The Real Estate Board of New York to The Empire State Development Regarding the Pennsylvania Station Civic and Land Use Project – General Project Plan

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The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is the City’s leading real estate trade association representing commercial, residential, and institutional property owners, builders, managers, investors, brokers, salespeople, and other organizations and individuals active in New York City real estate. REBNY thanks Empire State Development (ESD) for the opportunity to provide testimony regarding the revised General Project Plan for the Pennsylvania Station Civic and Land Use Project.

REBNY supports policies that plan for the City’s long-term growth and provides opportunities for new housing, jobs, and economic opportunity. As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, it is important that we plan for a better future and to ensure our place as a pre-eminent world class City. Penn Station is the City’s largest transit hub. The neighborhood in which it resides deserves a world-class public realm. New York City deserves opportunities to replenish its aging building stock to remain competitive across peer cities. A General Project Plan, like other large-scale plans, can provide a catalyst for renewal and growth.

The Pennsylvania Station General Project Plan (GPP) is Governor Hochul’s revised vision for Penn Station and its adjacent environs. As currently contemplated, the GPP will provide a substantial increase in public space, improvements to access and egress to and from the station, increased train capacity, and opportunities for residential and commercial development. The GPP will institute design controls for facades along 33rd Street to maintain views to the iconic Empire State Building and proposes a community advisory group for transparency and governance on building design and public realm improvements.

REBNY applauds the robust public engagement process to date, which has included significant community input on the plan and the process. A GPP requires community engagement and consultation with the local planning authority, in this case, the City Planning Commission, pursuant to the provisions of the New York State Urban Development Corporation Act. Based on this requirement, and in response to calls for community engagement, the State convened a committee known as the Community Advisory Committee Working Group (CACWG). The CACWG was expanded over time to include more stakeholders and has included informative presentations and opportunities for questions directly with city, state and federal entities.  REBNY was pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this group. In August, the CACWG shared advisory feedback, spearheaded by the community boards and elected officials, with ESD, MTA, Amtrak, and NJ Transit on the GPP.

Subsequently, following an announcement by Governor Hochul that the plan would undergo revisions, ESD reconvened the CACWG to share revisions to the GPP that were responsive to community concerns, such as reducing overall project density and commercial floor area, and increasing opportunities for residential development.

Consequently, as a result of this robust engagement, over six months have been spent on shaping the proposal with the community before the proposal has gone to a formal public hearing and prior to City Planning Commission review. In that spirit, there is a 60-day review period of the revised plan, from noticing to comment period closing, to facilitate complete community response. It is worth noting that this level of community engagement far exceeds what would occur under the City’s land use process.

Regarding the plan itself, the need for improvements to Penn Station is clear to anyone who has utilized its platforms. In recent years the streetscape has seen significant public space improvements by private property owners. However, no cohesive vision unites these blocks in the same manner one finds outside Grand Central, Bryant Park, Union Square and other major transit hubs. A key component of the financing for these improvements would be commercial development by the private sector. Floor area generated by the GPP for this purpose would be subject to a sale, with funds going toward transit improvements and the public realm. This development model has been utilized in other parts of the city to great effect and has proven to be a way to strengthen transit infrastructure and create good jobs that will play an important role in supporting New York City’s long-term economic recovery.

The GPP also contemplates up to four sites for residential use. This is a thoughtful provision to address the city’s housing crisis. To support current neighborhood residents, the plan also appropriately includes a right to return for residents temporarily displaced by the overall project plan. Additionally, those residents that are currently income eligible will receive affordable/income restricted rental apartments. A commitment has also already been made for on-site screening services for homeless individuals to ensure New Yorkers in need are taken care of as part of this process.

Residential units and density adjacent to transit is simply smart planning. To further amplify the opportunity for residential development around Penn Station, REBNY encourages further exploration of the CACWG recommendation to raise the floor area ratio (FAR) cap in the State’s Multiple Dwelling Law. Originally implemented in Albany in 1961, the cap mandates that a residential building cannot have 12 times more square footage than the lot on which it is built. This antiquated regulation greatly reduces the ability of the city and the State sponsored GPP to create more housing. The Regional Plan Association (RPA) made a clear and convincing argument that lifting the cap will unlock the potential to create more affordable housing by triggering Mandatory Inclusionary Housing. This is particularly the case in the area covered by the GPP where greater residential density offers the benefits of both addressing the city’s housing shortage while creating even more affordable income-restricted units.

This GPP will induce new economic activity and tax revenue, provide much needed homes, and help to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, commuters and visitors alike. REBNY is committed to working with Governor Hochul and all stakeholders to advance these shared goals for smart planning and economic development in and around Penn Station and across the city.

Thank you for the consideration of these points.