NY Officials Urge Local Community Boards To Not Squander Chance For Mega Midtown Redesign Plan

New York State officials charged with carrying out the governor’s midtown redevelopment plan that would help expand Penn Station and convert roughly 50 nearby acres into a mixed-use modern neighborhood are moving forward, even as the city gradually returns to pre-COVID office life. And they’re urging the local community boards to get on board fast.

Members from the state’s Empire State Development, the state entity leading the $306 billion project, warned members of Manhattan Community Boards 4 and 5 at a Thursday night town hall of the project’s urgency. Otherwise, they said, they might miss the chance to get federal funds from a White House and Senate supportive of infrastructure projects. The project doesn’t need to go through the city’s land use review process, but does require community input from local community boards that would be impacted by the project. It’s unclear how much authority the community boards have to alter or halt the state project.

The sprawling project known as Empire Station Complex remains in the early planning stages. But renderings show eight sites around Penn Station that would be redeveloped with as many as 10 multi-use towers, expanded sidewalks, sprawling pedestrian plazas, and underground walkways to nearby subway stations on Sixth Avenue. Under the current plan, organizers said the mixed-use buildings could have 1,800 housing units, 540 of which they said would be affordable, although they didn’t explain what would qualify as “affordable.”

Holly Leicht, executive vice president of Real Estate Development and Planning at Empire State Development, the authority helping to spearhead the project, said the state may be able to leverage $1.3 billion in the 2021-22 budget allocated for the project to get upwards of $10 billion in federal earmarks.

“We have a moment now,” Leicht told more than 150 people on the Zoom call.

“We have to expand Penn Station, we have no choice. The new Hudson tunnels are coming in and they can’t go into the existing Penn,” Leict said, referring to Gateway Tunnel Project, the long-awaited rail project that will replace aging rail tunnels between New York and New Jersey. “They have to go into a new expanded Penn. So we have this moment in time where we have new tunnels coming in, we have funding to do the transportation project, and this is exactly where we should be growing.”

Leicht argued that the future of New York’s growth should be in midtown.

“This is not the next five years, this is the next generation of New York growth and that growth really should be near transit,” she explained. “It goes hand in hand with congestion pricing, as we’re trying to limit having people drive into New York.”

But Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who will likely serve as the Councilmember for the 6th Council District in 2022 following her win in the primary, said she would “unequivocally” oppose these plans. Brewer wants to ensure that more affordable housing is added in exchange for massive real estate tax abatements. And she bristled at the idea of adding buildings nearly as tall as the Empire State building to the neighborhood.

“If we’re going to do this, it has to be done differently,” Brewer told Gothamist/WNYC after the meeting. “We all want Penn Station improved. The question is, how do you pay for it?”

Leicht said the state hired the firm Ernst & Young, which also helped advise how to secure funding for Hudson Yards. The firm recommended a mix of tax abatements, selling air rights, long-term leases on buildings, and, in lieu of the new buildings paying taxes, redirecting some of that money for transit improvements.

Proponents of the Empire Station Complex say the neighborhood around Penn Station needs a facelift because the average building age is 87 years old, and they’re hoping to create a more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

A coalition of civic groups that refers to itself as the Empire Station Coalition is also concerned that buildings like the Hotel Pennsylvania, the Stewart Hotel, the Gimbel’s Skybridge, and the Church of St. John the Baptist will be torn down.

Empire Station may also require the state to use eminent domain to tear down some of the buildings in the construction zone. Organizers said Thursday they have no plans to use this at the moment, and are in talks with the real estate company Vornado about relocating many businesses in the area, although they couldn’t say how many.

But not Madison Square Garden, which is across from Penn Station. Peter Matusewitch, vice president and deputy program executive at MTA Construction and Development, said Thursday that relocating or moving the Garden isn’t essential to Empire Station. Although doing so might make for a better designed station, he said he doesn’t think there’s time to negotiate that type of deal. He said he’s working toward a 2030 deadline because that’s when the new Gateway tunnel is expected to be completed under Penn Station.

“If Gateway is coming we have to be ready for it, we cannot squander this moment in time,” Matusewitch said. “We would run a tremendous risk of what may be the best funding opportunity any of us are going to see in our lifetimes.”