In recent weeks, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $7 billion plan to redevelop Penn Station and a surrounding downtown swath has cleared several major hurdles, gain approval of the Empire State Development Corporation and the Commission for the Control of Public Powers, which (notably) rejected Amazon’s plans for Long Island City. The plan controversially combines improvements to the transit hub with a large-scale redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood and paves the way for the construction of ten new super-tall towers. The towers would theoretically help fund station upgrades (there’s concerns that revenue from the towers will be insufficient) and streetscape improvements, but not the rail infrastructure itself (this is a separate $13 billion plan). It would also provide an estimate $1.2 billion in tax relief developers, chief among them Vornado, which owns the majority of the sites on which the new towers would rise. Steven Roth, general manager of Vornado, called the redevelopment of the area a “promised land” and “our big kahuna.”
In state reports, the redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood has been characterized not just as a funding plan, but as a moral imperative to remake a rundown and underperforming neighborhood. The neighborhood, they imply, is like Penn Station itself, a largely despised and old-fashioned center that Hochul (like many of his constituents) called a “hell”. But the area around Penn Station is not, like so many other promised lands before it, a blank slate awaiting the attention of Pritzker Prize-winning developers and architects, but a vibrant jumble of businesses. and residents, many of whom have been there for decades. For the people who live and work there, it’s a place where real estate and rents support the kind of diverse uses and communities that a redeveloped neighborhood, with its office towers, will never be able to.
West 30th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (and the areas immediately east and west) is set for the most dramatic changes. Three of the eight super-tall sites are there, and there is also consideration for a new train concourse and tracks, part of the separate $13 billion plan that would likely require demolition of the entire north side of the street and would involve eminent domain, something the Governor’s surface-level redevelopment plan does not. The construction of skyscrapers on West 30th depends on rail plans, although they don’t necessarily prevent it.
Whatever happens, the street will not be like it is today: a mixture of loft buildings, Art Deco towers with terracotta facades, small brick buildings meticulously maintained, undistinguished one and two-storey buildings showing their age, buildings and a 151 year old neo-gothic catholic church. The block and neighborhood are home to a handful of apartments, a jiujitsu school, furriers, music shops, a guitar school, urban beautification by Bette Midler non-profitan Irish pub, a handmade cigar shop, the Lithuanian Alliance of Americaa Off-Broadway Theatera whiskey bar, the New York Human Resources Administration, and World Seido Karate headquarters, among others.
I spent a few days talking to business owners and neighborhood residents, asking them what they thought of the redevelopment. Here’s what a few of them had to say.
Photo: Kim Velsey
Saint Jean Baptist, which has stood on West 30th Street since 1840 (it was rebuilt in 1871 following a fire) sees a steady stream of tourists, office workers, and locals at noon. Most only stay for a short time, lighting a candle or sitting on a bench for 10 or 15 minutes before leaving. The church has an altar to Italian saint Padre Pio and also some of his relics. Downs, who has been in charge of the church for 30 years, told me no one likes the redevelopment, but personally he doesn’t think it will happen.
“I was a chef – the person who owned the restaurant filed for bankruptcy so I started working as a security guard. The church was one of the places I worked – they had problems with sans -shelter who slept here and drugs – and they hired me as a guard.
It’s a suburban church, a church that most people visit when they come to town. But we have some of our own neighbors across the street. And on Padre Pio’s feast day, there are 600, 700 people here.
Demolish the church and 19 other buildings? It’s too much. Where would we place our pantry? We feed thousands of people a week. We also have AA meetings. You can move them, but not the pantry. Tearing down the block will not get rid of the homeless. You move them from this area, they will go to the next one.
Photo: Kim Velsey
NYC Aerial Arts, an aerial arts and circus school, moved to 150 West 30th in the summer of 2020, signing a ten-year lease for a high-ceilinged, column-free space with a mezzanine in the back.
Franklin: “We have a pandemic special. We used to be in the basement of Turtle Bay and now we have windows. It used to be a wig store and a fur store, but it had been vacant for some time. They knocked down the walls for us. For us, being this close to Penn Station is great. We have people from New Jersey and Connecticut. With the large windows and the DMV across the street, lots of people peek inside. Sometimes it’s like living in an aquarium.
Chris and I were employees of the trapeze school. It once stood in a giant tent next to the High Line, but was dismantled in 2012 for the next stage of High Line construction.
