival listings should be viewable on all areas of the station for transferring ease. Then there's the subject of the godawful businesses, especially in contrast to the far classier Grand Central:

A more inviting retail atmosphere would also improve the customer experience. Grand Central Terminal, owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, hired a professional leasing firm to manage the retail mix after the station was renovated in the 1990s. Union Station in Washington did the same thing. Both stations are now hugely successful as inviting retail and restaurant locations. Perhaps Penn Station could be, too.

Previdi's modest solutions are just the latest in a long line of recent proposals to spice up the joint. Most are quite a bit more ambitious. Here's a look at what's been floating around.

The Moynihan Plan

Named for the New York senator who proposed it, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, this one isn't particularly new—Moynihan died in 2003. No matter. Moynihan's idea is still bandied about as the Holy Grail of solutions to all that is awful about Penn Station. It's simple: take over the James A. Farley Post Office directly across from Madison Square Garden and create a new train station there.

But there's a catch. As Michael Kimmelman revealed in a 2012 piece for the Times, "the open secret about the Moynihan plan is that Amtrak alone would move across Eighth Avenue." That accounts for a scant five percent of the harried commuters contending with Penn Station's madness on a daily basis. What will we do with you, Long Island Rail and New Jersey Transit? The Moynihan Plan is a bit of a mixed bag, Kimmelman says:

It’s true that the Moynihan plan will eventually improve a few access routes to subways and commuter trains. But it will add no new tracks and have limited effect on the congestion and misery of Penn Station.

The Kimmelman Solution

Kimmelman goes on to propose his own plan, of course, and it's not so simple. Here's the gist. Eighteen acres of land will soon be developed at the site of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the Far West Side of Manhattan. Kimmelman advocates moving Madison Square Garden to the site, away from its current "flimsy, aging eyesore" of an arena. With the Garden out of the way, Penn Station is free to expand to into a new train hub underground.

"The argument to move the Garden now is about looking ahead toward a booming new West Side," Kimmelman writes. "A light-filled Penn Station, a monument to the city’s best self and biggest dreams, should become its gateway."

Of course, such haughty language hints at just the flaw in this plan: it would take hundreds of millions of dollars and perhaps dozens of years to complete. Commuters suffering Penn Station's hellish realities presumably want a solution in place before they've retired.

The "Architectural Ballet" Solution

No, this has nothing to do with the downfall of the New York City Opera. This one basically amounts to "Hire A Smart Architect Who Can Make Penn Station Not Look Dreadful." But James S. Russell, writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, phrases it so much more elegantly:

The station could choreograph the movement of people among station, subways and arena into an architectural ballet bathed in gorgeous light drawn from above. A talented architect could recapture much of the glory of the 1910 McKim Meade & White station, demolished to widespread horror in 1963.

Come to think of it, that's basically what Previdi is proposing, albeit without any detail provided, isn't it?

The Paris Solution

Writing for The Observer in August, Stephen Jacob Smith made the case that Penn Station ought to do away with such haughty architectural ambitions and simply take a hint from Paris's Châtelet-Les Halles: linkage. Or "through-running," as it's more technically termed. He might be onto something.

Here's how it works. You know how NJT trains travel from Tenafly or Englewood or whatever and arrive in Penn Station and then turn back around to the Garden State? There's a better way:

...instead of making a capacity-taxing reverse maneuver, they’d run straight out to Queens and Long Island, much like a subway. As it is now, said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, “we use half the capacity of the station and the tunnels going in and out to service empty trains.”

Duh. Smith also suggests (wait for it)...

The Build-a-Tunnel-Between-Penn-Station-and-Grand-Central-Already-For-Christ's-Sake Solution

Okay, this one is self-explanatory. But it's been bandied about before and Chris Christie shut it down and anyway, you could argue the impressively quick Grand CentralTimes Square shuttle isn't that much of an extra hassle. (As long as you know better than to try getting out at Times Square and walking the rest of the way.)

All photos: Associated Press

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.