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The Next Big Things

If we can return Penn Station to greatness -- and here's your first look -- why not the waterfront? And how about the Second Avenue subway?

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The physician," Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, "can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines." Well, sometimes. But this summer, we'll start rectifying one of the worst decisions New York has ever made, when politicians and planners gather to announce the arrival of the new Penn Station.

For years, the new station, built in the shell of the James A. Farley Post Office Building at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street, has been an I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it pipe dream. It would be talked up for a while, then disappear. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, its tireless champion, would score some funding; Republicans in Congress would try to kill it. But it survived, and the new station -- of which New York is offering New Yorkers their first glimpse -- is scheduled to open in 2003. It'll be worth the wait. "If you ever knew the original," Moynihan crows, "you will be reborn to see what's coming."

Designed by a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team led by David Childs, the station looks spectacular: a graceful marriage of neoclassical tradition -- the post office, like the magnificent, original Pennsylvania Station, is a McKim, Mead & White building -- and the contemporary hankering for space, light, comfort, and amenities. Behind that huge façade facing Eighth Avenue, the building has an interior courtyard about five stories high. That courtyard will be covered with a sleek roof of glass and steel, soaring some 40 feet above

The passenger seating area -- a nice homage to the original's glass-and-steel vaults over the track beds. There will be an outsize message board offering not only train arrivals and departure schedules but a national weather map, a news ticker, stock quotes, and various other cyber-age features. The waiting area and a lower concourse will look down on the tracks themselves, so that, unusually for an American station, people will be able to see the trains come and go. The ticketing area, in another section of the complex, will repose under a breathtaking glass-and-steel spherical shell fanning across the sky. There will be small shops and newsstands off to the sides, and a restaurant and bar, but no shopping mall -- the post office will still use some space in the building, and anyway, New York doesn't need one more Eddie Bauer.

What it does need, though, is a grand national railroad station. When the old station was torn down, many New Yorkers felt personally violated. "A monumental act of vandalism . . . We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed," editorialized the Times the week demolition began in October 1963. Architectural historian Vincent Scully, comparing the old station to the one we use now, once said, "One used to enter the city riding high like a god; one now scuttles in like a rat." As other cities have refurbished and renovated their stations, New Yorkers have made do with a station that, aside from being an aesthetic blight, is cramped and not remotely up to the city's needs.

We'll get to the details of how the new station happened. But the renaissance of a Penn Station we can be proud of should be only the beginning. New York has let its public infrastructure fall apart for almost 40 years now, but the Penn Station project is a sign that we can build again. As great as it will be to have a new train station, the needs hardly stop there. And if ever the time was right to get to work, it's right now. Crime is down, the city's a better place than it's been in years, the economy is booming, and the money is there. "I think there's a feeling among a lot of people," says builder Douglas Durst, "that things are about as good as they're going to get in the city economically, and that now is the time to act on some of these things."

It sure is. Maybe it's the millennium, maybe it's the Dow, but more and more of the people we pay to run things are waking up to how bad our so-called amenities are. The hideous train station is one example. The airports are another. Access to them, especially JFK, is a long-running joke. The subway system has seen tremendous improvements, but it, too, is woefully inadequate -- there are actually 46 fewer miles of public track than there were 60 years ago, because the Second and Third Avenue elevated lines were torn down and nothing replaced them. The waterfront is a horror show. Highways are crumbling, groaning under a relentless burden of truck traffic that -- and this is a problem not as readily apparent to the average person but every bit as in need of a cure -- could be alleviated if we improved our rail-freight systems. New York may be the greatest city in the world, but in terms of its public infrastructure, it is not an exaggeration to say it's one of the worst.

We rarely think or talk about this. We just accept the hassles and the crowds and the traffic as the price of living in New York, a sort of urban cover charge. We've also come to believe that we can't build things anymore. That large public works have gone the way of Gimbel's and the Automats, and that, what with the expense and the lawsuits and the inconvenience, building is impossible here.

It has been -- but only here. New Yorkers assume every place in the world follows our example. But, fortunately for all those other places, they don't. Other cities, cities just as physically old and bureaucratically sclerotic as this one, are somehow managing to do things. Boston is completing the Big Dig, as they call it, putting its main downtown arterial highway underground -- true, the project is well over budget, but it will improve life for generations of Boston pedestrians and drivers. Washington is finishing its subway system; Los Angeles is continuing to build its. Abroad, Berlin is adding a new line, with the major excavation point at the foot of the Reichstag building. London, Paris, Madrid, and Zurich are all at work on rail-system expansions. Above ground, Chicago -- a city whose passion for public works puts New York's to shame -- expanded its El service in the nineties, building a new line to Midway Airport, and, in a massive job finished in just about two years, moved a part of Lake Shore Drive, in the area south of Soldier Field.


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