Chelsea’s Penn South Residents Push Back on MTA Substation Project



The construction of the substation will take place in between Penn South residential buildings in Chelsea. Photo by Elena Luwa Yin

The area outside of the Penn South housing development in Chelsea is bustling. Cars roar by. Commuters rush into the subway station on 23rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. On the neighborhood’s grounds, residents walk their dogs and chat with each other on one of the many benches. Amid the upbeat hum of the community may soon be some unwelcome noise from construction on a largely opposed transit project.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority proposed construction for an underground power substation to fuel the 8th Avenue A/C/E subway lines in 2018. The project was met with resistance and the MTA said it then considered 30 other locations. The agency returned to the proposed site between buildings of the Penn South residential co-op, which includes nearly 3,000 units, including commercial space and houses nearly 5,000 residents in 2021. The bidding contract for the project was released in June, catching residents’ attention. The 40-foot-deep project is now in its planning phase, according to the MTA’s website, and residents are speaking out about concerns over construction-related noise and air pollution, especially because of the site’s proximity to a residential community where older people live.

“When they are having these cranes, and they are excavating, it’s going to be very disruptive and also have possibly, obviously, real health effects,” said Michael Bournas-Ney, a Penn South resident.

The recently released MTA environmental assessment shows about 32.5% of residents in the neighborhood are over 65 years old, and Penn South is known as a naturally occurring retirement community, according to residents, because it has become home to a significant number of older adults.

In addition to environmental concerns, some residents said they just found out about the plan, despite it having been under consideration for years.

President of the Penn South co-op board, Ambur Nicosia said the MTA waited until the plan was a “done deal” before telling residents. “The care for these really vulnerable residents and people in the neighborhood is not there,” she said.

According to a map from data visualization group BestNeighborhood, Penn South has a lower income level compared to surrounding areas in Chelsea.

“What’s the recourse for us? We are an affordable housing community,” said Nicosia. “We don’t make a profit. This is not a high-rise condo that has unlimited funds. I think that they feel that we are an easy target.”

But according to the MTA, West 28th Street is the best location for the substation because the street is wide enough and construction can be set back from the residential complex, which the agency said will minimize potential noise. There are already 230 MTA substations throughout the five boroughs.

Recreational area in front of the Penn South residential building on West 28th Street in Chelsea. Photo by Elena Luwa Yin

“I find it hard to believe that the middle of a residential complex is good on any level,” said New York State Senator Brad Hoylman during a September Community Board meeting.

The project is estimated to take more than three years, including two years of street-level construction six days a week.

In response to the MTA’s plan, residents launched an online petition in late August. It now has more than 950 signatures.

Lorraine Machlin created it. “There’s so much commercial space around us near Penn Station and in the vicinity,” she said. “But they’ve chosen this one block and that’s the most residential block and it’s also a very green space.”

Hundreds of residents have commented on the petition, including many who cited their age and pre-existing health conditions as concerns.

“I am 59 years old with a number of heath conditions that I take daily medicine for. This will ruin my quality of life and effect my health and well-being. I STRONGLY OPPOSE THE 28th STREET SUBSTATION,” wrote a resident named Adeline.

“The MTA is ignoring the human cost,” another resident, Naomi Rosenblau commented.

The MTA’s environmental assessment deemed the project safe and said it does not indicate any potential health risks.

Speaking during the September community board meeting, Robert Laga, deputy business lead at MTA Construction and Development, said the MTA will follow state rules and try to mitigate noise, dust and rodents.

“We have built a few of these over the lifetime, and we have addressed pretty much all the concerns that you may have,” he said.

Renée Pompei is an orthodontist and the owner of High Line Smile Design, a dental clinic that rents commercial space in Penn South. Pompei said she understands the need for this infrastructure, but her business relies on a peaceful environment for patients. “Nobody likes going to the dentist already and imagine that there’s loud jackhammering everywhere,” she said.

Despite the concerns, the substation project is moving ahead and is scheduled to be completed in 2025. Residents said they will continue speaking out.

“I think they are misunderstanding how much this community is willing to stand up to fight this,” said Nicosia.