Home Penn Station A gift for the Garden and Penn Station’s future

A gift for the Garden and Penn Station’s future

by Benjamin Kabak

No matter what happens with Madison Square Garden, this Penn Station, shown here in 1910, isn’t going to return.

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.

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John-2 May 21, 2013 - 1:12 am

It seems that for the moment, the onus is on the groups seeking to renovate and improve Penn Station, and that concept plans for a new Penn that co-exists with MSG would be in order.

Designing a functional option that all parties can agree to would take years, anyway — which given the building’s recent renovations and the planned 15-year deal, isn’t all that big an obstacle and can be an asset if the time in-between is used wisely. Simply wanting to recreate the original station’s grandeur while at the same time expecting to tell the Dolans to take a hike would result in years of painful lawsuits that would serve to delay any renovation project even further, especially since MSG has property rights, per Irving Mitchell Felt’s original deal 50-plus years ago with the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Engineering of arena halls has come a long way since 1968, and figures to be further along by 2028, to where both the railroad terminal and the arena (and even Vornado’s 2 Penn Plaza office space) can still share the same area, but do a far better job of it than the 1960s design.

Bolwerk May 21, 2013 - 5:40 am

I think the idea of giving them a permanent permit sounds like it ties the hands of the future, and is a bad idea for that reason. However, the long-term vision should probably be better utilization of the space, which is possible and in some ways trivial, and the idea that MSG stays where it is.

Scott E May 21, 2013 - 8:36 am

I think a big problem with today’s Penn Station is that it is divided into three different fiefdoms. It used to be two: NJ Transit shared concourse space with Amtrak, but now they’re off on their own.

I remember how dumbfounded I was when I first learned that all the tracks, from NJT Track #1 through LIRR Track #23, were all in a row. Since you need to go up and down stairs, ramps, and escalators to get from one concourse to another, it makes it seem more complicated than it is. If planners could somehow do away with a handful of walls and corridors on the level above the tracks and make it a wide open, well, concourse, I’d bet it would do wonders. (Of course, losing walls means losing space for retail establishments, which equates to a loss of revenue).

As for the MSG thing, I’m not in favor of giving anyone rights “in perpetuity”, especially in exchange for a one-time-only investment, but I believe the two can co-exist peaceably.

Tsuyoshi May 21, 2013 - 10:07 am

Absolutely. The inconsistent signage exacerbates this problem.

The other big problem is that passengers are supposed to wait until their desired train’s platform is announced before they can actually go to the platform. If the trains could be assigned to platforms predictably, everyone could just wait on the platform. Right now, everyone is waiting in front of the arrival/departure boards, and then rushing onto the platform right before the train leaves.

If you can fix these two problems, a whole new station is not really necessary.

SEAN May 21, 2013 - 10:57 am

If I’m taking the train to NJ, I will wait in the new area that NJT built a few years ago since it’s easyest when coming from the subway, not to mention nicer than the rest of Penn station.

When traveling to the island, I only use Jamaica as it’s a lot simpler & you can save a few bucks on the fare despite paying a small amount for the subway.

Joe May 21, 2013 - 8:43 am

There is nothing glamorous about a plan to build tunnels or increase underground rail capacity. The station and the grand expansion plan is what gets people excited. Moses knew this, preferring glamorous bridge construction to tunneling.

There are some decent ideas for Penn Station rail capacity expansion on the table. There’s an idea for two sets of new tunnels under the Hudson, which would terminate at the current track level at an expanded station under the 30th to 31st street block. Instead of merely pouring money into a hole, politicians would probably prefer some visible, above-grade accomplishments.

The two projects should be combined: a new station house with capacity improvements. MSG and 2 Penn can move to the Farley building. With the new buildings going on the new platform over Penn’s Rail yard, you’d have fancy new development like you’re seeing by Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

AG May 21, 2013 - 10:25 am

MSG started the renovation in the current building BECAUSE plans fell through for them to move to Farley. They wanted to several years ago. That cheaper plan fell through – so I’m not sure ppl expect this now more expensive plan could work.

