Activist says she was bullied while fighting Cuomo Penn Station plan

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A longtime community activist says she’s been bullied by Gov. Cuomo’s machine on his multi-billion dollar Penn Station redevelopment, which she says includes a “disastrous” under-the-radar plan for 10 skyscrapers ringing the transit hub.

Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of Community Board 5’s land use, housing and zoning committee, and others told The Post that Cuomo snuck a Trojan horse into his sweeping overhaul of Penn Station.

On June 30, with the city in the throes of the pandemic, state officials quietly unveiled a plan within a plan, called the Empire Station Complex, to allow Vornado Realty and other unnamed developers to build 10 tall towers that would purportedly generate revenues to pay for the Penn Station makeover.

The towers, including five so-called “supertalls” that would rise up to 1,300 feet, and two over 900 feet, would surround the 34th Street train station in a two-block radius.

Opponents say the development is being overseen only by state agencies with no oversight from the city or the state legislature.

When The Post asked a spokesman for the Empire Station complex about oversight, he pointed to a 13-member “Community Advisory Committee” that includes local elected officials, community board members and other stakeholders, and added that the agency is “also working closely with NYC agencies.”

That committee, however, is advisory only and cannot stop the plan, sources told the Post.

Law-Gisiko said that state Empire State Development Corp. officials tried for months to block her from participating in the panel. She’s only been permitted to attend recently, under pressure from her board leadership.

An ESD spokesman confirmed to the Post there would be no ULURP, or Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a standardized process for public review of projects in the city.

“Everyone who gets to weigh in on this project was appointed by the governor,” claimed Law-Gisiko.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo attempted a similar plan to start the Empire Station Complex in 2018, but it was stopped by city officials.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo attempted a similar plan to start the Empire Station Complex in 2018, but it was stopped by city officials.
Hans Pennink

Cuomo shrewdly used a General Project Plan – or GPP – to override the need for a city review by labeling the Penn station area a “slum,” members of both Community Boards 4 and 5 told the Post.

Cuomo floated a similar plan in 2018 that was shot down by the city. This time, with the GPP, he’s bypassed the city altogether and the project is moving ahead.

Mayor Bill De Blasio called it a “petty power play” in 2018, but offered no response to the latest move when The Post called his press office.

“If you think you hate Penn Station right now, wait until these buildings get built,” the Paris-born Law-Gisiko said. “It’s going to be horrible. It’s going to be very congested, way more than it is now, and very dark. All those buildings will make you feel that you’re in a permanent twilight.

“And if you think you love the Empire State Building give it a hug now, because it’s going to disappear behind all these new bland tall box buildings.”

Law-Gisiko has been fighting to draw attention to the plans for months, while dealing with increased intimidation from the Cuomo team.

A view of the James A. Farley Building and the entrance to the Moynihan Train Hall of Penn Station on January 1, 2021.
A view of the James A. Farley Building and the entrance to the Moynihan Train Hall of Penn Station on January 1, 2021.
Roy Rochlin/Getty ImagesRoy Rochlin/Getty Images

“Cuomo’s people did everything they could to keep me away from this project,” Law-Gisiko said. “It was very intimidating. The chair of our board had to fight them to just let me listen into meetings. I’ve had to be very quiet and passive up until now to avoid retaliation.”

Lynn Ellsworth, head of the Alliance for a Human Scale City, a network of more than 100 civic and community groups across the five boroughs, said she was furious at what she calls “Hudson Yards 2.0.”

“They sneaked these towers in as part of a sweetheart deal for Vornado,” Ellsworth told the Post. “Cuomo’s big plan is not about fixing Penn Station. This is a deal for Vornado to build speculative office towers. Vornado already has signs up in the area saying ‘Vornado Campus.’ It’s not a campus. It’s our city.”

A spokesman for Vornado Realty Trust did not respond to questions about the project. CEO Steven Roth, his wife, son and daughter have given a total of $465,900 to Cuomo campaigns, according to the website followthemoney.com.

The entire Penn Station area project includes three parts: the renovation of the station, the expansion of eight tracks there, and the plan for the towers. The tower plan is mostly commercial and retail with hotels and the possibility for a small percentage of affordable housing.

MTA spokeswoman Abbey Collins told the Post that the agency will unveil draft plans for the renovation of Penn station next week. Collins said the tentative new plans would involve a single-level concourse that would bring higher ceilings, light and air, though it does not call for moving Madison Square Garden, which sits atop the station.

Sources who have seen those plans say it will do little to improve the dank, low-ceilinged facility. One Community Board 4 member described it as “lipstick on a pig.”

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