Farley Post Office Transit Hub Conversion – Which will be considered grander, Grand Central Terminal or Penn Station?

By Michael J. LaMantia

The James A. Farley post office building is located between 8th and 9th avenues and between 31st and 33rd streets in New York City, across from the current Pennsylvania (“Penn”) Station.  It was built in 1912 and officially renamed in 1982 after 52nd Postmaster General James Farley.  This post office is famous for its depiction in movies like 1947’s Miracle On 34th Street and 2004’s Going Postal.  Until 1963, Penn Station was located where Madison Square Garden currently resides.  It was reminiscent of and, to some, more magnificent than, Grand Central Terminal, with high ceilings and large windows.  Unfortunately, in the years before 1962, airline and automobile travel rapidly increased and ridership through Penn Station significantly declined.  Costs started to be greater than revenues and the up-keep could not be maintained.  Therefore, it was decided to tear the building down and move operations underground, so Madison Square Garden could be built.  There was a lot of public outrage over this, but given that there were no landmark laws in place at that time, there was no recourse for protestors.  The only positive outcome from the destruction was after the enactment of landmark laws as a direct response, which saved many other iconic buildings from a similar fate.

The long talked about renovation of the James A. Farley post office is finally coming to fruition.  Sitting directly across 8th Avenue from the current Penn Station, the Farley Post Office will now be redeveloped into an extension of the station – part of a new transit hub housing both the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak.  Unfortunately, this project will not add additional tracks, but will add a more pleasant space to wait for trains as well as better access to the tracks.  Unlike the current dreary Penn Station, there will be a huge amount of natural light, with the ceiling over this grand hall made of glass.  In addition, it will contain 700,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and commercial space.  According to Governor Cuomo, “Architecturally, you could argue this is going to be even more powerful than Grand Central.” If you ask any New Yorker about the difference in appearance between Penn Station and Grand Central the response is the same.  Penn Station is nowhere near the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal.  In addition, with the number of tourists coming through Penn Station from JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports, the current Penn Station should not be the first thing they see.  New York City is too spectacular for that.

The funding for the conversion is coming from The Related Companies and Vornado, two major New York City developers, and the rest will come from state and public sources.  The total projected cost is expected to be $1.6 billion.

There are also plans to put a roller coaster on top of either the Farley Post Office building or Madison Square Garden.  Yes, a roller coaster!  Reminiscent of the New York New York and Stratosphere hotels in Las Vegas, this would be an entirely new attraction, never done before in New York City.  Not only would it be a fast thrill ride, but it would also provide spectacular views of the city.  As of now it has not been approved, so it remains to be seen if this will come to fruition.  If the redevelopment is to be grand, then it should go above and beyond as New York is expected to be.

The new retail space and restaurants will also deliver great benefits to the city.  Not only will there be new space for companies trying to move, it will make the new train hall a destination rather than a place a person wants to get in and out of as quickly as possible.  It is speculated that given all the new space that is being built throughout the city, such as Hudson Yards, the new train hall will not attract big box names, instead drawing boutique shops and restaurants.  This will give these tenants more exposure and will also provide more options of leasing smaller spaces.

After all of this redevelopment, new shops, restaurants and so on, what will be the impact to commuters?  At the very forefront it will reduce congestion.  Anyone who has traveled through Penn Station for any amount of time has experienced extreme congestion.  It is not pleasant due to the lack of space and, because of overcrowding from train cancellations or delays, there is nowhere to sit or even stand while waiting for a train.  With added shops, restaurants and space, the new transit hub will be a great place to wait for a train and, with the new glass ceiling and outside views, the ambiance will be much improved for the average commuter.

The redevelopment is expected to be completed by the end of 2020.  Given that commuters have been using Penn Station as is since 1963, a few more years can’t hurt.

The question becomes this.  Is this a good thing for the city?  The answer is overwhelmingly yes.  Not only will it transform one the country’s busiest transit hubs into a first class facility, it will be a destination for New Yorkers and tourists alike.