Jonathan F May 21, 2013 - 8:45 am

I know it will never happen in these days of arena obsession, but ideally in my mind, when it comes time for the next series of renovations at MSG, the Knicks and Rangers should temporarily share arenas with other local teams. Like when the Yankees used Shea Stadium for a few years, during the renovations of the original Yankee Stadium.

Tear down the current garden, and rebuild the entire property. Widen the platforms, do whatever needs to be done to give New York a great train station on the west side from a practical point of view. When that is all done, put the newest iteration of MSG on top and we have a train station and arena for the NYC of the 21st century.

MSG needs to be located within a few blocks of Penn Station. With 20,000 people going to the arena so often it is foolish not to have it on top of the most diverse transit hub in New York.

AG May 21, 2013 - 10:25 am

where’s the money????

SEAN May 21, 2013 - 10:45 am

where’s the money you ask? it can be found in two places…
1. In the hands of hedge funds.
2. Being printed in massive amounts to keep the nations banks afloat.

AG May 21, 2013 - 11:25 am

not’s not real money… that’s the type that put us in this mess.

Bolwerk May 21, 2013 - 11:36 am

I think it’s probably silly to borrow on behalf of MSG, but there is no difference between that “printed” (it’s not really printed) money and the kind “sitting” in your bank account.

John-2 May 21, 2013 - 12:59 pm

Well, you’ve got three state/federal agencies — MTA, NJT and Amtrak — along with the Dolans/MSG and Vornado with financial stakes in the site. So if the players remain the same into the next decade, you’d assume any rebuild of Penn Station, the Garden and the office space from 2 Penn Plaza would be some sort of public/private partnership, because that’s what the site is today.

Vornado has bought up a ton of real estate in the area, so even though their mega-tower project to replace the Hotel Pennsylvania and the Manhattan Mall sites has gone by the wayside, it’s still in their financial interest to make the Penn Station area as a whole as attractive as possible. Because of that, it would probably be easier to work out a space/cost sharing deal with them than with the Dolans, who no doubt would want something similar to the sweetheart deals both the Yankees and the Mets got for their new stadiums (i.e. — the city, state and feds build a new Garden for them, and they get to run it). It may take 15 years just to negotiate any cost-sharing agreement there, just as the Port Authority had all that fun working out a deal with Larry Silverstein on the WTC rebuilding.

AG May 21, 2013 - 5:33 pm

The Yankees and Mets OWN their new stadiums (they were just allowed to sell tax exempt bonds to do it)… but this is diff because MSG would have to be paid FMV for their arena and land.

Jerrold May 21, 2013 - 2:08 pm

But WHY does MSG have to be located at Penn Station, instead of just a location that is right by a subway station?
Yankee Stadium is where it is, NOT at Grand Central.
Shea Stadium is where it is, NOT at the Port Authority
Bus Terminal.

I don’t see any way for a halfway decent new Penn Station to be constructed WITHOUT moving MSG somewhere else.

Jerrold May 21, 2013 - 2:18 pm

CORRECTION: When I wrote “Shea Stadium”, I of course meant Citifield.

Frank B May 21, 2013 - 4:55 pm

Quite alright; I know many who still refer to it as Shea.

Alon Levy May 22, 2013 - 3:57 am

It’s called Shea Stadium. If Citi wants me to participate in the naming deal, I want some money too.

al May 22, 2013 - 11:52 am


John-2 May 21, 2013 - 5:59 pm

It really goes back to the fact that Felt was thinking the same thing in 1961 that Walter O’Malley was thinking six years earlier, when he tried to work a deal to put a new domed stadium for the Dodgers on the same site where the Barclay’s Center opened last year. Basically, it was that with the growth of the suburban areas, you wanted to put your stadium/arena in a place where you could be reached the easiest by people both inside the city and out in the suburbs. Which means as many people getting single-seat rides to and from the place as possible.

For Brooklyn, that’s the area around Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, with the LIRR and access every major Manhattan subway trunk line within 3-4 blocks of the location. For Manhattan, it’s the area around Penn Station — you get all the major subway trunk lines except for the Lex, the LIRR, NJT, PATH and even the PABT seven blocks to the north. Mass transit access-wise, there’s really no place else that comes close, at least until ESA at Grand Central opens.

