Between Gods and Rats, the Moynihan Train Hall Is a Temple to Modern Mediocrity

There are three types of photos of the original Penn Station in midtown Manhattan, the one that got knocked down in the mid-1960s. The first type are photos of it being built. The second are those of it being used throughout the first half of the 20th century. Finally, there are the photos of it being destroyed in the 1960s.

As it happens, these periods roughly coincide with three definitive eras of New York City lore. The early 1900s is when modern New York became itself, the early-to-mid 1900s were arguably its peak, and the post 1960s saw its rapid decline. In this sense, the photos of Penn Station are a handy starting point to understanding the city’s 20th Century story.

It is a story that doesn’t end as much as it sloppily devolves. In 2019, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman likened the historic preservation movement—born from the Penn Station rubble—to collective pessimism. The destruction of the old Penn Station “flipped the optimistic narrative” of the city, Kimmelman argued. People began to assume that anything good that was lost would no longer be replaced with something better. Instead, they felt a growing sense that what came next would be worse. The main goal was no longer to build back better, but to cling to what we have.

And so it is in a sense fitting that the Moynihan Train Hall, the city’s first real attempt to replace a portion of what was lost some 55 years ago, opened on January 1, 2021, the day after one of the most dire, harrowing years New York has ever faced. If buildings can be narrative-shifters, this is quite the timing.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on a building. Moynihan could never be a true Penn Station successor, much less change the tune for New York City. For starters, the old Penn Station is still there underneath Madison Square Garden, just as it has been for the last half-century, and will continue to be used by hundreds of thousands of people every day whenever we return to some semblance of normalcy. All New Jersey Transit riders will still descend under the Garden. Many Long Island Railroad riders will, too. Like the original Penn Station, which was for Pennsylvania Railroad customers first and foremost, Moynihan is largely for Amtrak riders.

The new train hall—it is not accurate to call it a new station, as the tracks and platforms are the same—also occupies a different physical space than the old Penn Station. It is across the street, in part of the old James Farley Post Office Building, which was constructed just a few years after the original Penn Station, designed by the same architects, and intentionally mimicked the Penn Station Beaux Arts style (it received landmark status in 1966, thanks to the preservation movement Penn’s destruction ushered in, so the original facade has not been altered).

But the main reason Moynihan cannot and will never match the original Penn Station is because it is an ornamental decoration to an otherwise private office building.

The train hall may be the headliner, but it is just a part of the Farley Post Office rehabilitation. The United States Postal Service sold the building to the state, which then leased it for 99 years to private developers. Per the lease, 475,000 of the total 1,112,000 square feet—less than half—are for the train hall, LIRR and Amtrak facilities, and “transportation-oriented retail space.” That’s much smaller than the massive, eight-acre old Penn Station, which was on a similarly sized plot. The remaining 637,000 square feet have been leased as office space to Facebook, plus some 70,000 square feet of developed outdoor roof space for the social media giant.

This was not merely a happy accident for the private developers, but in many ways the key that unlocked the entire project. The state authority that orchestrated the plan, which has been decades in the making, is called the New York State Urban Development Corporation, otherwise known as Empire State Development. As ESD vaguely alludes to in an environmental impact document outlining the project’s history, Amtrak originally proposed using most of the Farley building for a new Penn Station site in the 1990s, but “further refinement of the project scope and more detailed cost estimates revealed that the project would only succeed through a funding partnership between the federal, state, and city governments and the integration of a private development component.” Only once “economic opportunities afforded by the utilization of the unused development rights associated with the Farley Complex” did the project finally get off the ground and through the gears of bureaucratic morass.

The project’s backers have argued the private development was the only way to make it viable, and so it is either a smaller train hall with lots of office space or no train hall at all. But this, like many other aspects of urban development schemes, demonstrates a lamentable lack of imagination. The total cost, which includes funding from Amtrak, a federally funded agency, was $1.6 billion, a lot of money by any measure but hardly insurmountable for a project with local, state, and federal financing, and about half of the original Penn Station’s cost in inflation-adjusted dollars. Like so many other redevelopment projects in the city over recent decades, this whole project is not about palaces by and for the people. It is about “economic development,” and the people get a little something for the trouble of selling off a massively valuable real estate asset that we used to own.

