As Grand Central Terminal embarks on its second century, it faces a future filled with some much taller neighbors and 160,000 more visitors coursing through its marbled halls every day.
The proposed rezoning of 78 blocks around Grand Central in Manhattan carries the Bloomberg administration's promise of revitalizing an aging stock of midtown office buildings by sprinkling in an untold number of state-of-the-art skyscrapers. The plan to rezone the area is under environmental review, with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushing for City Council approval before he leaves office at the end of the year.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $8.2 billion East Side Access plan will allow Long Island Rail Road trains to roll into the Beaux-Arts terminal for the first time in its history. When completed in September 2019, it will be the largest passenger rail terminal built in the U.S. since the 1930s.
Eight new tracks and four new platforms are being constructed beneath the existing Metro-North tracks in an upstairs-downstairs marriage of two of the nation's busiest commuter rails.
Tens of thousands of Queens and Long Island commuters will be diverted from Penn Station, relieving overcrowding at the West Side station and cutting at least half an hour off their commutes.
The job of making sure all this comes together seamlessly, without overwhelming a fabled architectural masterpiece, falls to people at the MTA such as George Monasterio, the agency's chief architect.
"The terminal is more than a train station," Monasterio said. "It's almost a cathedral to transportation that lifts our spirits. Anything less than a clear and thoughtful plan would be disrespectful."
That plan includes a new entrance on the north side of 48th Street between Park and Madison avenues that will handle a quarter of the new passengers. There also will be an elevator from the new LIRR concourse that will come into 280 Park Ave. and another entrance at 415 Madison Ave.
"Any new passages or new construction in the terminal should be consistent with the original vocabulary, context, scale and the overall aesthetics of Grand Central," Monasterio said.
The goal is moving commuters quickly to the street, especially at rush hour, without creating backups on elevators and stairways.
"If an escalator breaks down, you can't have the passageways bottling up with commuters," said David Buchwald, a longtime Metro-North commuter from White Plains who recently was elected to the state Assembly after serving as chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council. "Hopefully, they have figured that out through their experience with the rest of Grand Central."
Monasterio said he "doesn't expect pedestrian traffic to be impacted at all during construction."
Meanwhile, efforts are under way to quicken the path between commuter rails and the subway. Monasterio said the MTA is investigating whether it's possible to create direct access from the new LIRR Concourse and for Metro-North customers to get to the No. 4, 5 and 6 lines.
"It's got a lot of legs," he said.
Among the East Side Access plan's proponents is developer Dan Biederman of Chappaqua. In the early 1990s, Biederman helped found the Grand Central Partnership, which worked to revitalize the area in and around the terminal after decades of graffiti-marred decay.
Biederman said Amtrak's departure from Grand Central in 1991 left a void that has been filled by Metro-North's recent service expansions.
"East Side Access will be great," Biederman said. "People don't realize how hollowed out Grand Central was after the long-distance trains left. It's been built up by Metro-North with their off-peak service, but there's still room for a lot more people."
Commuters are not so sure. Some fear the increased number of passengers will lead to inevitable crowding in the terminal. Among them is Susan Dodes, who on Friday was rushing to catch a Metro-North train to her Scarsdale home.
Dodes rolled her eyes at the thought of more trains coming through Grand Central.
"Why don't they revitalize Penn Station and keep Long Island over there?" Dodes said.