Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Newark Penn Station by Robert Munson

This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.


Photo from City of Newark website

A visual pleasure inside and out, Newark’s Penn Station is more than a pretty face. An excellent workhorse, this station helped save one of America’s most troubled cities. Seemingly married to a special Destiny, this station was born in spite of the Great Depression and has endured as a leading Economic Engine; pulling its city through half a Century of hardship.


Photo by Robert Munson

Score: 79 (see full scorecard)
Category: Economic Engine

Overview: Stations in this series’ third category, Economic Engine, perform perhaps the key function of daily urban life: facilitate transit systems that give a competitive edge to downtown employers and retail. This strategic goal helps explain why so many cities recently want to redevelop their central stations and, in the last third of the 20th Century, why preservationists succeeded so often in keeping alive their civic centerpieces.

To distinguish Economic Engines from the highest category (called the Sustainables), a related theory assumes that stations centering well their mobility networks also boost property values with more Transit Oriented Development. This creates a happy economic cycle for a growing middle class that uses transit more; raising both tax and farebox revenue, while creating savings from lowered household transportation costs and government road maintenance. This combination puts a network on the road to fiscal sustainability; particularly as discussed in this series’ earlier article on Philadelphia’s growing middle class that resides downtown. We should expect more of these more complete downtowns as the sustainable era emerges.

Usually with too little residential, Economic Engines are less complete and only stimulate the commercial downtown; but should improve the network as steps toward our more robust category. (While most of these correlations are good, causation is still squishy.)

Newark’s Penn Station is a good test of this TOD theory that transit is an economic enabler and stimulant. In my opinion, Newark potentially centers the nation’s largest suburban operator. (This assumes two combinations under good governance: PATH and NJ Transit technically count as one integrated system; and, Newark’s Penn and Broad Street stations are essentially one station with eight lines connected by a one mile light rail.)  Yet, Newark is only a small, mid-sized city with 278,000 residents while Long Island’s railroad (currently the nation’s largest) can serve some 7.7 million.


Photo Credit: Flickr/Dougtone

Newark’s relatively successful commercial downtown looks like a much larger city. But its chief obstacle is the City’s middle class is way too small. While having some diverse neighborhoods, Newark still has the highest poverty rate (25%) of any American city. So if Newark turns around that statistic by using its transit advantage to rebuild its middle class, it further makes the social argument for every other city to invest in its station and reinvent its mobility network. Until that happy day, other cites can be well served by this analysis of Newark’s main station and how it encourages one of the nation’s better transit systems.

How The Economic Multiplier Works At Newark Penn

This station has two key factors in its equation: design; and transit as a top priority.

A great design may not be mandatory for success, but it sure helps. If a station is designed well, its functions fall into place easier and are less costly to update. If a station functions well, it gets used more and it is more possible for a downtown to flourish. Newark proves these operational and capital efficiencies. Twice. Most improbable was the second time; occurring now.

The first time, of course, was when Penn Station was built. With a 1935 ribbon-cutting and carefully orchestrated promotion, this equal investment from the City and Pennsylvania RR promised to work well for everyone. And it still does.

The station functions well. Integrating its three levels, one walks down from the almost airy platforms into a concourse with a relatively high ceiling so it doesn’t seem as if eight tracks could have trains rumbling above you. The concourse then smoothly distributes passengers to parking, taxis, buses or the exquisite Art Deco detail of the waiting room pictured above all on the street level. The basement is a light-rail subway; a short ride connecting to universities, medical centers and the Broad Street Station. Here is the agency’s recent blueprint. (The extensive local bus station is unmarked, but adjoins Penn Station’s north wall.)

While still working well through the 1970s, Newark’s decline caught up with the Station. It has undergone two decades of updates starting with $41M from NJ Transit in the 1990s. Then in this century and largely using the above drawings, NJT teamed up with federal money (including 31M from the 2009 ARRA stimulus.)  All this brought the Station to as good a condition as could be expected; given the economic disaster of many Newark neighborhoods.

For more details on Newark Penn, visit this website sponsored by Amtrak that helps citizens preserve their stations.


Street map posted throughout ped-shed, photographed by the author.

The concourse and connection to other modes are done well (see scorecard details.) As in other good stations, improving passenger convenience and increases ridership. But, the real reward is the economic impact on the downtown. The above map captures this best. Its economic anchors are Prudential (absolutely key) and quasi-government corporations (New Jersey’s largest light and gas company and the state’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield.)  Typical of recovering downtowns, it also has government centers.

Overall, Newark’s employers are not much different than you would expect a former industrial and port town to have after four decades of disinvestment preceded by a particularly awful 1967 race riot and very rapid white flight. In brief, the downtown needs more private employers.

But, that problem is being turned around. Of the recent large scale construction in all of New Jersey, one-third is in Newark; despite the City having 4% of the state’s population and the disadvantage of its per household income being 42% less than the state’s.

