Completing the Dream: A Conversation with Maura Moynihan

Pat Moynihan’s grand civic dream has had a fitful eight years. In 1998 Senator Moynihan secured $800-million in federal funds to convert the old Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue into a train station, and in essence correct one of the worst blunders ever perpetrated on the City of New York: the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, once located directly across the street from the post office. The proposed station—designed by David Childs and Marilyn Taylor of SOM, with a lot of input from New York’s then senior senator—provided perfect historic symmetry.

But almost immediately events seemed to overtake the dream: Senator Moynihan retired due to failing health; September 11 profoundly shifted attention and priorities; Mayor Bloomberg became obsessed with building a football stadium on the West Side; other worthy transportation projects, such as the Second Avenue Subway and rail links to JFK, fought for political traction. In the ensuing years, Moynihan Station was named after its champion, following his death in 2003, but the project appeared stalled and many supporters feared New York was frittering away Pat Moynihan’s parting gift.

The planets, however, have once again realigned in the station’s favor. And some of the credit must go to Maura Moynihan, the late senator’s daughter, who has spearheaded a public campaign for the station and last year joined the Regional Planning Association (RPA). Now for the first time since its inception, the station appears on track and likely to happen. Some say the project has lost much of its civic focus and has become largely a real estate venture, but Moynihan—a political animal with her father’s pragmatic streak—strongly disagrees. Recently we talked about her role at the RPA, the station’s renewed prospects, and the political jockeying involved.

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What is your role at the RPA?
I’m a senior fellow charged with running Friends of Moynihan Station. My dad spent 15 years piecing together all the approvals and funding to recreate Penn Station in the Farley Building. He was so upset progress had slowed down that on his deathbed I promised him I would try to make it happen. So I moved to New York right after he died and started the organization. I didn’t want his dream to die, because he took the loss of the old Penn Station very personally. He used to shine shoes and sell newspapers in the original station, and he always said, “It was the best thing in our city—we knew it, and some bastards knocked it down.”

How is Moynihan Station progressing?
The great news is last summer the development team was finally picked: a partnership between Vornado and Related Companies. What I love about Steven Roth and Stephen Ross—the two Steves, as they’re called—is they’re both from New York. They have a real feeling for the city. Vornado also owns a lot of properties around the station so they have a vested interest in making this happen. The other good news is New Jersey Transit has agreed to become a tenant. This is fantastic because it’s a stable anchor tenant. One hundred thousand people a day use the station to go in and out of New Jersey. They also have to navigate the current Penn Station, which I call The Pit.

What’s the next step?
The next step is we need to hear the sound of jackhammers coming out of the Farley Building, because Senator Schumer has told me that federal funds left too long unspent can be rescinded at any time. We could wake up tomorrow and find out that the money’s been hijacked to the war in Iraq.

How early could construction start?
Summer, that’s my goal, I don’t want to wait. Everyone says, “Wait, Pataki isn’t running again.” A lot of other people are saying we have to wait for the Spitzer administration. But I don’t want to wait, because the more time goes by the more expensive concrete, steel, labor, and glass becomes.

Has the original design for the station changed?
The David Childs/Marilyn Taylor “chip” is not there anymore. My dad really loved the chip, but it was very expensive and conceived in the Clinton years when the budget was at a surplus, the world was at peace, and we could plan and think bigger. But David is back on the project, and thank god because he’s really close to it. He knew dad from the Nixon administration. Now James Carpenter has a new design that kind of recreates the Victorian, Edwardian-style glass domes of the original station.

Some planners have argued that Moynihan Station, while well intentioned, doesn’t add capacity to the system; it’s symbolic. How do you respond?
That’s nonsense. There are many reports that show that it will increase capacity. It will help bring in tourists, business from the whole tri-state area, and open up connections to Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo, which we need desperately. Look at the success of Union Station in Washington. Look at the success of Grand Central. People go to Union Station to have dinner. When was the last time you said: let’s meet for a drink in Penn Station?

How does Friends of Moynihan Station operate?
I’m on my own. I’ve always kept up my contacts with the two senators, the governor’s office, the mayor’s office, with people at the various city agencies. What I really appreciate is the ability to reach the people of New York, because those are the people who will benefit from the new station. They’re the ones getting cheated right now with The Pit.

Are you in touch with William Weld, Tom Galisano, or Tom Suozzi, just in case something unforeseen happens and Elliot Spitzer isn’t elected governor?
No, I haven’t done that yet, but we’ll see what happens in the next election. Spizter’s friends are supporting me. But I’m willing to work with anyone as long as we get this station built, because I am not running for office. It’s funny. I’ve talked to some people on the development team and they say, ‘It looks like you’re using this as a platform to run for office,’ and I laugh because I’m not at all. That’s what gives me more credibility to get it done. I’ve never been paid to do any of this. My only interest is in seeing that station open, because it’s a gift Pat Moynihan left to his beloved New York City, and we will never get a gift like this again.

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