The bar of what to do with underutilized publicly-owned spaces is so low that the mere presence of the Moynihan Train Hall can, justifiably, be hailed as a victory of sorts. Steve Hutkins, who has documented the gradual sell-off of American post offices at his website Save the Post Office told Motherboard via email that “this fate is a lot better than what happened to many other historic post offices, like the one in the Bronx that got sold to a developer who never finished the project. Ditto for the Venice, CA post office, sold to a movie producer for his offices and now sitting empty for years. Selling off buildings is the worst; repurposing them in ways that the public can still use them is much better.”

So, it is with this it-could-have-been-worse spirit I will attempt to look on the bright side for a minute. The hall does what it can, and it does it well enough. Without venturing too far into architecture criticism, a field in which I am wholly unqualified, I found the train hall about what it promised to be. It is sleek, modern, and bright. Without a doubt, it is a vast improvement over the contemporary Penn Station experience, but that is a bar so low it has been buried under a sports arena. For this sometimes-Amtrak traveler’s money, the biggest upgrade over the current Penn Station experience is probably not in the main hall, but in the bathrooms. They feel legitimately fancy and have those slick three-faucet setups—which Penn Station got during a 2018 facelift—where the first one is for soap, the second for water, and the third a hand dryer. Considering the bathrooms are some of the most frequently-used facilities at train stations, this is no small deal. Doubly so considering the dearth of publicly available bathrooms in Midtown Manhattan and the historical state of Penn Station bathrooms as the single worst room in the entire city.


Fancy new bathrooms oooooooo Photo: Aaron Gordon

Yet, it seemed obvious to me this is not a building that was designed to be a train hall, but rather an office building that happens to have a train hall in it. To start, the main hall itself—from which riders are supposed to converge and access the platforms—is simply not very large. The size struck me as so inadequate for a major transportation hub that this basic observation is what led me to investigate the lease terms in the first place. Even on New Years Day, in which virtually nobody was using it for its intended purpose but a few hundred architectural tourists wandered about, the station felt populated, even crowded.

In theory, the building is supposed to accommodate some 225,000 passengers a day. I find that difficult to envision. The passenger waiting area is smartly designed with modern wooden benches and could maybe fit two train cars’ worth of people. As of now, there is literally nowhere else in the station to sit. Other than that waiting area and the exclusive airline-style lounge on the second floor for Acela passengers, there is a total absence of seating of any kind. (On the one hand, that is also the case for Grand Central, where the only seating is in the food hall downstairs, and a food hall is opening at Moynihan later this year. On the other hand, there’s less of a need for seating at a commuter rail station like Grand Central where riders do not buy tickets for specific trains that in theory depart frequently versus an Amtrak facility.)

Still, the lack of seating is perhaps a secondary concern to the limited access from the hall to the trains themselves. From the main hall, there is just a single escalator, wide enough for one person, down to each track. This, almost assuredly, will result in the same long, snaking lines and masses of humanity Northeast Corridor riders are already too familiar with, the kind of lines that clog spaces much larger than the Moynihan hall.

Those not wishing to wait in a long escalator line can circumvent the main hall entirely, take the stairs down to the lower hallway, and then another set of stairs to the platform. But if the smartest, most efficient way to board the train is to circumvent the main hall entirely in a roundabout fashion, then what does that say about the train hall to begin with?

Mostly, this is not the building’s fault. There is an insurmountable geographical problem: the train platforms are, for the most part, not underneath the train hall. As I mentioned above, these are the same tracks and platforms that stretch from Seventh to Eighth Avenue Penn Station riders have been using for decades. But the new hall is a block over, between Eighth and Ninth. Only a small portion of the platform extends beyond Eighth Avenue underneath Moynihan, creating a natural bottleneck for anyone who wants to enter or exit through the fancy new building.