There is further evidence that Newark’s transit quality is attracting capital. It has combined well with the tax breaks to build a downtown sports arena for its NHL team. (Prudential got naming rights.) Panasonic’s North American HQ was just lured from neighboring, upriver Secaucus and added an attractive high-rise to Newark’s surprising skyline. While lures other than tax breaks are used, transit is the key amenity; and Newark and New Jersey know how to use it.

Many give Prudential credit for saving this downtown. I add that it probably took the largest life insurer (whose portfolio is invested heavily long-term in real estate) to recognize long-term value of a town with a great station and good transit.

Newark equals Chicago’s 26.5% of ridership to work. And transit should help rebuild Newark’s middle class to overcome downtown’s main drawbacks: it has very few residents, sparse retail and partial amenities that residents require.

Before Newark Can Solve Its Poverty Problem, Build Downtown Residential

Newark has good bones for downtown residential. It has the second lowest rate of car ownership, after New York City.  In addition to transit, other assets should be leveraged for downtown residential. For example, four major institutions (Rutgers-Newark, NJ Institute of Technology, the nation’s largest health service university and a community college) bring some 50,000 students to downtown’s University Heights. These largely commuter colleges could facilitate more housing for students and staff.

As with many cities revitalizing its downtown using the “eds & meds” strategy, Newark knows it has to diversify; as represented in its 2008 “Living Downtown Plan” that stretches to University Heights on the west and troubled areas around Broad Street Station on the north. (Plan consultants were SOM and Sam Schwartz Engineering).

As Mayor for seven years, Newark’s Cory Booker has done much to refurbish his city’s image. In addition to imprinting many economic deals, he is a public safety champion. During the 1990s, Newark was considered the most dangerous city in America. Mayor Booker, an African-American, has been a frontline advocate for restoring public safety. This needs to continue if the downtown is to attract enough residents.  Yet continuation depends on his successor, as Mr. Booker is likely to move up as the next Senator from this state.

The mar on Booker’s legacy is he has done too little for poor neighborhoods. Because some border the downtown and are stigmatized by housing projects, this remains an obstacle. In this series on how stations lead transit systems that support a middle class, I cannot start or finish the argument that we have a welfare regime that perpetuates poor people’s plight. But, we should not forget that transit is one of the easiest ways to reduce household costs; enough so every family can save more and move up the ladder.

Unlikely to get as complete a package as Mr. Booker to serve as its next Mayor, Newark needs a strategy that persists past his dynamic persona and take its currently stymied “Living Downtown Plan” and make it a reality. Let me propose a deal for new methods of regional redevelopment. (This concept will be explored throughout this series.) To encapsulate this strategy, look at this map of the PATH.

The Port Authority Trans Hudson is the nation’s 7th largest subway system by ridership. The four small cities it serves have 620,000 residents for an impressive ratio of 3 residents for every 2 riders, highly concentrated. (The nation’s next largest belongs to Philadelphia’s subway with a ratio of 5 residents to 1 rider.) If you add the four New Jersey Transit commuter lines that connect Newark (Penn and Broad stations) to New York’s Penn Station. Suddenly, poor Newark is a very rich transit connection. As the state’s largest city, Newark should be a natural mega-hub for the New York metropolis.

My future article on New York stations uses two assumptions. First, Midtown Manhattan has too many people for transit improvements to work cost-effectively. Second, there are cheaper places to live than Manhattan. Both proven.

Newark has an under-utilized and effective transit network.  And second, Newark is an inexpensive place to live.

This begs a few questions. Wouldn’t the world’s main financial center benefit from a farm team eight miles away that already is the nation’s third largest insurance center?  And for the common sense and stability of our financial system, shouldn’t investment banking learn something from the nation’s largest life insurer that required zero public dollars to make it through the worst real estate market since The Great Depression?  And besides, didn’t banks just make its “Wall Street West” by bringing many players to Jersey City, Newark’s peer on the PATH? (Jersey City has four PATH stops.) And didn’t this expansion raise Hoboken and Jersey City housing prices to those in many parts of Manhattan? Does this make Newark the next city to expand to?

And because it is in-land, Newark would cost substantially less to bulwark against hurricane flooding; possibly a show-stopping cost for Manhattan and Jersey City?

So if all these assumptions make sense, the clincher is: what agency helps fix this match-made-in-Heaven between the first and second largest cities in the New York metropolitan area? And don’t forget the bride’s dowry: Newark has the metro’s second largest airport and it is the most convenient to Manhattan; plus, it has the largest container port on the East Coast.

