Interview with Vishaan Chakrabarti on the Future of Penn Station
Ever since McKim, Mead & White’s stately Penn Station was demolished in 1964 and replaced by Charles Luckman’s ultrabanal one, which included a doughnut-shaped Madison Square Garden and dreary office buildings, its users have suffered. The aesthetic pain has not been helped by the functional discomfort caused by excessive numbers (650,000 commuters a day). So cheers resounded with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement in late September: the state and developers Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust would put into place a long-touted plan by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to divert Amtrak—and now the Long Island Rail Road—to a new train hall to be located in the nearby James A. Farley Post Office, also designed by McKim, Mead & White.
Soon after, architect and planner Vishaan Chakrabarti and his firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU) unveiled a scheme addressing the fact that many tracks and platforms need to remain under the existing Madison Square Garden (MSG). They urge stripping the present Garden to its frame, glazing it, and recycling it as a hall for commuters. (Read more about the proposal in the New York Times editorial.)
RECORD has asked Chakrabarti for more details about his scheme, its genesis, and its future.
Architectural Record: After the Times’s extensive coverage of your proposal, have you had any reaction from Governor Cuomo and his cohorts?
Vishaan Chakrabarti: Not directly. But we’ve had tremendously positive response from the public. One thing this has taught me is just the vast number of people who are touched by Penn Station.
You worked on the previous plan for Farley (aka Moynihan Station) between 2005 and 2009 as the president of Moynihan Station Venture, a partnership formed between Related and Vornado. Why didn’t you work with those developers on this new proposal?
For me, Penn Station is about much more than the station. What we ultimately do to solve its problems is really a symbol of whether we actually believe in a shared, collective realm. It’s also about the role of an architect.
You have suggested that a new Madison Square Garden move to the back (west) end of Farley, where there is plenty of room for an arena. That will need backing.
There’s a critical first step: the governor's office and MSG have to make a deal for it to move to Farley. I believe that the Garden would want to move into a new facility: they have severe operational constraints in their existing building. The federal government is a stakeholder as well, since it’s the driver behind the Gateway plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River for tracks that would tie into the station. It’s complicated, but creating a brand-new train station with new structure and foundations looks like a $6 or $7 billion enterprise. We're trying to say, “If the Garden were to move and if we recycled the existing arena, you could have a beautiful new station without a grand public price tag.” The renovated Garden in Penn Station would cost about $1.5 billion. The new arena in Farley should be $1.5 billion too.
But couldn’t Vornado and Related—already landowners in the area—help by putting money into relocating MSG to the back of Farley?
The deal the last time around was that the Garden would get a new arena free in the back of Farley, and Related and Vornado were building it. They would get about 5.5 million square feet of air rights over the Garden in return. The only thing now is where you land the air rights for new development, with the Gateway tunnels’ tracks and platforms coming in due south of the Garden.
Are there other incentives besides air-rights transfers for the developers?
You could also give tax-increment financing to basically take advantage of the higher value of the real estate in the future. Such financing mechanisms can pay for this without public money. Creating a truly civic building in the heart of the district, you get incredibly valuable real estate all around it, which is the model of Grand Central.
Where do you make money on this?
This is an advocacy project. We make money on the other projects we do. If someone wants to hire us to do the station, we would be thrilled. We’re a 10-person office, but we could collaborate with great larger firms where we’re the design engine.
What is the next step?
We’re going to see if there is a groundswell around the idea. We all have to keep the vision alive. That’s the key.