The Penn Station saga says a lot about our failed public realm.

What a mess! Every day as we head to and from our offices atop Penn Station, we push through swarms of harried commuters, disoriented tourists, and fast-moving New Yorkers in the multilevel, underground purgatory that serves Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and six different lines of the city’s subway system. As nearly everyone knows, this artificially lighted, soul-sapping labyrinth replaced the soaring architecture of McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station, which opened in 1910 and fell to the wrecking ball 53 years later. It’s ironic that the offices of Architectural Record reside in a dreary building on the site of perhaps the greatest architectural crime of the 20th century.

In the September 1968 issue of Architectural Record, a rendering showed Madison Square Garden and Two Penn Plaza, which now sit atop Penn Station.
In the September 1968 issue of Architectural Record, a rendering showed Madison Square Garden and Two Penn Plaza, which now sit atop Penn Station.

For more than a decade, an evolving cast of public and private players has been hashing out schemes to redevelop Penn Station and bring back some of the old wow. First proposed by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1990s, the project would move Amtrak to the James A. Farley Post Office Building, which McKim, Mead & White designed as a Beaux-Arts sibling facing Penn Station across Eighth Avenue. While the post office’s grand colonnaded facade on Eighth Avenue would still welcome people looking to buy stamps and mail packages, the rest of the enormous, block-long (and block-wide) building and many levels below it would be converted into space for an intercity train station, retail, and all sorts of improved rail infrastructure.

In 2005, New York State brought in a pair of developers — Vornado Realty Trust and the Related Companies — to build what was now named Moynihan Station. As the local and national economies boomed, ambitions for the project grew, too — with one plan envisioning Madison Square Garden moving a block west to the Ninth Avenue portion of the Farley Building, a cluster of new skyscrapers rising in the area, and lots of shopping places appearing throughout. We had hoped the plan would include razing Two Penn Plaza, the insipid, Charles Luckman–designed building in which we work, but learned that it would, alas, involve only recladding it. Our reaction was: C’mon, guys, tear the damn thing down and give us something we can be proud of!

Keeping all the various pieces and players in alignment, however, proved increasingly difficult. And after New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s administration fell from grace and the financial crisis hit in 2008, the grand scheme collapsed. Funding for the project dried up, and the Dolan family, which owns Madison Square Garden, decided to spend $850 million to renovate the sports and entertainment venue instead of moving it.

So now, in addition to navigating the daily migrations of 550,000 people in the bowels of Penn Station, we find ourselves funneled through an armada of construction trailers and blocked from sidewalks as the Garden gets fitted out with new luxury boxes and a pair of sky bridges for the pleasure of Knicks and Rangers fans. After the Garden gets its expensive makeover, it will surely remain as ugly as ever: a black hole sucking out street life from behind a phlegmatic office tower. Instead of improving the flow of pedestrians or the way the Garden engages its neighborhood, the Dolans are focusing on amenities for rich customers. What a wasted opportunity!

Last year, the federal government allocated $83.3 million in stimulus funds to get Moynihan Station moving again, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chipped in the rest of the $276 million needed to pay for phase one of the project. Although scaled back and less architecturally ambitious than the original 1990s scheme, the project — designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — still promises a more attractive Amtrak station in the Farley Building, a new concourse under the post office steps along Eighth Avenue, and major improvements in train platforms, rails, and other infrastructure. But only 25,000 of Penn Station’s daily commuters take Amtrak trains, so 525,000 people will continue to suffer the indignities heaped on them by the existing transit facilities, even after phase one is completed in six years or so. We need to transform the travel experience for passengers buying nine-dollar tickets to Nassau County, not just those with $186 seats on the Acela to Washington.

We support constructing Moynihan Station, because it represents a critical improvement in our nation’s transportation system and at least a token investment in New York’s public realm. But we wish it could deliver spaces that inspire the way the old Penn Station did and expand its reach to people traveling to Long Island and New Jersey and around New York City. At a time when China is about to open an 820-mile high-speed line taking travelers from Beijing to Shanghai in just under four hours, we can no longer sit back and say our fraying infrastructure is good enough. Nor can we ignore the imperative to provide innovative architecture as the public face of a modern transportation network.