For the last few months, we’ve heard a lot about the future of Madison Square Garden and its relationship to Penn Station. Community groups and various city stakeholders believe MSG should not be granted an unlimited license to operate about Penn Station, but there’s a sneaking suspicion that these efforts are fronted by those who care first about reclaiming a grand building for Penn Station and second about expanded transit access into and through New York City. The debate may soon come to a head with a time limit on MSG but also an out that could render the time limit pointless.
In a story published last night on Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein reports on a gift for Madison Square Garden from the city that could arrive as early as Wednesday. Here’s her take:
The city will in fact propose a 15-year renewal, rather than a 50-year one, which is in theory a victory for the planners. But the proposal also contains a major loophole: if the Garden meets certain conditions during those 15 years, it can get a permit to remain on top of Penn Station in perpetuity.
Namely, the Garden would have to come to some sort of an agreement with the three railroads that run beneath it to make improvements to the station, like adding new escalators and elevators. If such an agreement were to reached, and the City Planning Commission’s chair (who is appointed by the mayor) were to approve it, then the Garden could remain where it is, on top of the ever-more-crowded Penn Station. Its special permit, in other words, would have no expiration date.
“We think this exception would be a mistake,” wrote Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, and Vin Cipolla, the president of the Municipal Art Society, in a letter to planning commissioner Amanda Burden last week. “Although the City Planning Commission cannot solve this problem singlehandedly, we would like to underscore that the only way to regain a train station worthy of New York’s status as a global city and to meet the needs of a growing economy and population is to relocate the Garden and build a new station from the track and platform level up.”
Without knowing the full details of the agreement, I’m withholding full judgment on the deal. There has to be more to it than some new escalators and elevators as those are instead seemingly the centerpieces of the $1.6 billion Moynihan Station plan. Hopefully, there is more to it, and we’ll find that out on Wednesday.
On the other hand, Yaro’s concern again seems to focus around the building, but if you read his statement closely, it’s more of an appeal to sensibility. He wants that new station from the track and platform level up, and that’s the key. New York City needs to redesign Penn Station from the bottom up, and if it comes with a new headhouse that looks nice and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, then fine. If MSG can figure out a way to improve the track, platform and station concourse levels while maintaining an arena above ground, that’s fine too really. Simply put, we need to focus on the transit experience at Penn Station first.
Of course, not everyone agrees. In The Post yesterday, Steve Cuozzo penned a persnickety piece on Penn Station. Comparing a potential new Penn to the absurdly expensive and functionally questionable buildings at Fulton St. and the PATH WTC Hub, he writes, “Penn Station remains tolerably clean, safe and functional. Its lack of sex appeal hardly justifies the cost and years of chaos that trying to beautify it would entail… Let Penn Station be Penn Station. Remember, many thought it a fine idea in the 1960s. Let it remind us that change is not always to our good.”
But that’s quite right either. Penn Station has stretched the boundaries of functionality, and at rush hour, frequent users would question even that limited appeal. It also has no room for growth in ridership or trans-Hudson service. Right now, all we know is that something needs to be done. We don’t know what or how, and if it means keeping MSG on ice for a few years, so be it. The arena will still recoup of the costs of its recent renovations and then some, but the chance to right the Penn Station transit wrongs doesn’t come around too frequently.