(And the new Yankee Stadium is where it is only because Steinbrenner and Giuliani couldn’t push through a Hudson Yards baseball stadium in the late 1990s, so they stayed in their historically-significant spot. The Mets had their location picked out by Robert Moses, who wanted to pair the stadium with his New York World’s Fair. The mass transit access is limited, but Moses was thinking more in terms of highways, and the closeness to the Grand Central Parkway, Van Wyck and the LIE to the south were the location’s selling points. With the new stadium, if the Yanks weren’t moving to Manhattan and were staying exactly where they were , the Mets weren’t moving, either.)

SEAN May 21, 2013 - 6:38 pm

Could you imagine the Yankees on the westside? For some reason the Manhattan bombersjust doesn’t sound right & wouldn’t fly in todays political climate.

AG May 21, 2013 - 7:59 pm

good synopsis… and very correct.

Jerrold May 21, 2013 - 11:47 pm

But it is STILL true that Yankee Stadium and Citifield do alright in attracting the crowds WITHOUT being right by a railroad terminal or suburban bus terminal.

Also, Robert Moses knew that the World’s Fair would run for only two seasons.

Jerrold May 21, 2013 - 11:48 pm

P.S. I remember those days well. I was at the beginning of my teenage years. A 15-cent token (smaller in size than a penny) would get you to the World’s Fair.

John-2 May 22, 2013 - 10:18 am

But Robert Moses sold Shea as the prime site for the Mets in part through it’s connection with the World’s Fair, the nearby highways and as a general upgrade to the Flushing Meadows area (after the 1930-50 World’s Fair it was a better area than how F. Scott Fitzgerald decrypted it in “The Great Gatsby”, but it still wasn’t much to write home about in the 1941-60 period before the new Fair and Shea broke ground).

Moses was mainly thinking about his park and high highways, and the Payson and Whitney families went along, because they formerly had been part owners of the New York Giants, who in the decade after World War II did see their fan base flee NYC for the suburbs. So the highway access was a major factor for them, and as long as there was direct subway and LIRR service from Midtown, the Corona site was good enough, mass transit-wise.

AG May 22, 2013 - 5:51 pm

Not really a good comparison since they (Yankee Stadium and Citifield) aren’t in use as often… and whenever they do have events there are traffic jams… even though they are near a good amount of transit.

But that doesn’t really have much to do with it… MSG was prepared to move across the street to Farley – but the government messed it up – so they stayed and renovated. So I fully understand why they wouldn’t trust trying to make a deal again.

Even as the news came down about the 15 year permit – the Planning Commission understands it still might fail – so they made the provision that MSG can stay with some “improvements”.

Russell May 30, 2013 - 9:54 am

Those stadiums also have a lot of parking for cars. MSG is so well served by rail that little parking is needed.

g May 21, 2013 - 10:41 am

I’m fine with such a deal as long as the requirements placed on MSG for station improvements are what is realistically needed. Column relocation to alter the platform widths and reorganize the track layout, entirely reconfigured/expanded/remodeled concourses and vertical access (more/wider stairs, escalators, elevators), additional passenger concourse under a closed 33rd st turned into a pedestrian plaza including additional vertical access points, enlarge all passageways connecting with NYCT, new unified signage and large train departure boards at all access points.

If all that and a few other sundry items are actually cheaper than moving MSG I’d really be shocked

SEAN May 21, 2013 - 11:05 am

all that and a few other sundry items are actually cheaper than moving MSG I’d really be shocked. Trust me, you wouldn’t be the only one that would be shocked at that prospect.

AG May 21, 2013 - 11:33 am

Well it might work out to be cheaper… Considering it would be well over a billion just to give MSG FMV for the land/building. The question is whether columns could be moved while the arena is in use… but I think engineers could do it.

