Cuomo vows to finally fix, and rebrand, Penn Station

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An outbound train on the tracks under New York's Penn Station. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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Sixteen years ago, then President Bill Clinton, then Governor George Pataki and then U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said they would transform the neoclassical James A. Farley Post Office across from Madison Square Garden into a new Penn Station.

"New York can once again provide a model for the nation,” Clinton said.

Clinton left office in 2001. Moynihan died in 2003. Pataki ended his 12-year tenure as governor at the end of 2006. Clinton’s wife Hillary, back then the nation's first lady, succeeded Moynihan as senator and is now the Democratic frontrunner for president.

Meanwhile, the project long known as Moynihan Station — named for the man who started out as a shoeshine boy at the old Penn Station and ended up championing a new one — has made only the most limited of progress.

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Today, everything changes, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including, apparently, the project’s name, which will now be known as the Empire Station Complex.

The Moynihan name will apply only to the Farley building, which will become known as "Moynihan Train Hall" within the larger Empire State Complex.

“Today we have an opportunity, I would say even more, we have an obligation, to dream big just like our founding fathers, and then to do it, right?” said Cuomo on Wednesday afternoon, speaking to a small audience in a small theater at Madison Square Garden. “Government is not an act of rhetoric. Government is not a soap box.”

Cuomo’s new proposal is yet another effort to tap into private funding to make the hemisphere’s most heavily used, and, arguably, least attractive train station into something befitting the financial and cultural capital of the United States.

And the fact that Cuomo is trying to take action is a good thing, even if her father’s name is no longer front and center, according to Maura Moynihan, the daughter of the late senator, who was not invited to Wednesday's event.

“Honestly, I don’t care what they call it, as long as they build it,” said Moynihan, who promised her father on his death bed that she would work to get the project built. “Dad actually said when he was alive, ‘Oh, don’t put my name on it. Old Jim Farley should keep his name.’” (Farley was a legendary New York political operative who served as Franklin Roosevelt's campaign manager in 1932 and 1936, and, more to the point, was postmaster general during FDR's first two terms.)

This week, various state entitites, in coordination with Amtrak, will issue a joint solicitation to developers interested in the development rights associated with the site.

They will have 90 days to respond.

The developer’s purchase of those development rights will, in turn, help finance the long-sought conversion of the post office into a train hall for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and Long Island Rail Road. It would also help finance a menu of possible improvements to Penn Station itself.

That menu includes what the state described, in a powerpoint presentation, as a “a friendly, negotiated condemnation and removal of the MSG Paramount Theater,” a small theater at Madison Square Garden whose disappearance would allow for some natural light to enter Penn Station, as well as a grander entrance.

“As it advances, if there’s an opportunity to partner with the state, I will gladly take it,” said Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan.

Both Related Companies and Vornado, which in 2005 won the development rights associated with the station, are expected to rebid for the project.

“We continue to passionately believe in the project and look forward to reviewing the materials,” said Related spokeswoman Joanna Rose, in an email.

Cuomo wants “substantial construction” completed within three years.

Many details were left unanswered in Cuomo’s presentation.

During an impromptu gaggle following the event, Cuomo took only a couple questions from the press, and one of them was about homelessness.

The most-pressing question, according to transportation planners, is what, if anything, his proposal portends for Penn South, Amtrak’s planned extension of Penn Station to accommodate increased traffic from a new cross-Hudson rail tunnel.

“I don’t know,” said Regional Plan Association president Tom Wright, when asked how Cuomo’s plan fits into Amtrak’s Penn South plan. “None of us know. I think we’re all trying to figure [that] out, and my guess is they are, too.”

One thing, however, was abundantly clear. Cuomo has no intention of getting Dolan to move Madison Square Garden from its stifling position on top of Penn Station, something that many urbanists consider essential to truly improving the station below.

“There was a proposal at a time to move Madison Square Garden over to the Farley Post Office. That was short-lived and that didn’t happen,” said Cuomo, one of whose closest aides now works for Madison Square Garden.