What’s standing in the way of Penn Station’s makeover?

Squabbles between governor and mayor could interfere, panel says

TRD New York /
May.May 03, 2016 07:30 AM

If the redevelopment of Penn Station is going to move forward, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo will need to start playing nice.

“One thing that’s going to have to be discussed, and they don’t seem to be doing tremendously well right now, is the relationship between the governor and the mayor,” said Chris Ward, senior vice president of AECOM and the former executive director at Port Authority. “Unlocking the value of what the new Penn Station will be and capturing that value is going to require hopefully a degree of cooperation.”

Ward briefly touched on the acrimonious relationship between the two men during a panel held by Crain’s on Monday. Another panelist, Anthony Coscia, chairman of AMTRAK, said that the project had not yet been impacted by any disharmony between Cuomo and de Blasio. He did say that the project will be an uphill battle for other reasons, such as cost and sorting out the logistics of the private and public partnership.

“We have to figure out a way to do this,” he said. “Money isn’t the only problem. The other problem is execution. We need to learn how to build these things.”

Representatives for de Blasio and Cuomo did not immediately return requests seeking comment.

Last week, teams of designers and developers submitted proposals for the $3 billion redevelopment of Penn Station and the James A. Farley Building. Dozens of companies showed interest in the projects, including some of the real estate industry’s biggest names. The request for proposals for Penn Station included five design options, including one that would demolish Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theater to create an entrance at Eighth Avenue.

Monday’s panel largely danced around the fate of the entire Madison Square Garden arena, which has a license to operate at its current location through 2028. At one point, the moderator asked if the arena was entrenching itself at the current location or had reached an agreement with the governor to demolish its theater in exchange for staying put. These questions went unanswered.

It’s a bit of a delicate subject: Cuomo’s former aide turned Madison Square Garden executive, Joseph Percoco, is currently the subject of a federal investigation over alleged conflict of interests. According to the Wall Street Journal, Percoco has also continued to advocate for the governor behind the scenes, including during the most recent state budget talks.

The Municipal Art Society has been one of the most vocal advocacy group’s calling for the relocation of the arena. Gina Pollara, president of MAS, said the state needs to take a more holistic view of the project, one that expands the track capacity and addresses the future of Madison Square Garden.

“Until we understand the problem we’re solving for, I just think the governor’s plan is for a limited aesthetic change rather than dealing with the issue of track capacity,” she said.

Ward, whose company is involved in one of the proposals for the project, said he didn’t like that the arena “becomes the defining question” of Penn Station’s redevelopment. Both he and Coscia said the project is being approached incrementally without precluding other options that could expand track capacity.

“Penn is a catalyst now for us at least getting started,” Ward said.

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