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The Next Big Things

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"The fight for efficiency is on," says the Cooper Union's Fred Siegel, "and we have to join it or we're going to lose out." Adds Bill Stern, the state's economic-development czar in the early Cuomo years: "We're living off our inheritance. We're living off the building of the first half of the century, and we've done very little."

Well, the time has come to do a lot. Several major projects are currently being considered. Some, like Penn Station, are pretty much ready to roll. Others exist mainly on paper. These six are among the most important.

1. PENNSYLVANIA STATION

It's worth taking a moment to examine how this one came together. Basically, the $500 million Penn Station redevelopment proves this point: The financing can always be found; it's the will, or failure of will, to overcome bureaucratic inertia that keeps things from being built. Penn Station happened because Pat Moynihan and George Pataki wanted it to happen, and because they hired a third fellow to oversee the job who really knew what he was doing.

When Moynihan hired Harvard-trained architect Alex Washburn in 1994, Washburn jokes, he was probably the only architect among Capitol Hill's 30,000-strong staff. That's the particular kind of vision that only Moynihan has, and it helped get the Penn Station project moving. By 1996, Moynihan and Washburn agreed that the architect could accomplish more at the Empire State Development Corporation, the state's economic-development arm headed by Charles Gargano. At first, Washburn says, the Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation, a sub-entity of the ESDC formed by Moynihan and Pataki, "was just me and a telephone." But within two months, Gargano got the ESDC board to devote $6.25 million to Penn Station. "A project like this comes along once in a hundred years," Gargano says. "We weren't going to miss it."

Over the years, the redevelopment has come to rely on eight or ten different funding sources, including the city, the state, the New York State Thruway Authority, Amtrak, and a handful of others; the PSRC has funding agreements with each. The federal contributions -- the first federal dollars, in 1994, were tucked into an earthquake-relief bill -- take advantage of changes in the surface-transportation law that Moynihan helped push through.

Gargano envisions the new Penn Station as a model of the rail link of the future. The station's plans anticipate capacity and ridership, he says, not for the next 5 or 10 years but for the next 30. He says that eventually, he imagines a link from Penn Station to JFK with the Paddington-esque check-in features that seem beyond comprehension to New Yorkers today.

Washburn has now spent many more years than he imagined being less architect than bureaucrat, lining up funding, negotiating with the Postal Service, dealing with the many agencies that had a piece of this pie. "It's definitely a Balkan environment," he says of New York. "I was amazed at how actively different agencies try not to interact with each other, and the lengths you have to go to break through the natural inclination not to deal with each other." But he did what needed to be done, racing the clock and straining to meet Moynihan's exacting standards. "He called me up not long ago," Washburn says, "and he just said, 'Alex? Tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . .' " All the early deadlines have been met. Now they just have to build it.

2. THE SUBWAY

If you rely on the No. 6 train, you face the problem every morning. If you use, say, the 77th Street station, and you try to catch a downtown train around 8:30, you probably watch two or three jammed trains pass by before you can squeeze onto one. And if you live on, say, York Avenue, you experience this after you've walked more than half a mile to get to the station.

New York led America in subway construction in the early part of the century. Nearer our time, it led America in subway decrepitude, as the system became a ring of hell during the fiscal crisis. Twenty years and $20 billion later, under Richard Ravitch's leadership, the system is vastly improved -- new tracks, rehabbed stations, and the MetroCard system, along with the roaring economy, have brought people back. Ridership is up 21 percent since 1992. But capacity has not increased.


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