Some relief for pedestrian overcrowding near Penn Station may be in sight. The reopening of the Gimbels passageway, and a host of other transit and streetscape improvements, crept closer to seeing the light of day after Vornado Realty Trust’s presented its development proposal for 15 Penn Plaza at a public hearing before the New York City Planning Commission yesterday.
Vornado would replace the Hotel Pennsylvania at 15 Penn Plaza (7th Ave and 33rd St.) with what would be the city’s third-tallest building. The proposal requires approval of both the Planning Commission and the City Council. Testifying at the commission hearing, Tri-State’s Kate Slevin said that “the proposed office tower’s proximity to Penn Station makes it an excellent location choice. There is no better place to encourage development than above transit facilities that provide easy access to Amtrak, NJ Transit, LIRR, PATH, and fourteen subway lines.”
The Campaign is particularly excited about the prospect of reopening the Gimbels Passageway which connects the commuter rail lines and subways at Penn Station with subway and PATH service at Herald Square. The streets in the area are very congested with pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and transit riders will welcome a safer and less congested route between these two busy hubs. According to Vornado’s Kate Ascher, a projected 10,000 to 20,000 people would use the passageway at peak hour each day. That should help reduce the crush of crowds near Penn Station; during the busiest times more than 69,000 people per hour used the station entrance at 32nd Street and 7th Avenue, the 34th Street Partnership said last year.
Describing Penn Station as having “been left in the dark ages,” Ascher enumerated additional proposed features. For the 34th Street 1-2-3 and 34th Street-Herald Square stations, Vornado would pay for new subway entrances, better lighting and signage – including real-time train information displays, and wider station platforms. Above ground, the developer would pay for wider sidewalks and street tree plantings.
The proposal represents the best of potential benefits to be had from well-planned public/private partnerships. Ongoing contributions to the transit improvements by the developer allow the MTA to make these customer service enhancements even as the agency faces record budget deficits. Underscoring the importance of these features to the project as a whole, Commission members noted that some developers have had difficulties keeping their end of the bargain in the past, forcing Vornado to reiterate its commitment.
Commission members was generally receptive to the project, but did question whether enough was planned to ensure the vibrancy of the Gimbels passageway, which was closed in 1980 due to worries about crime. Vornado promised to address the concern by designing an attractive space more akin to the retail-lined passageways underneath Rockefeller Center. One commissioner suggested that the city needs to make broader above-ground pedestrian improvements going beyond the project area; TSTC has previously suggested that 32nd Street between 7th and 6th Avenues be closed to traffic.
Also commenting in favor were Juliette Michaelson from Regional Plan Association, Dan Biederman of the 34th Street Partnership, and representatives from the Permanent Citizens’ Advisory Committee to the MTA and the Service Employees International Union. No one spoke in opposition.
Images: Top – From 15 Penn Plaza DEIS. Right – Photo by TSTC.