Olness: “I don’t want to get fired again. When we moved into this space, this area was dead due to COVID and it just started to come back to life. I feel like the redevelopment is going to kill that.
Franklin: “This is New York, people will always want to open businesses and try new things, if they can afford it. We were lucky to rent this space in the small window when we could afford it. Each day, I come to this place, I look around and I’m like, ‘Ahhh.’ »
Photo: Kim Velsey
Victoria Stass is one of several furriers that still line the south side of West 30th Street – part of what was once called the fur districta stretch between West 27th and 30th Streets which, by some estimates, more than 350 fur-related companies in the 1970s. Many had already gone out of business (gentrification, changing tastes) before COVID caused them to close. Tsapouris, who co-owns the shop with his wife Viktoria, is eager for any changes that could help increase foot traffic in the area, but at the same time worries that the higher rents that come with the redevelopment will put him off.
“I think the redevelopment will improve [the area]. No one has been here since COVID, foot traffic kind of died down. It is basically a tourist business. People come here for vacation, buy something to take home. The shops on this street are old shops. Everybody goes to Hudson Yards now. It’s new.
This neighborhood also has a lot of homeless people. When you see homeless people outside, how does it feel to buy something really cool?
If it is redeveloped, we don’t know if we will be here. You get more traffic, but the rent is more expensive. I hope I’ll be there to see it when it’s finished.
Photo: Kim Velsey
When marshal moved into his loft in 1975, Tommy Ramone, drummer for the Ramones, and Steve Gadd, Paul Simon’s longtime drummer, lived in the building. In the early 1980s, Madonna recorded in her studio, whose windows overlooked Madison Square Garden. At the time, the block was filled with music stores and recording studios. Only a few vestiges remain today.
“I was the craziest group leader in town. It was like spring break in Las Vegas, we were very interactive and sexy, but like Austin Powers sexy. I played with Slash, Gene Cornish, Simon Kirke. Here is a picture of me with Les Paul. Here’s one with Britney Spears. I didn’t play on a hit record 40 years ago like a lot of my friends did, but I have a lot of street cred.
The most recent person to rehearse here was Joan Jett drummer Thommy Price. It was about four years ago. It’s not a commercial recording studio anymore, but people play here all the time. I met a blind man and now host sessions for blind and disabled musicians.
They destroy a block of artists. If you go between 34th and 42nd street, it’s like no man’s land. But our block is great. You know why? We are a neighborhood block. Vornado says there are 126 people who will be displaced. I can count 126 people I know.
Photo: Kim Velsey
Chalem worked at rogue music for the last 25 years. The store, which sells used and new gear, including Chalem guitars, has been on the block since 1983. As we spoke, Chalem cleaned up the grimy exterior of a 1971 fuzz pedal with Goo Gone. Famous clients have included David Byrne and the Black Keys.
“Before being a store, Rogue was a group that sold hardware in The voice of the village. I think it’s ridiculous — the idea that we need more office space in this city. The block is a little scruffy, but it’s New York. The owner was very nice to us, but there are always men with clipboards coming. We are a two story building. If skyscrapers go up here, we won’t last. Even if we did, it would be a ten-year construction project, at least. We will be bankrupt anyway.
If you ask any musician, they all know Rogue music. But at this point, would we move? Business is not good. I don’t know if we could afford anything else.
Photo: Kim Velsey
Reilly owned both the Molly Wee Pub & Restaurant and the corner building that has housed it since 1995. Upstairs are seven residential apartments. The bar is cozy and welcoming, with leaded glass windows, shelves full of shamrock-covered china, a photo wall, and a painting of Reilly’s late husband, Paddy.
“Of course, I don’t want to lose my business. The Molly Wee has been there since 1980, when my brother-in-law opened it. It was a different place then, what I would call a gin mill, very sharp. My husband and I renovated the space after buying it from his widow.
Many people tried to buy the building from me over the years, but I never wanted to sell. We have about 20 people working here and the kitchen staff have been with me for a long time. I would describe it as a very nice neighborhood resto-bar with good food at a reasonable price: burgers, shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, daily specials. We have a lot of loyal customers – Rangers fans, Madison Square Garden workers, people who come to concerts.
My husband died nine years ago. It’s been my life ever since. I live in Queens, but this is my home. I’m here from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Where do I go from here? I am 68 years old. Too old to hire or start something new. I told myself that I would be here for the rest of my life.