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A new vision for Penn: Tall ceilings, lots of open space, new entrances

The MTA, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit are collaborating to transform Penn Station into a more spacious, convenient and eye-catching transportation hub as part of the Empire Station Complex. Credit: Corey Sipkin; Photo Credit: MTA

A new vision for Penn Station includes towering ceilings, vibrant entranceways and wide and sunlit corridors, but the proposed upgrades could prolong construction-related inconveniences for commuters at the Manhattan transit hub.

The planned improvements are projected to cost between $7 billion and $10 billion, and could be completed by 2028, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR’s parent organization. The MTA and New York State expect to share costs with Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, and hope to receive funding from President Joe Biden's proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package he has been pitching to Congress.

"We have the opportunity, for the first time, to really attack what’s wrong with Penn Station, to do serious construction in that very, very antiquated facility," Janno Lieber, chief development officer for the MTA, told MTA Board members while presenting the proposals on April 21. "This is a transformational moment."

What to know

The Penn Station Reconstruction Master Plan offers several options to modernize the cramped, antiquated station.

Proposals include eliminating 40% of Penn's second level to create a one-level concourse with tall ceilings, converting a little-used taxiway into a glass-enclosed train hall, and buying the Hulu Theater to transform it into a grand entrance.

The proposed fixes could cost up to $10 billion and take until 2028 to complete. The MTA expects to share costs with the state, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, and possibly receive federal funding.

The upgrades are detailed in the newly released Penn Station Reconstruction Master Plan commissioned by the MTA, in collaboration with Amtrak and NJ Transit, which share use of the 111-year-old station. The plan lays out options to transform the station — used by 600,000 daily travelers in 2019 — into a 21st century complex that evokes some of the grandeur of the original Penn Station demolished 58 years ago.

The plan, prepared by Manhattan engineering and architectural firms FXCollaborative and WSP USA, offers two options for transforming the busiest transportation facility in North America.

Two-Level Alternative - Central Atrium looking west from
A view of the proposed two-level plan at
Two-Level Alternative - looking down into the New
Rendering of the two-level option for Penn Station.

A two-level renovation would reconfigure the existing station layout to capture more space, and could include acquiring Madison Square Garden's 5,600-seat Hulu Theater to transform it into a "light-filled West Train Hall" on Eighth Avenue.

Two-level alternative, upper- and lower-level west concourses looking

Option 1: Two-level plan 

  • Reconfigure existing layout, including by repurposing Amtrak’s existing space to be used for New Jersey Transit operations.
  • Would create a new, two-level atrium by Amtrak’s existing rotunda.
  • Would include new stairs, escalators and elevators to platforms, significantly widened concourses, and new entrances along Eighth Avenue.

A more ambitious one-level plan, which MTA officials have signaled as the more attractive option, would break through the ceiling of the Long Island Rail Road's lower level and combine it with about 40% of Amtrak’s existing second level to create a single-level concourse with tall ceilings — of more than 100 feet in some areas — and more direct access to tracks and to the street.

Single-Level Alternative - Mid-Block Train Hall looking south
Rendering of a one-level option, looking south from
Single-Level Alternative – New 33rd Street Entrance at
Renderings show the one-level option for Penn Station.

That option also would allow for the transformation of the existing midblock taxiway, between Madison Square Garden and 2 Penn Plaza between Seventh and Eighth avenues, into a glass-enclosed, multistory atrium that would serve as another entrance to Penn, and would allow natural light to the track level.

Rendering of the single-level alternative, west concourse looking

Option 2: Single-level plan

  • Would create an open, single-level concourse with tall ceilings and large circulation areas by removing 40% of the second level.
  • Would transform the midblock taxiway underneath Madison Square Garden, between 7th and 8th avenues, into a glass-enclosed atrium, more than 100 feet tall, that would create new entrances into Penn and allow natural light in.
  • Widened north-south concourses would ease customer flow to and from track level, and would connect to new tracks proposed in a separate station expansion.

"I think there are some really important elements that are included in the plan that will make the Penn Station experience, no matter which option they go with, significantly better than the current conditions are," said Brian Fritsch, of the Regional Planning Association, a nonprofit advocacy group that has pushed for improvements at the cramped and antiquated station. "It’s dangerous. It’s undignified. And we think now is a great time to do it."

Rendering of a two-level option; how a new

Another idea: Knocking down the Hulu Theater

  • Both options could incorporate a proposal to acquire the 5,600-seat Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden to convert it into a grand “West Train Hall” on 8th Avenue.
  • MTA officials have signaled they’re leaning against this option, both because it would add $1 billion in costs, and because the majority of riders enter from 7th Avenue.

Whichever option is ultimately chosen, project supporters said the time is right to push for a major renovation. Construction work likely would impact fewer commuters because ridership levels are expected to remain below pre-pandemic levels for the next few years, Penn Station travelers now have use of the adjacent Moynihan Train Hall, and the LIRR will gain a second Manhattan terminal with the completion of East Side Access late next year.

The MTA also is looking to capitalize on the new momentum of Amtrak’s Gateway project, which aims to build a new rail tunnel from Penn, under the Hudson River, by 2028. The Biden administration has signaled its support of the effort as part of its infrastructure proposal, and MTA and state officials are pushing to have the Penn improvements funded through the same package.

The broader Gateway initiative includes plans to add up to nine tracks linking to Penn Station as part of a new expansion under the block just south of Penn. The upgraded Penn Station, southern annex, Moynihan Train Hall and other neighboring developments would combine to create the "Empire Station Complex."

Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, questioned if big-ticket aesthetic improvements are necessary at Penn, where, he said, LIRR commuters — who take more than half of all railroad trips in and out of the station — are typically just passing through.

"Grand atriums with light flowing down and all that other stuff, I really don’t think it’s necessary," said Bringmann, who has pushed for the railroad to provide basic amenities for commuters, since most of the shops and eateries along the LIRR’s concourse have shuttered over the past couple years because of the planned upgrades. Project officials have said they plan to replace them with more upscale establishments.

"We want to be able to have a place where we can just grab and go," Bringmann said.

In addition to closing shops along the LIRR’s concourse so it can be widened, the MTA recently completed its new "East End Gateway" — an escalator entrance at 33rd Street. Bringmann said commuters appreciate the improvements but are not looking to have the inconveniences of construction work stretched for several more years.

"The place is already in disarray because of the work that was already scheduled," he said. "The sooner they can start whatever work they want to do, the better. Otherwise, it could just drag this thing out for years, which nobody really wants to see."

Most of the current construction at Penn involves raising the ceiling and widening the corridor along the main LIRR concourse running beneath 33rd Street between 7th and 8th avenues.

While some criticize the plan for potentially going too far, others, including ReThinkNYC, believe it doesn’t go far enough. The planning and advocacy group believes the best way to address Penn’s problems is by relocating its upstairs neighbor, Madison Square Garden, so that the station can be restored to its original form, with soaring 148-foot ceilings.

ReThinkNYC chairman Samuel Turvey said the new plan would provide incremental improvements that only seem significant "because what’s there is so pathetic."

"It’s a compromised plan," Turvey said. "It’s really not that much better than what we have … In five years, people are going to be cursing it out just as much as they’re cursing out the current station."

Responding to the criticisms, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said that, more than just cosmetic upgrades, the plan will "dramatically improve the daily experience of all its users."

And, he said, "While some planners continue their 30-year-long debate about moving MSG," the MTA can't afford to "pass on this once in-a-generation" opportunity to improve Penn.

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