Vornado’s Penn tower deal
by Steve Cuozzo
Vornado Realty Trust is offering a deal it hopes the city can’t refuse.
The publicly traded real estate giant is promising an unprecedented slew of improvements to the Herald Square-Penn Station area’s confusing, overcrowded mass-transit nexus.
The plan includes new subway entrances and the reopening of a long-closed underground pedestrian tunnel.
Those upgrades would provide riders with easier access to an underground network that will eventually stretch from Sixth to Ninth Avenue, and include the new Moynihan Station.
Vornado would pay for and build the transit amenities in exchange for variances it wants for a proposed office-tower development on the site of the Hotel Pennsylvania. Vornado bought the hotel in 1997 as a linchpin of its strategy for the bustling area, where it also owns several office buildings.
Tower plans for 15 Penn Plaza (above) include a variety of transit and subway upgrades.
The company can replace the gloomy hotel with an 1.15 million square-foot office tower without public approvals. But it would prefer to put up a tower with nearly twice as much floor area — just under 2.053 million square feet.
It would increase the size through a zoning change, a 20 percent floor-area bonus for the transit upgrades, and a transfer of air rights from its adjacent Manhattan Mall.
The zoning change and transit bonus would increase the floor area ratio (FAR) — total floor area in relation to the size of the ground lot — from the current 12 to 18 for the combined, 160,000 square-foot hotel and mall footprint.
Vornado would not immediately raze the Pennsylvania even if it got approvals for the tower overnight. Rather, it would wait until it pre-signs at least one large office tenant — which could take years.
But Vornado chief Steven Roth wants the project, called 15 Penn Plaza, to be “fully entitled” well in advance of finding an anchor tenant.
The New York Observer first reported that Vornado would pursue an approve-now, build-later strategy for a tower rising to 1,216 feet. But no details emerged on 15 Penn Plaza’s bulk or on most of the transit upgrades until this week.
The proposal goes before Manhattan Community Board 5 on Thursday — a step in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The plan requires the blessings of the Planning Department, City Council and Mayor Bloomberg.
The tower would come in two configurations — one for a single financial-industry tenant requiring trading floors, the other for a mix of tenants.
Vornado’s environmental impact statement reveals that either scheme would be considerably larger than its nominal 2.053 million square feet — 2.82 million “gross square feet” for the larger version. The difference results from the fact that the zoning count doesn’t include mechanical space or below-ground floors.
To allow the tower to taper gradually as it rises and to be set back 15 feet at the base from the Seventh Avenue property line, Vornado needs waivers to city height-and-setback rules.
But, if Vornado is asking a lot, it’s also promisingwhat’s believed to be the most extensive transit-center upgrades ever offered by a private developer here at one location.
The improvements, a source said, were “a wish-list basically dictated” by the MTA, the Port Authority and Amtrak.
According to the environmental impact study, Vornado would build new subway entrances at Seventh Avenue between West 32nd and 33rd streets; widen the congested northbound No. 1 line platform by six feet; and widen stairs and build new escalators and elevators to serve the subway and PATH lines. It would also improve access to the Sixth Avenue subway and PATH entrances, which are both now hidden inside the Manhattan Mall.
In an oral presentation to CB5, Vornado officials indicated that the existing train entrance at Sixth near 33rd would be moved to the corner sidewalk.
But the most dramatic change in the proposal might be a plan to open a sanitized, 21st Century edition of the old Gimbels Passageway — the creepy corridor that once connected the Herald Square and Penn Station/Seventh Avenue subway stations, until crime and squalor forced the MTA to close it in 1980.
The dimly-lit tunnel ran parallel to the basements of the department store and the hotel. Users endured an interminable slog past homeless cripples and harmonica-playing squatters who rose shrieking out of the dark.
The concourse would be widened to 16 feet from 9 feet and crafted like Rockefeller Center’s, with stores, artwork and mid- block access points.
And where using the old tunnel re quired paying an additional fare to go from one station to the other, the new one would offer a free trans fer — at least one feature of Vornado’s dream unlikely to start an argument.
Midtown Pedestrian Tunnel Inches Closer to Reality
by Kyle Wiswall
Vornado’s proposal for 15 Penn Plaza includes widening and reopening the Gimbels passageway, an underground tunnel, shown in yellow above, that would connect Penn Station and the Herald Square subway station.
Some relief for pedestrian overcrowding near Penn Station may be in sight. The reopening of the Gimbels passageway, and a host of other transit and streetscape improvements, crept closer to seeing the light of day after Vornado Realty Trust’s presented its development proposal for 15 Penn Plaza at a public hearing before the New York City Planning Commission yesterday.
Vornado would replace the Hotel Pennsylvania at 15 Penn Plaza (7th Ave and 33rd St.) with what would be the city’s third-tallest building. The proposal requires approval of both the Planning Commission and the City Council. Testifying at the commission hearing, Tri-State’s Kate Slevin said that “the proposed office tower’s proximity to Penn Station makes it an excellent location choice. There is no better place to encourage development than above transit facilities that provide easy access to Amtrak, NJ Transit, LIRR, PATH, and fourteen subway lines.”
The Campaign is particularly excited about the prospect of reopening the Gimbels Passageway which connects the commuter rail lines and subways at Penn Station with subway and PATH service at Herald Square. The streets in the area are very congested with pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and transit riders will welcome a safer and less congested route between these two busy hubs. According to Vornado’s Kate Ascher, a projected 10,000 to 20,000 people would use the passageway at peak hour each day. That should help reduce the crush of crowds near Penn Station; during the busiest times more than 69,000 people per hour used the station entrance at 32nd Street and 7th Avenue, the 34th Street Partnership said last year.
Describing Penn Station as having “been left in the dark ages,” Ascher enumerated additional proposed features. For the 34th Street 1-2-3 and 34th Street-Herald Square stations, Vornado would pay for new subway entrances, better lighting and signage – including real-time train information displays, and wider station platforms. Above ground, the developer would pay for wider sidewalks and street tree plantings.
The proposal represents the best of potential benefits to be had from well-planned public/private partnerships. Ongoing contributions to the transit improvements by the developer allow the MTA to make these customer service enhancements even as the agency faces record budget deficits. Underscoring the importance of these features to the project as a whole, Commission members noted that some developers have had difficulties keeping their end of the bargain in the past, forcing Vornado to reiterate its commitment.
Commission members was generally receptive to the project, but did question whether enough was planned to ensure the vibrancy of the Gimbels passageway, which was closed in 1980 due to worries about crime. Vornado promised to address the concern by designing an attractive space more akin to the retail-lined passageways underneath Rockefeller Center. One commissioner suggested that the city needs to make broader above-ground pedestrian improvements going beyond the project area; TSTC has previously suggested that 32nd Street between 7th and 6th Avenues be closed to traffic.
Also commenting in favor were Juliette Michaelson from Regional Plan Association, Dan Biederman of the 34th Street Partnership, and representatives from the Permanent Citizens’ Advisory Committee to the MTA and the Service Employees International Union. No one spoke in opposition.