$700M renovation of LIRR's Penn Station concourse nears completion, grander vision still uncertain
A $700 million transformation of the LIRR’s concourse at Penn Station is nearly complete, creating a far brighter and more spacious transit hub than most Long Island commuters have known.
But the fate of a grander vision to overhaul the nation’s busiest rail terminal is still up in the air, as opponents clash over competing visions for the project — including one that would require relocating Madison Square Garden.
Four years after work began, Long Island Rail Road officials in March said they reached “substantial completion” of their effort to modernize their piece of Penn Station, including by widening the walkway and raising the ceiling along the concourse’s main corridor. For seasoned Long Island commuters, the renovated concourse is almost unrecognizable from the dark, dingy and cramped station that they’ve known for decades.
In her first day commuting out of Penn in more than three years, Alesia Simco — a native Long Islander who just moved to Patchogue after living in Albany since 2019 — called it a “total transformation.”
WHAT TO KNOW
- The LIRR has achieved "substantial completion" of a $700 million project to improve its concourse in Penn Station.
- The effort included nearly doubling the width of the walkway to about 60 feet, and raising the ceiling, which previously was lower than 7 feet in some areas, to 18 feet. Other improvements include LED lights and digital displays throughout the station.
- Several other proposals to improve and expand Penn remain uncertain, including one that would require relocating Madison Square Garden, whose operating permit with New York City expires in July.
“It feels more spacious … I think it’s cleaner. I think it’s bigger. The ceiling is elevated. And it’s brighter, too,” said Simco, 52, who recalled the previous version of Penn Station as “dilapidated, just dirty, and old.”
The centerpiece of the two-phased renovation, which began in 2019, is the dramatically widened and heightened walkway stretching below 33rd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Working with developer Vornado Realty Trust, which holds the leases for many of the businesses inside Penn, the railroad pushed back the storefronts on the north side of the corridor, allowing the walkway to be nearly doubled in width to around 60 feet. Under the arrangement, Vornado will take over control of other Penn Station retail properties that were previously leased out by the LIRR.
The notoriously low ceiling in the concourse — as low as 6 feet, 8 inches in some spots — was elevated to 18 feet. Doing so required tearing up 33rd Street above the station and relocating several utilities.
Other improvements include more than 360 LED ceiling light panels, new escalators and elevators, two new station entrances at 33rd Street, safety improvements, and dozens of new digital information displays spread out across the station.
“Often we find folks walking around here saying, ‘Where am I?,’ ” project director Matthew Zettwoch said. “It’s nothing like the old Penn Station.”
But there’s still much more construction ahead for the 113-year-old Penn Station. Zettwoch said there are still “punch-list items” to be completed in the ongoing concourse project, including completing flooring work in some spots, and opening the refurbished bathrooms. New shops and restaurants aren't expected to begin opening until the fall.
Bigger plans uncertain
And then comes the heavier lifting: an $8 billion reconstruction of Penn Station pushed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, which could entail removing much of the upper level to create additional space and allow for the construction of a skylit atrium. In September, Hochul announced that the state had awarded a $58 million contract for the design of the new station, which she has said would take about five years to build.
But new uncertainty has arisen over the station’s future in recent months. Italian infrastructure firm ASTM Group has proposed an alternative vision for Penn’s redevelopment that would demolish the Hulu Theater and encapsulate Madison Square Garden’s base in glass, potentially allowing in more natural light. Former MTA chairman and deputy Nassau County Executive Patrick Foye is spearheading the project as CEO of ASTM North America.
Asked about the proposal, Hochul spokesperson Justin Henry said in a statement that the governor “is committed to ensuring we have a world class Penn Station that improves the commuter experience and puts New Yorkers first, and is continuing to work with all stakeholders toward that goal.”
Also unclear is the future of a state plan to build several new office and residential skyscrapers around Penn Station and use fees generated by tenants to help fund the station’s reconstruction. Vornado, which owns much of the land that would be developed, has acknowledged that economic conditions in the pandemic — including reduced demand for office space — have slowed progress.
Vornado and state officials said they remain committed to the project, which could take 20 years to build out. In the meantime, the MTA would have to find other means to fund improvements in Penn, including, potentially, federal grant money from President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package.
Even less certain is a separate state proposal to knock down the block south of Madison Square Garden to build eight new tracks serving Penn. That plan, being led by Penn Station’s owner, Amtrak, requires an extensive federal environmental review process.
Fate of MSG
Another wrinkle in plans to redevelop Penn Station: the fate of Madison Square Garden, which sits on top of it. A special permit granted by New York City 60 years ago to allow the Garden to host events with more than 2,500 people is set to expire in July. Some New York City preservationists and elected officials are seizing on the opportunity to try to relocate the arena, so that Penn Station could be restored to its original, early 20th century Beaux-Arts style.
In a statement, Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp. called the push to move the arena “misguided” and “completely unrealistic.” MSG officials are looking to have their operating permit extended permanently.
Janno Lieber, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent organization — has said he’s “agnostic” as to whether the Garden moves, but said he favors proposals that are more achievable in the short term, especially as the MTA has plans to link Metro-North to Penn by 2027.
“All I know is, if they do move — and maybe they should and maybe they will — it will take 20 years,” Lieber said at a Long Island Contractor Association event in Smithtown in March. “I’m not in the 20-year business for Penn Station and Long Island. I’m in the five-year business.”
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council, agreed that railroad riders “can’t wait 20 years” for meaningful improvements at Penn.
With the recent improvements, Daglian said, “This is the best Penn Station has looked in my traveling life.” But, she added, more needs to be done, as Penn Station remains the most in-demand destination in the LIRR system, even after the recent opening of Grand Central Madison.
“A lot of people still work around here and have to go to Penn,” Daglian said. “Penn Station needs to be all that it can be on every level.”