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LIRR to clean up 'visual clutter' at Penn Station retail concourse

Retail stores dot the Penn Station Long Island

Retail stores dot the Penn Station Long Island Rail Road concourse on Wednesday, July 22, 2015. The Long Island Rail Road has struck a deal with a key Penn Station retail landlord to clean up the look of several business along the concourse, including doing away with giant beer coolers, neon signs and other "visual clutter." Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

The Long Island Rail Road has struck a deal with a key Penn Station retail landlord to clean up the look of several businesses along the LIRR concourse, by doing away with giant beer coolers, neon signs and other "visual clutter."

The agreement between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Vornado Realty Trust to spruce up the row of businesses along the north side of Penn's 33rd Street corridor was formalized by an MTA Board vote Wednesday.

The deal comes after years of calls by the MTA for Vornado to heighten its standards for retail space. The LIRR, under a long-term lease from Penn's owner, Amtrak, controls properties on the south side of the concourse and the pedestrian walkway, but, historically, has had no say in what Vornado can do with the north side.

The north side has long been populated largely by fast-food eateries, beer vendors and other "grab-and-go offerings," as the LIRR has called them.

"It's like the town line going down the middle of the road," said MTA Board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook. "All we're saying is: If you're going to be there, you have to make the place look nice."

The agreement establishes several new standards for retail tenants. For example, store signs can only be displayed horizontally over a store, can only include the business' name and logo, and cannot extend beyond the storefront opening.

New controls over the "display zone" at store entrances will eliminate most permanent fixtures such as ATMs, salad bars and ice coolers; ban generic brand advertising, neon and animated signs; and stop product sampling and other activities that could block the walkway.

A Vornado spokesman declined to comment. But, in a letter to the MTA, Vornado New York Division president David Greenbaum said the company will practice "significantly more aggressive enforcement" of tenant standards, including by terminating leases of tenants who don't comply.

Greenbaum said Vornado's plans "represent a clear path to realizing improvements to the passenger experience along the concourse."

Penn faces a number of challenges, including cramped space, poor lighting, a confusing layout, insufficient train capacity and homelessness.

Vornado, which is in the middle of a major renovation to its 1 Penn Plaza commercial property adjacent to the station, has already taken steps over the past year to attract more high-end businesses to Penn. They have included kicking out several fast-food eateries, such as Pizza Hut and KFC. Penn Books, an independent bookstore that operated in the station for more than 50 years, closed in May after its owner said he could not afford Vornado's rent increases.

Organic coffee shop Pret a Manger and Duane Reade pharmacy are among the new businesses that either recently have or will set up along the concourse.

"There is a way to make money with retail that's not attractive," MTA real estate director Jeff Rosen said at a meeting of the MTA's Finance Committee Monday. "So, largely, this is about non-monetary considerations."

LIRR Port Washington line commuter Charles Fiori said that while he appreciated efforts to improve the look of the retail corridor, several LIRR regulars enjoyed some of the businesses that are being squeezed out of Penn -- wanting nothing more than to quickly grab a newspaper and beer before boarding a train.

"If they're there to serve the public, and they haven't taken that into consideration, then they're not serving the public," Fiori, 57, said. "I don't think the Long Island Rail Road concourse is ever going to be a place where high-end stores will thrive."

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