Edward Assile started working for his family’s textile supply company near Macy’s landmark Herald Square store in the 1980s, when the Manhattan neighborhood was part of the garment district. Fabric shops surrounded the store and the sight of workers hurriedly pushing racks of clothing up and down the streets was common.
Macy’s still stands, but the rest of the area has been transformed. What was once a manufacturing hub has given way to an overflowing corridor of tourists and commuters cramming onto sidewalks, roadways and subway stations.
“Have you tried walking from here to Penn Station?” said Mr. Assile, 70, referring to the commuter train station. “It’s horrendous.”
Herald Square’s central location at the intersection of regional rail service and numerous subway lines has long made it one of New York City’s busiest neighborhoods. But today it is more congested than ever with 92 million people a year passing through its three subway stations, nearly double the number in the 1970s.
Now Macy’s, the epicenter of Herald Square for more than a century, wants to test the area’s limits. It plans to build an 800-foot tall office tower atop the iconic store, part of what could be the beginning of a building spree in the district.
The city is experiencing one of the greatest growth periods in its history, with a booming economy, soaring tourism and a population near a record high.
But in an era of prosperity, cracks have emerged: The forces of development pushing across many neighborhoods, like Herald Square, are taxing New York’s transportation infrastructure, from its strangled streets to its strained public transit.
A forest of office and residential towers has risen in Lower Manhattan and around Central Park in recent years, while new neighborhoods of high rises have sprouted in Downtown Brooklyn, the South Bronx and along the Queens waterfront.
The flurry of construction has added more than 40 million square feet of new office space in the city in the past two decades — roughly the equivalent of the total office space in downtown Houston.
But while the city has thrived, the transportation infrastructure that it depends on has struggled — clogged streets have pushed down average speeds in Manhattan’s business districts to under 5 miles per hour while the subway is struggling to reverse a steep decline in reliability.
“If the infrastructure falls behind, you are going to solve your own problem because people will leave,” said Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transportation policy and advocacy group.
In Herald Square, swarms of people fill every available inch of sidewalk and rush-hour traffic on West 34th Street, a main thoroughfare, is often at a standstill.
More than 140,000 employees work in the area, and a Macy’s tower could add another 6,000. The neighborhood is already home to the city’s third busiest subway station, and Pennsylvania Station is the country’s busiest train station with more than 600,000 riders daily.
At least one developer, Vornado Realty Trust, has plans to put up a super-tall tower in Herald Square, further adding to the density of people and cars.
Before Macy’s revealed its tower plans, company executives met privately with community groups and city leaders to outline their vision and gain their support. Executives also pledged that Macy’s would invest in the area’s infrastructure, such as adding new entrances to the Herald Square subway station, according to three people familiar with the company’s preliminary plans.
A Macy’s spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the company’s plans, saying that there were “a number of hurdles we need to cross before we can share more concrete details.” Macy’s would need city approval to build the tower.
“We believe the best way to unlock the store’s underlying real estate value and promote economic activity in the area is to build a commercial office tower while continuing to operate this iconic store as our national flagship,” the spokeswoman, Blair Fasbender Rosenberg, said.
Some local leaders welcomed the news. “Anything that is good for Macy’s staying healthy and in business is good for New York,” said Dan Biederman, the president of the 34th Street Partnership, a business-improvement district in Herald Square.
Still, the tower proposal, though it could take years to be realized, has already sparked concern among elected officials over the potential strain on the neighborhood.
Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president, said that a tower over Macy’s would “require major public improvements to the streets and sidewalks that surround the Herald Square neighborhood.”
Layla Law-Gisiko, a member of the local community board, had a pointed reaction to the idea of more people flooding into the area: “Disastrous, disastrous, disastrous.”
But Tom Wright, the president of Regional Plan Association, a transportation research and policy group, said that the sky-is-falling predictions for Herald Square were overly gloomy. He noted that several ambitious public transit projects are underway that would ease congestion both underground and aboveground.
Penn Station, which Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road share, is extending into the adjacent James A. Farley Post Office to serve passengers riding Amtrak. A rail project known as East Side Access, more than a decade under construction, will eventually move Long Island Rail Road passengers away from Penn Station to Grand Central Terminal.
“There is so much investment in the area that you don’t want to walk away from it,” Mr. Wright said. “Taking advantage of that sunken new investment to build new density is good public policy.”
New York is one of several cities across the country grappling with the consequences of dynamic growth. Los Angeles, Seattle and Honolulu, among others, are all spending billions of dollars to expand public transit as a way to unsnarl their roadways.
In New York, the subway system, the largest in the nation, has barely expanded in recent years, adding a new line with three stations on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and a new station to extend a line to the Far West Side of Manhattan.
Next year, New York will become the first American city to impose congestion pricing, a fee to drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan. The plan is meant to ease traffic and raise more money to modernize and improve subway and bus service.
The city’s development wave has already lapped up against Herald Square. To the west stands Hudson Yards, a city within a city with acres of gleaming glass and steel office and residential buildings. To the east, skyscrapers are rising in a part of Midtown Manhattan that has been rezoned to allow for taller buildings.
Between them are Herald Square’s collection of mostly stubby buildings, except for the Empire State Building, that developers believe could be part of a giant business district stretching across the width of Manhattan.
The challenge the city’s robust development poses for the existing transportation infrastructure is being felt beyond Manhattan.
An influx of new people in northern Brooklyn has bogged down the L train, the only line serving some of the borough’s fastest-growing neighborhoods. More than 675,000 people now live more than a mile from a subway station on the far edges of Queens, according to the city, and many use buses that often run late and slow.
A commuter ferry service run by the city recently began docking in areas underserved by public transit along the waterfront in Brooklyn and the Bronx, though it is expensive to operate and its ridership is tiny compared with the number of subway or bus riders.
Even without a Macy’s tower, Herald Square is packed. It is one of the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares in New York, with more than 11,000 pedestrians at its peak, on late weekday afternoons, filling 34th Street in front of Macy’s, according to a traffic count by the city.
Each year, more than 20 million shoppers visit Macy’s Herald Square, the company says.
“Growing responsibly means that significant development must be accompanied by investments in mass transit, parks, schools, streetscapes, libraries and all the public goods that make our city livable,” said Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker whose district includes Herald Square. “We have to find a way to grow responsibly if we want communities around the city to accept the need for growth.”
Rachel Shorey contributed reporting.