Empire Station Complex opponents plan boosted activism efforts with Cuomo resignation

The Empire Station Coalition, a group of 12 advocacy organizations fighting outgoing Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to revamp the Penn district, brainstormed Thursday evening about how best to expand their activism now that the governor is leaving office this month.

Despite promises from Empire State Development officials attempting to sweeten the deal in July with improved pedestrian space in exchange for funding the estimated $306 billion Penn Station rebuild through ten possible new towers in the surrounding blocks.

Human Scale NYC founder Lynn Ellsworth said during the virtual town hall that now is their opportunity to turn up the volume on their opposition to the project with a transition of power taking place in Albany. Some ways she sees this happening by rallying more people to their cause and elevating their demonstrations going forward.

“One of the problems that we’ve been talking about for a very long time is that the real estate industrial complex of our city has pretty much taken it over. Through campaign finance contributions to our politicians, to ownership, or the regulatory agencies getting their appointees on board, to organizing the legal or legislative systems so that the governor, mayor have all the power,” Ellsworth said. “I mean it’s really hard to make headway in that sort of framework that we’re up against.”

Ellsworth advocated for federal review of the plan for its wider regional implications.

“At this point I feel like it needs a federal intervention, of our federal elected officials, [U.S. Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg, they need to come in and sort this out,” Ellsworth added. “It’s both a managerial problem, it’s a problem of vision and it’s a problem of doing a new economic benefits study to the region that is beyond benefit for just the city or the state. It’s three states, why not look at that thoroughly for once.”

On the homefront, legislation at the state that would change how the ESD operates in this, specifically subjecting its projects to the planning laws at the city, such as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

So far, opposition to the Empire Station Complex have been slow to mobilize, with some politicians like state Senator Brad Hoylman being consistently among turnout as activists call for the savior of the Hotel Pennsylvania, one of the last remaining facets of the original Penn Station complex.

At this point, the historic hotel has been rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission for protected status multiple times over the last two decades. Vornado Real Estate Trust is planning the McKim, Mead and White building’s demolition in exchange for office space.

Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council pointed out that no one seems to know what will be coming the next weeks and months as Cuomo exits the executive chamber – a result of 11 women reporting instances of sexual misconduct – and current Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul taking over.

Regardless of the outcome of the 2022 gubernatorial elections, which Hochul announced today she would be a participant, Bankoff believes it will behoove candidates to get behind opposition to the Empire Station Complex.

“This needs to be a major issue, if they want to get votes from New York City,” Bankoff said.

According to a spokesperson from Hochul’s transition team, she will “share more about her vision and plans [for the Empire Station Complex] in the days and weeks ahead as she currently works through the transition process and officially becomes Governor.”

But the chances of Hochul being an ally to the coalition may be slight, with the successor of Cuomo having worked closely with ESD on the plan, according to the Commercial Observer. Whether or not Hochul has any specific changes planned for the project, is anyone’s guess. Her transition team did not immediately return a request for comment.

But as an active participant in the Cuomo administration, Hochul has in the past accepted the agenda laid out by the disgraced executive, with one example being the controversial Amazon HQ2 deal which fell through in 2019.

ReThinkNYC Chair Sam Turvey has been beating the drum for the state to instead focus on through-running service from New Jersey to Long Island within Penn Station, but both the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Amtrak say this is not feasible.