Rat Maze Reborn: Reimagining Penn Station

There are signs that a twenty-first century gateway to New York City is closer than ever. 

Imagine a place described by Samantha Rosen, BC ‘25, as “annoying,” Sushmita Debnath, BC ‘26, as “stressful,” and by another Barnard sophomore as “hellish.” It is a place where Rosen once had to guide a mother and daughter to the exit because it was so poorly marked. Leo Vaysman, CC ‘25, described it as somewhere they try to spend as little time as possible because they “always feel like a rat in a maze.” If you imagined New York Penn Station, you would be right.

Located just a few stops from campus on the 1 Train, Penn Station facilitates travel between New York City and the surrounding tri-state area, as well as up and down the Northeast corridor. It is the busiest transit hub in the entire western hemisphere, handling over 600,000 passengers daily according to pre-pandemic reports, including hundreds of Barnard students from just a train ride away – 40% of the class of 2025 is from the Mid-Atlantic region. During school breaks or holidays, or for students like Debnath, who visits her sister in New Jersey about once a month, the crowded rat-maze reality of Penn Station may be all too familiar. 

But Penn Station wasn’t always an amalgamation of crowded concourses disguised in a trench coat labeled “train station” and crammed under Madison Square Garden (MSG). Built in 1910, the original Penn Station was a Beaux-Arts style structure of monumental scale, occupying eight acres at ground level. With soaring neoclassical colonnades juxtaposed against an exposed steel framework and giant glass skylights, it was considered an architectural masterpiece and a gift to New York City, facilitating 65% of intercity traffic at its peak in 1945. However, the rising popularity of cars and planes led to a sharp decrease in ridership, leading the Pennsylvania Railroad to sell the property’s air rights, content to banish the dying terminal underground. The building was demolished in 1963 and replaced by Madison Square Garden. Dark and dingy Penn Station was born. 

Talks of redeveloping the station have been weaving through city and state governments for years. Governor Andrew Cuomo first solicited architectural proposals in 2016, and later revealed a plan in 2020 that Governor Kathy Hochul has since attempted–and failed–to wrangle. The public-private partnership plan would have facilitated the construction of new tracks and platforms, a public plaza, as well as ten Hudson Yards-esque towers around and above Penn Station/MSG to be operated by Vornado Realty Trust, which agreed to offset a portion of the station’s renovation costs. Although any intention to redevelop the catacombs of Penn Station is a step in the right direction, the plan drew criticism for disproportionately benefiting Vornado, as well as for its intention to demolish nearby blocks, displacing residents and businesses. The proposal has since been stalled indefinitely by Vornado, citing high interest rates and a shaky post-pandemic real estate market.

With the future of Penn Station up in the air, architectural firms have continued to submit proposals, with a new frontrunner emerging just a few weeks ago. The plan, developed by the Italian ASTM Group, calls for the demolition of the lower part of MSG and its 5,600-person venue, alleviating the need for load-bearing columns that currently hinder foot traffic in the station while preserving the main arena. In its place, they propose a sleek glass-enclosed station that would extend beyond the Garden’s facade. Importantly, the plan incorporates tall ceilings that bring natural light to the main concourse, as a part of ASTM Group CEO Chris Larsen’s intent to “deliver a new Penn Station that uplifts the community and makes all New Yorkers proud.” ASTM claims that the plan would be less costly than the original and could be finished by 2030. Support has already been voiced by some New York State officials, while Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, who operate out of NYP, have indicated that they are open to learning more.

Though seemingly promising, the proposal includes a controversial choice: keeping Madison Square Garden. The aging Garden’s lease is set to expire in 2023, bringing many to advocate for a redevelopment plan that calls for its relocation, including Rethink Penn Station NYC, a local not-for-profit organization. The organization criticized ASTM’s plan in an announcement, standing by “the need for a great above-ground station that does not have to perform a contortionist’s act to fit—Rubik’s cube-style—under Madison Square Garden”. Instead, Rethink Penn Station NYC advocates a grander vision for the future of the transit hub: reconstructing the original building from 1910. Matching the architecture of the renovated Moynihan Train Hall, their plan would preserve the surrounding city blocks, widen and expand access points to the uncomfortably tight train platforms, and implement through-running trains, allowing passengers to travel from Trenton to the Hamptons without a transfer. Furthermore, Rethink Penn claims that their proposal would require only half the cost of the original plan set in motion by Cuomo and Hochul. It is unclear whether their plan has been considered by the Governor.

Whether or not the Rethink Penn Station NYC’s plan is adopted, current Barnard and Columbia students will likely have graduated by the time a final proposal is approved and completed. However, cosmetic improvements to the current station have been ongoing, and students who enter from the 1 Train platform will notice higher ceilings, incoming dining locations, and modern finishes. While surface-level changes won’t fix the lack of natural light, confusing layouts, or congestion, they are signs that a twenty-first century gateway to New York City is closer than ever. 

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