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It's going to get harder for LIRR commuters to find food, drinks at Penn Station

LIRR passengers walk in the railroad's concourse in

LIRR passengers walk in the railroad's concourse in Penn Station on Wednesday. Credit: Charles Eckert

Hurried Long Island Rail Road commuters at Penn Station will soon have a harder time finding somewhere to have a quick bite or drink before boarding their train.

As part of the $600 million renovation of the transportation hub, planned construction work beginning in the spring will require closing all the businesses along the LIRR’s retail corridor beneath 33rd Street in Penn Station for up to two years, officials said.

But Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials say the work will ultimately benefit LIRR riders, both by giving them more space to spread out in the cramped Manhattan transit hub, and by providing them a better mix of retail businesses.

They also say they will try to accommodate commuters during the planned work, both by making Penn’s upper level more LIRR customer-friendly, and, potentially, by setting up some temporary businesses on the railroad’s level.

“We’re taking steps to make the changes that make the place better. We can’t avoid demolishing the stores, because that’s where the new width of the corridor is going,” said MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber, who expects the mass closures to begin in six to eight months, as tenants’ leases expire. “We’re going to be smart about it and hopefully provide some amenities during that period. Most of all, we’re going to hopefully deliver [the project] on time.”

Some regular LIRR riders are already dreading the shutdown of the subterranean row of shops — including Starbucks, Shake Shack and Rose’s Pizza — stretching from Seventh Avenue to Eighth.

Sipping from a paper bag-covered can at Penn on Wednesday while waiting for his track to be announced, Kevin Murphy, 29, of Rocky Point, said the closures will leave him, and other commuters, “thirsty and hungry going home.”

“You’re running," Murphy, a construction worker said, adding that he pays "... $3 for a pizza and $3 for a beer. It’s clutch.”

The closures are necessary as the MTA and Penn’s main retail property owner, Vornado Realty Trust, move ahead on the  renovations of the station, which has been operating on the same site for 119 years and used by some 650,000 travelers daily. The planned upgrades entail demolishing the existing storefronts in order to widen the main north-south pedestrian corridor inside the LIRR concourse by 20 feet. The project is scheduled for completion by early 2022.

Some businesses have closed in recent months, including several eateries on the south side of the corridor, in order to accommodate the ongoing work to install a new escalators and staircases leading directly to Seventh Avenue.

It’s likely many of the existing shops will not be back, as the MTA and Vornado look to recruit more upscale retail tenants for an ambience closer to that at the authority’s other Manhattan commuter railroad hub, Grand Central Terminal.

Vornado declined to comment for this story, but in an investor conference call last month, Vornado president Michael Franco acknowledged the plan to “move the old tenants out in order to accommodate the new ones.”

Franco said the closures will cost Vornado about $12 million a year, but “when that comes back, we’re going to have additional retail square footage that we think is going to be in very high demand.” The new tenants will pay about $90 per square foot of retail space — a 50 percent increase from the current rate, according to Franco.

The renovation is part of a broader overhaul of the transit complex on Manhattan’s West Side prioritized by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. It includes the ongoing transformation of the Farley Post Office building on Eighth Avenue into the Moynihan Station train hall, with even more retail and access to Penn’s train platforms.

Despite the inconvenience, some LIRR riders said they support the planned upgrades at Penn Station. Babylon commuter Tony Emerson said he’ll try to grab some food on his way to Penn, rather than inside it.

“It'a definitely going to cause a cramp and an obstacle and a challenge,” Emerson said in between bites of his pizza slice. “Penn has been needing an upgrade for a while. So, in that sense, I’m definitely excited for it.”

With Penn Station’s owner, Amtrak, moving much of its operation to Moynihan beginning next year, MTA officials said they will encourage LIRR riders to make better use of Penn Station’s upper level. Officials said they will continue to provide shopping and dining options throughout the planned work at the LIRR’s level.

Lieber said the authority has been working with Amtrak to provide more LIRR passenger information throughout Penn’s upper level, including track assignments. To further lessen the retail closures, Lieber said the MTA is looking at setting up “pop up” shops along the LIRR’s concourse.

LIRR commuters’ snack and beverage options already fell last year with the LIRR’s elimination of its platform-level bar cart concessions.

Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad riders’ state-regulated watchdog group, said he supports the planned upgrades at Penn. But he believes the railroad “needs to offer some kind of alternatives in the meantime.”

“There has to be something offered to riders looking for the quick bite while running to the train,” Epstein said. “You need that.”

Penn Station LIRR Concourse Project

  • Creates a new pedestrian pavilion entrance at Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street, with three escalators and a stairway leading directly to the LIRR concourse.
  • Widens pedestrian corridor from the current 30 feet to about 57 feet.
  • Raises ceiling by an average of 10 feet.
  • Improves lighting, finishes, ticketing, signage and way finding inside Penn Station.
  • Creates glass walls that will allow customers to look down onto track level from the concourse.
  • Will add more digital information screens with scheduling information and track assignments, including inside stores and restaurants.
  • Cost: Just under $600 million. The LIRR will pay $170 million and the state will fund the rest.
  • The Seventh Avenue entrance is expected to be finished by late 2020, early 2021. The remainder of the project will take until early 2022.

Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

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