The Hotel Pennsylvania is slated for demolition. The ornamental building built in 1919 and designed by McKim, Mead & White sits across 7th Avenue from Penn Station. It is owned by Vornado Realty Trust, who has begun removing mattresses and furniture in preparation for the physical demolition of the building in January 2022.
The Hotel Pennsylvania is home to the Cafe Rouge, which at the time of its opening was the largest and most exquisite hotel restaurant in the world. In the first half of the 20th century, iconic American musicians such as Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller performed at the cafe. During the second half of the 20th century, the hotel, which began to show its age and dropped its prices accordingly, offered affordable rooms to students, writers, artists, and dreamers who came to New York with, as E.B. White once wrote, “a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart.” In many ways the Hotel Pennsylvania is the embodiment of the aspirations of New York in the 20th century.
This is not the first time that Vornado has tried to demolish the Hotel Pennsylvania. They bought the building in 1999 and announced plans to demolish it in 2006. In its place they wanted to build a glass skyscraper that approached the size of the Empire State Building. The 2008 recession put their plans on hold, and in 2013 Vornado announced that they wanted to restore the historic structure and bring it back to its 1919 glory.
Now they are reneging on that promise by claiming that it is too expensive. Demolition is planned to start in January 2022 as part of a larger mega-project to raze multiple blocks and historic buildings from 31st to 34th streets along 8th to 6th avenues.
This mega-project is called the Empire Station Complex. It was the brainchild of former Governor Cuomo who wanted to turn the area around Penn Station into a modern office hub akin to that of Hudson Yards. Even though the project is entirely in New York City, which has its own land use process called the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), the development plan is being implemented through New York State’s General Project Plan (GPP), which has been criticized in the past for subverting community input. Coincidentally, much of the land to be rezoned for luxury office towers is owned by Vornado, whose CEO Steven Roth was Cuomo’s largest campaign donor.
The Empire Station Complex has received intense local opposition from over a dozen organizations, city and state elected officials, and some of the non-Vornado land owners in the redevelopment area. In response to New York State’s current plan, the Empire Station Coalition in conjunction with ReThinkNYC has put forward an alternate plan that would preserve most of the existing streetscape, rebuild the original Penn Station — a train station rivaled in beauty only by Grand Central — and modernize the station’s tracks and platforms to convert it from a terminal into a Tokyo-style through-running station.
In the coming months, as New York emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the outcome of the battle over this $7 billion dollar project won’t just determine the fate of a large swath of the west side of Manhattan and the busiest train station in the country, but the fate of the entire New York region’s transportation and development.