A ‘Yes, But…’ Vote on Penn Station

July 29, 2022

Governor Kathy Hochul of New York at Moynihan Train Hall on Thursday, Jun. 9, 2022 to announce the solicitation of proposals to renovate Penn Station. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA ( Marc A. Hermann / Metropolitan Transportation Auth)

There are days when the actions of government seem to mean the opposite of what they say. Take the “yes” vote Wednesday on Governor Hochul’s plan to renovate Penn Station and build ten skyscrapers around it to help pay the bills.

A no vote by the Public Authorities Control Board, which in 2019 was instrumental in killing the plan for a new Amazon headquarters in Queens, would presumably have killed the Penn Station plan, too.

But does that mean this yes vote approved the plan?

Apparently not.

“Although termed a victory for Governor Hochul, the PACB vote on the Penn Station plan is in reality a big setback for Empire State Development Corporation, Vornado and Governor Hochul,” chortled a leading critic of the project, Alexandros Washburn.

To understand this conundrum, or Kabuki theater as Washburn framed it, look closely at how one member of the board, State Senator Leroy Comrie, Democrat of Queens, explained his yes vote: “It is the first step towards building a framework for a multi-decade redevelopment plan.”

Got it? It isn’t altogether clear what a first step to a framework is. But perhaps Comrie was applying Churchill’s famous invocation that this is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning of the Penn Station Development Project.

Comrie’s tortured phrasing was the work product of a situation about as politically, economically and governmentally complicated as anything the city has faced in years.

“This project, which is critical to the future of both transportation and development, needs to be a truly future forward thinking endeavor which meets the needs of the 22nd century,” Comrie himself explained in a statement that might seem overdrawn but really isn’t. The timeline extends to 2102.

Manhattan Opposition

Construction unions, developers and Long Island commuter groups all favor the plan.

But whatever its benefits to future generations, the project has drawn substantial community opposition in the here and now, including from three of Comrie’s Manhattan colleagues, State Senators Liz Krueger, Brad Hoylman and Robert Jackson.

The Public Authorities Control Board was created to give the legislature more control (hence the word) over the actions of authorities like the Empire State Development Corporation, which is directing the Penn Station project.

But unless Comrie and his legislative colleagues on the control board were prepared to vote down Hochul’s plan outright, a yes vote had to be redefined in a way that Kreuger, Hoylman and Jackson could take back to their constituents.

“Today’s PACB vote was limited in scope,” the three said in a joint statement. “It was necessary to help the state secure critical federal funding for fixing Penn Station – something that everyone agrees is long overdue.”

“What today’s vote did not do was establish any deals with any real estate developers for the blocks surrounding Penn Station,” they added. Such deals would require a return to the PACB, they said, “and we will continue fighting alongside the community to ensure that those deals are not just corporate welfare for developers.”

Shopping List

The three offered their shopping list for these future negotiations:

“Much more guaranteed affordable housing”

“No unnecessary tax breaks that reward developers for building projects they wanted to build anyway.”

“Real transparency and community input, prioritizing the needs of existing residents, and ensuring that the public realm, the neighborhood, and the city as a whole see significant benefits.”

Comrie, who made it clear he was speaking for the Democratic caucus that controls the state senate and includes Kreuger, Hoylman and Jackson, said that all he was approving was the agreement between the city and state on how to divvy up revenue from the project.

Ten Separate Towers

But – and this was a big but – each individual piece of the project, ten separate towers, would have to be approved by the PACB.

None of that can happen until after the federal government and New Jersey have committed their financial shares to the Penn Station renewal, Comrie stressed.

Five of those ten towers would be on property assembled by Vornado Realty Trust, whose chief executive, Steven Roth, who among other things riled the neighborhood by saying that if you let buildings deteriorate, you increased the government desire to support redeveloping them.

Community opponents were elated by the idea that they had more time to get the project redrawn. “It is clear to all at this point that their plan is only half baked,” said Sam Turvey, chair of ReThinkPennStationNYC.

“As an optimist I will take this vote as a semi-good sign that there is time to improve the plan,” said Washburn, “and to make sure that solution isn’t overly skewed to one private interest or even one political interest.”

Part of this improvement, he added, should be to move Madison Square Garden from atop Penn Station “and rebuild something as good as or better than the original Penn station.”