I’m not done having fun with this scenario… nor laying out its logic for Newark and, by analogy, how other central stations can serve as Economic Engines. Solving transit’s problems are increasingly expensive and ineffective because of how we govern our urban areas. If we are to compete in an era of sustainability and if that model rebuilds regions with mega-centers (instead of one over-crowded midtown), then the New York metro needs to take advantage of Newark’s assets and Newark needs New York’s investments. In ways politicians obviously don’t understand, cooperation will pay great dividends to everyone. (But first, we must un-employ the turf-fighters).

Newark’s social problems won’t get solved overnight. But over-time, they must be improved as they currently use public monies very ineffectively and these otherwise could get a much higher social and economic return if invested in infrastructure. As a drain, urban poverty is a strategic obstacle that prevents transit systems from getting on a path to fiscal sustainability.

So for today… How can every city’s central station, as an Economic Engine, do preliminary work to overcome this obstacle?  Answer: we still are finding out.

But… History gives us more answers than we admit. Consider the exhibit created from a brochure promoting Newark Penn at its 1935 ribbon-cutting. This exhibit fills the waiting room’s far wall. Reading this one panel below, it is clear that the Pennsylvania Railroad saw something worth promoting and, in so doing, defined this Station’s destiny.


Photo by Robert Munson

In 1935, the City of Newark had just split the cost of building the Station. This investment tied New York to Newark’s downtown. Four generations later, it still pays dividends. This is a great public value and should make taxpayers feel good (something that doesn’t happen often enough). Newark’s Station remains a great opportunity for all types of progress. But, it is under-utilized; blocked by out-dated laws for redevelopment.

Newark Penn is an Economic Engine for the downtown that is running at, let’s say, half capacity. Who is failing to use that asset to serve public goals?  Let’s show politicians and transit bureaucrats the light. And if that doesn’t work, show them the door.

5 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Sustainability, Transportation
Cities: New York

5 Responses to “Newark Penn Station by Robert Munson”

  1. Lou says:

    I wish you showed more pics of the interior and platforms. A true Art Deco treasure.

    I agree with alot of what you said, having gone through the station everyday for years. Unfortunately the Gateway Complex that surrounds it is truly awful from a street perspective and deadens that side of downtown, even though many of the office workers take transit. It was designed in the wake of the riots with a series of skywalks, parking decks, (bad) retail, and large 6-8 lane surface roads.

    There is residential work going on downtown like office tower conversions and the teachers village. I think for Newark to really prosper the downtown must be a great heart for the city, pumping and pulsating new life throughout the city in wave after wave of revitalization or some may say gentrification (probably not so much because the city lost 40% of its peak population).

  2. Roland Solinski says:

    I think part of the problem with Newark is that it’s on the wrong side of the tracks, no pun intended. It’s really, really difficult to get there from Long Island, Westchester, or Connecticut (where the true elite live) so it’s not the greatest choice for businesses that want to draw talent from the entire region.

    What is needed is to run trains from the aforementioned places to Newark, which is possible today (via Penn Station) and will become even easier if/when Amtrak builds its Gateway Tunnel. If the JFK tunnel is ever built from Flatbush Ave to the World Trade Center, that will make it even easier for Long Island folks to get to Newark.

  3. Robert Munson says:

    Lou–
    Thanks for your comment… especially about including more photos of the station’s Deco detailing. It has few rivals in all the photo books I’ve seen. But the design is what makes this station great; and that is what I choose to emphasize. For the future, beautiful stations get lots of photos.

    I choose not to talk about the Gateway Center’s detachment because Newark has at least made efforts to soften and integrate the Center… which is more than some cities have done with their Modern and even post-Modern mistakes.

  4. Robert Munson says:

    Roland–
    A few years back in “Transport Politic”, Alon Levy had a very detailed piece on through-routing New York’s MTA trains to New Jersey. Unfortunately, this now is such a political disaster with New Jersey killing the ARC tunnel and Amtrak’s Gateway hanging in the balance of a broken federal government. I’d like to explore through-routing in the future, but the politics are so convoluted and discouraging that correct concepts applied in advanced transit seem too speculative here.

    But, the market might work! We shouldn’t forget that Jersey City prices are not sufficiently lower than many parts of Manhattan. So even without through-routing, Newark could be the next urban market to stage a comeback. And if there is a regional agency to stage that growth, that agency also could have sufficient authority to through-route. But dedicated advocates and doers need to make that authority.

  5. Vin says:

    Roland: I don’t really think that’s part of the problem at all. The real elite lives in Manhattan, which fairly well connected to Newark. The New Jersey suburbs are really no less wealthy than their Long Island counterparts – ever been to Montlcair or Morristown? It’s true that Westchester/Connecticut is the NYC area’s most relatively affluent suburban region, but it’s not the most affluent part of the whole metro (that would be Manhattan below 96th St.), nor is there a lack of affluence in other suburban areas, northern New Jersey included. Newark has many problems, and probably would benefit from through-routing NYC’s commuter rail system, but it’s lack of access from NYC’s northern/eastern suburbs isn’t what’s holding it back.

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