This problem was perfectly illustrated in a station directory map in the train hall itself:

Penn Station map

Photo: Aaron Gordon

At the very bottom, you can see a faded diagram of a train stretching mostly underneath Penn Station, with only the very edge of one end below Farley. Needless to say, there is something fundamentally flawed about a train hall that only just barely connects to the train itself.

This spatial problem encapsulates not just the Moynihan Train Hall’s conundrum, but a lot of our other problems too: it is the public infrastructure we get when we try to fix the mistakes of the past without fully reckoning with what the mistakes actually were. The problem with Penn Station never had anything to do with the Farley Post Office. The problem was, of course, the demolition of Penn Station, which bathed passengers in light and grandeur from the second they stepped off the train, an architectural achievement that can only be accomplished by having the station above the actual tracks. The problem with the current Penn Station is, of course, the absence of an actual train station.

Old Penn Station

We will never top this. Photo: Library of Congress

And here we arrive at the ultimate question the Moynihan Train Hall poses: should we be happy with it because it exists? When opening the hall, Governor Andrew Cuomo said Moynihan is “a testament and a monument to the public and they deserve the best and they can produce the best.” For all its nice touches and pleasant aesthetics, Moynihan is a middle ground inextricably linked to two extremes: the majestic yet tragic glory of the original Penn Station and the squalid tangled cavern of the current Penn Station. It is, to paraphrase the infamous Vin Scully quote about the new and old Penns station, somewhere between gods and rats. By definition, Moynihan was always going to be better than the worst and worse than the best.

The destruction of the original Penn Station helped instill a bleak conservatism over the city, but the Moynihan Train Hall offers neither doom nor gloom. Instead, it offers a quiet acquiescence to the forces that have reshaped New York City since Penn’s destruction, a kind of surrender to the “privately owned public spaces” (POPS) in office tower lobbies in exchange for tax breaks or turning streetspaces into “business improvement districts” (BIDs) that often exacerbate inequality and erode at the meaning of an actual public space. POPS, BIDs, and all manners of public-private partnerships do more for the people than selling out entirely—or doing nothing at all—but it will never get us another Penn Station or Farley Building. There are plenty more Moynihans where that came from.

In a deeper sense, the Moynihan model encapsulates the flaws of Cuomo’s pragmatic optimism about the power of government. “Faux progressives frustrate the public by raising false expectations and by failing to improve matters,” he wrote in his hastily published book. As Gothamist’s Christopher Robbins noted in his review, “Cuomo never states what ‘real progressives’ will do, just that they will do it.” It’s a neat rhetorical trick; the right thing to do is the thing that happened, meaning whatever didn’t happen was wrong. By that logic, I am wrong to say that the train hall’s existence is not enough, that we lost something important by selling the rest of the building off, that with each sale, we make it even harder to save what little we have left under the public’s name, that the 700,000 square feet of the Farley Post Office that used to be ours is yet another capitulation to the very impulses that destroyed the original Penn Station to begin with.

I left Moynihan with no particular desire to ever seek it out again, in the way I would never willingly hang out at an airport, even if the airport has solid food options. Walking down Broadway to sit in Madison Square Park, I thought of one old photo of Penn Station that doesn’t fit neatly in the three-part structure. Taken on July 6, 1965, the photo is of passengers waiting, reading, looking at one another. Fourteen suitcases are arranged neatly on the floor. A wrecking ball dangles in the background, waiting for the people to leave. The building is doomed, but it is still there.

Specifically, I thought about how at the time, this was billed as progress. The people were told Penn Station was too expensive to maintain, a relic of an antiquated era. Madison Square Garden and One Penn Plaza were the future, they said. It was, they said, unrealistic to keep Penn Station around.

I suppose, to a certain type of person at the time, advocating for the city or state to step in and purchase the old Penn Station for the $50 million for which its air rights were sold and rehabilitate it could have been rephrased as “raising false expectations by failing to improve matters.” In hindsight, it would have cost substantially less in inflation-adjusted dollars than the entire Moynihan project (assuming rehabilitating it would cost less than 1.2 billion in today’s dollars). That same type of person would likely be telling us today about the false expectations of redeveloping the Farley Post Office into a truly public space. But I am not that type of person. Those 700,000 square feet could have been anything.

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