Thursday, March 3, 2016

The $4 Billion Train Station -- Update

Above is a rendering of "Oculus," the central hall of Manhattan's soon-to-open train hub at the World Trade Center site.  The old hub was destroyed almost 15 years ago in the 9/11 attacks.

Oculus opened for public view this week, and members of the public came to get a first look and, of course, take selfies.

The transit hub itself will open sometime this spring, officials say.  The last time I wrote about the hub, in January 2015 (now up at, the open date was scheduled for late that year, but these things do take time.

Sketches and mockups of the transit hub were released in 2004; its estimated cost was a whopping $2 billion, but memories of the terrorist attacks were still raw at the time and there was a wish to build something memorable.

The hub was supposed to open in 2009, but site complications and plan revisions doubled its cost and more than doubled the time involved.

The Oculus hall is a handsome element in a deeply troubled project that has embarrassed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA), the agency that now will be tasked with the even more complex construction of a needed third rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey.

The outgoing executive of the PA, who did not hold his job when the project began, called the train station "a symbol of excess" and argued against an opening ceremony when the station opens for business.

In a statement, he said, "Whether due to unforeseen conditions, errors or misconducts, cost overruns consume precious resources and undermine public confidence."

Apparently he has been overruled, by the way.  There will be some kind of opening ceremony.


The Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, a much bigger rail center, was built with private money and completed, in inflation-adjusted terms, for half as much money in 1871.

The Freedom Tower, completed in 2014 on the World Trade site, is the largest, tallest office building in the country and cost $100 million less than the train station, which is only the 18th largest rail station, by traffic, in New York.

The 52-year-old Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, in its time the largest suspension bridge in the world with two six-lane decks, a length of nearly 14 football fields (the current standard of measure), massive footings, a height that allowed huge ships to pass beneath and associated traffic linkups cost 60 percent as much in 1964 dollars as the new train center.


The project architect, Santiago Calatrava -- who is said to resent negative reactions to the high costs and long delays -- visited recently and pronounced himself satisfied.

"I think of the person who comes to New York commuting, lives in a very modest apartment somewhere in New Jersey, comes here and has to go to work maybe in a cellar and do a very simple work," he said. "In this minute that I am here, I can at least enjoy a place in which somebody is saying, 'You are an important guy.'"

(Calatrava cannot be held responsible for all or perhaps even many of the cost overruns.  Engineers and the PA have much to answer for as well.)

The New York Times architectural critic, Michael Kimmelman, conceded the beauty of the Oculus space and concluded his review with this:

       I toured the site recently with an architect who admired Mr. Calatrava for sticking to
       his guns and conceiving an ambitious public space. Cost was the Port Authority’s
       responsibility, he said, and besides, cost isn’t value, all of which is true.

       Mr. Calatrava has given New York something for its billions. But if the takeaway
       lesson from this project is that architects need a free pass, a vain, submissive client and
       an open checkbook to create a public spectacle, then the hub is a disaster for architecture
       and for cities.

Practical Matters 

I spoke recently with a friend, a business guy who spends a certain amount of time in the financial district.  He made two interesting points.

First, he said, the design of the train hub cannot be appreciated up close.  Its totality rewards only a view from some distance.

Second, he asked, "How are they going to clean that thing?  What will they do when the bird poop piles up on those white spikes?"

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