Madison Square Garden in its current form should be granted only a ten-year operating permit, and New York City must develop a comprehensive plan to redevelop Penn Station, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said today. As the World’s Most Famous Arena’s ULURP application winds its way through the torturous seven-month review processed, Stringer’s office released a non-binding, 18-page report calling upon New York to get serious about improving Penn Station both at ground level and underground.
While I’ve been skeptical of the architectural arguments against MSG, Stringer’s report strikes the perfect middle ground between the aesthetics — or lack thereof — of Penn Station and the need to do a serious assessment of rail capacity and the region’s future transportation demands. “It is time to build a more spacious, attractive and efficient station that will further encourage transit use, reduce driving into the city and spur economic growth throughout our city and our region,” Stringer said. Borough President said. “While we need to ensure the Garden always has a vibrant and accessible home in Manhattan, moving the arena is an important first step to improving Penn Station.”
The Penn Station problem, as I’ve written lately, is often tough to discern in media coverage. Some prominent city historians and architectural critics have grown too obsessed with rectifying a 50-year wrong. They want to promote the Moynihan Station venture as penance for Penn Central’s decision to tear down the Beaux Arts Penn Station, and they want to move Madison Square Garden to build something that looks majestic. That solution doesn’t address the fundamental problem: Penn Station rail capacity is maxed out. The platforms are too narrow, and the trans-Hudson rail tubes are too few. How can a new MSG and a new Penn Station improve rail capacity into and through New York City?
To that end, Stringer has an answer, and he lays it out in the ULURP recommendation [pdf]. Noting that both Moynihan Station and the Penn Visioning plan do not “go far enough, nor address the physical constraint of the Garden on meaningful improvements to Penn Station,” Stringer first calls for improvements at the track level. Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel will work, he says, only if platforms are wider, and to widen platforms, MSG and its support columns must go. “While moving Madison Square Garden,” he writes, “would potentially lead to a new, modern head house serving as a grand gateway into New York City, the true benefits in moving the arena would be increased below-grade flexibility that would allow for efficient track design.”
Thus, says Stringer, it’s time to develop a master plan for area. Involving all stakeholders — MSG, the city, the state, the feds, the MTA, New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, area business — will be a challenge, but the future economic development of the Midtown area and the city on the whole depend on it. “Master plans for regional and mass transit improvements can take years, sometimes decades, to implement,” Stringer says. “The city must begin to create a master plan now and not wait until the system is so congested as to be broken.”
Of course, we can embrace Stringer’s call for action readily, but what of the other stakeholders? Madison Square Garden has, at various points over the past decade, endorsed plans to move the arena, but recently, its owners spent around $1 billion in arena upgrades. A ten-year occupancy permit coming on the heels of a 50-year lease isn’t quite what they had in mind, and already we can see the signs of a brewing battle. Here’s their statement:
“Virtually all special permits are granted without artificial expirations. In addition to this, MSG meets all required findings for this permit and operates in a city where no sports arena or stadium has a time limit to its use. Given these circumstances, we have the reasonable expectation that we will be treated like every other applicant. Yet the Garden – a company that has recently invested nearly $1 billion in its Arena and helps drive the city’s economy by supporting thousands of jobs and attracting hundreds of annual events– is being unfairly singled out because of a decision that was made 50 years ago – to demolish the original Penn Station. Adding an arbitrary expiration for reasons unrelated to the special permit process or requirements would not only set a dangerous and questionable precedent, but would also hinder our ability to make MSG and New York City the long-term home of even more world-class events, and would harm a business that has served as a significant economic driver for the City for generations.”
There’s more than a kernel of truth in this statement especially surrounding the issues with the demolition of Penn Station. But while Madison Square Garden’s location makes it a very transit-friendly arena, there is no denying that it will inhibit rail infrastructure expansion and transit growth. Something may have to give, and Penn Station’s expansion is more important than the Garden’s maintaining its current spot.
So what’s next? Community Boards 4 and 5 have both endorsed a ten-year permit, and Stringer’s office has as well. None of these recommendations are binding, though, and the ULURP process next lands on the tables of the City Planning Commission before facing City Council. MSG will put on a full-court press before a ten-year permit becomes officials, but the end of MSG may be inevitable. Stringer’s recommendations provide a clear course forward, and they should be endorsed and adopted by the city while the team is right.