Mayor Bloomberg's recent announcement that a new station could be built at 10th Avenue and 42nd Street on the Number 7 line extension is welcome news for a project whose fate has been intertwined with the evolving story of the Far West Side of Manhattan.
It's hard to remember now, but just five or six years ago, the economy was booming, Manhattan real estate was sky-high, and developers couldn't nail down enough sites for the construction of new residential and commercial towers. At that time, the Far West Side — with its ideal location between Midtown and the Hudson River waterfront and its abundance of underdeveloped sites — was looking like the Far West Side of the United States in the 1840s: a vast chunk of "empty" land, some 40 blocks, just waiting to be civilized with gleaming new glass towers. (Back in 1996 RPA's Third Regional Plan had identified the Far West Side as a prospective third central business district, and a focal point for the city's future economic growth.)
The leaders of this Manifest Destiny movement were then first-termer Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Daniel Doctoroff. In the Far West Side, they saw the possibility of real change for the city: a brand-new office district, a new stadium for the 2012 Olympics and the Jets thereafter, all made possible by a new subway line to connect this new part of town with Midtown.
If you've been to the Far West Side around the Hudson Rail Yards recently, you might notice that not much has changed, physically speaking. The stadium proposal, which RPA strongly opposed, was defeated. In its place, the Related Company is planning a major new mixed-use district over the Yards, but a construction start is still years in the future. Forty blocks have been rezoned to allow much more density, but very little has been built, in part due to the economic downturn. The extension of the Number 7, however, has proceeded — albeit with a few bumps in the road, so to speak.
The Number 7 line is being extended from Times Square 1.5 miles to Eleventh Avenue and 34th Street. Originally it was to have two new stops, one at Tenth Avenue and 41st Street, and one at its 34th Street terminus. The price tag was high, originally coming in at just over $2.1 billion, and the MTA wouldn't be able to complete the project by 2012. So the City proceeded to pick up the tab itself, by setting up a special tax district in the area to finance the construction of the 7 extension.
Well, sure enough, construction costs soon escalated — though the City has never released a revised cost estimate — and in 2007, the City decided to avoid committing any more money to the project by instead canceling the construction of the intermediary stop at Tenth Avenue. The rationale? That the purpose of the subway extension had been to promote development, and development was already happening along 42nd Street, despite the lack of subway access.
This was short-sighted. Of course the goal of new transit service includes encouraging new development, yes, but then also to serve the people who move and work in the new buildings so that they can go about their daily lives and conduct business in the most efficient way possible — efficient economically, environmentally, and in terms of quality of life. And besides, there is plenty of room for more development along 42nd Street west of Ninth Avenue, something a subway stop would definitely spur.
Building the second station would add enormously to the value of the entire investment. After all, a subway line is only as good as the number of points people can access the trains. Simple arithmetic tells the story. One station costs $2.1 billion. Two stations costs $2.6 billion, or $1.3 billion per station in effect. You are getting almost twice as much subway at far less than twice the cost.
Despite the fact that the construction contract has been signed for the project without the shell for the intermediary station, the City's and MTA's recent finding that even without this shell, a basic station with two platforms and four exits but no underground connection between the platforms could still be added, if funding for it were found. Although this basic station configuration is far from ideal, it would be a major improvement over no station at all.
The price tag even for this basic station is still $500 million, and no source of funding has been identified, but as the best sales people argue, in this case legitimately, "You can't afford NOT to buy the second station!"
Where is the money to come from? As always, that is a key question. In these tough economic times, the city, the MTA, and state and federal governments are all cash-strapped. But if we miss this opportunity, tens of thousands of New Yorkers will pay for this omission for decades to come. Ideally, the Tenth Avenue station should be constructed at the same time as the rest of the extension, so we the people of this city can get the best value out of this project, which is after all, ours.