David Brown May 21, 2013 - 1:40 pm

It is actually cheaper to do it now, because of the current low interest rate environment, which playes a huge role when it comes to financing a project. Basically no one knows what the cost of capital will be 15 years from now? This also includes compensating Cablevision ( or whoever owns the Garden then), for the expense of the new building. There is also the time factor involved in this. If The City can get most of what it wants within say 5 years, it beats waiting 20 years ( or more) for the chance of 100%. Perhaps even the reopening of the Gimbals Passageway or a similar type of project to speed things up for commuters?

AG May 21, 2013 - 5:40 pm

“Basically no one knows what the cost of capital will be 15 years from now?”

and that is the reason MSG decided to renovate when the original plan for them to move to Farley fell through…. I’m not sure why everyone thinks this is so easy. That’s the whole reason CPC pu in the “gift” the article talks about. Money doesn’t pop out of thin air (not real money anyway).

Eric F May 21, 2013 - 12:34 pm

I’d also note that are very few uglier features in the NYC street-scape than the exterior of Madison Square Garden.

John-2 May 21, 2013 - 1:07 pm

It’s also a very wasteful space, in 2013 terms. Back in the mid-1960s, structural engineering at the time that was designed to eliminate obstructed seats in stadiums and arena required the rounded style of MSG (or Shea Stadium). That’s not needed now, and you can build 20,000 seat arenas that are designed more like the 1925 Garden, with the upper levels closer to the court, rink or stage without having to put posts in front of seats.

That also tightens up the space needed for the Garden. It currently runs at its diameter from 31st to 33rd Streets, even though a hockey rink is only 80 percent the length of one city block. So a new MSG that remains on the Penn Station site would take up a lot less above-ground space than the current building does, leaving more room for other things, whether it’s retail or increased train station access points.

Eric F May 21, 2013 - 2:30 pm

I didn’t know that. It’s notable that the newer arenas tend to be square-shaped, whereas ones from that era tended to be cylinder-shaped.

John-2 May 21, 2013 - 4:40 pm

Just about every pro baseball/football stadium built with the then-new ‘circular’ design to eliminate obstructed seats is gone. I think Dodger Stadium is the only outdoor one left, and that’s built into the side of a hill to get some of its upper level support.

RFK (D.C.) Stadium in Washington was the first pro field to use the design outdoors, which also made the stadium easier to convert between baseball and football. But the fans in neither sport liked the fact that unless you were in the lower levels, you were way back from the field. RFK and the Astrodome in Houston are the last big stadium relics of that period, along with Dodger Stadium, but the first two now are virtually unused. With the indoor arenas of that era, only the Garden remains, and while you can do a billion-dollar facelift inside, but the basic layout of the building remains obsolete, and that’s before you even get to the crap layout of the train station beneath it. Hopefully, they can go for a full update around the end of the next decade.

SEAN May 21, 2013 - 8:11 pm

Actually, the MLS DC United use RFK.

D in Bushwick May 21, 2013 - 12:37 pm

Let East Side Access be the model and dig a new station beneath Penn Station for Amtrak connect with a new Hudson River tunnel.
Then back the trains up and continue north along the Hudson Line and then onto New England. There would need to be a new tunnel connecting to the Connecticut lines.
Let the SAS Retorts begin…

Benjamin Kabak May 21, 2013 - 12:38 pm

The only thing ESA should be a model for is how not to build a rail tunnel.

AG May 21, 2013 - 5:38 pm

I think he means in terms of not moving buildings above.

Walter May 21, 2013 - 1:17 pm

If they are to make a deal with the Garden, then they must also insist on ending the Garden’s perpetual exemption from property taxes, or use that as a carrot to get MSG to move. MSG has not had to pay income taxes since 1982, when Ed Koch bribed MSG so that they would not try to move the Rangers and Knicks to the Meadowlands, and it’s currently a subsidy of about $15 million a year.

Actually, why stop there. Make them pay 30 years back taxes in todays dollars, and earmark that money for Penn improvements. That’s $450 million right there!

AG May 21, 2013 - 5:35 pm

1) because just about all teams get some form of tax exemption so the city would get sued if they tried to force only one to pay.
2) it would be illegal to try to get them to pay “back taxes” when they were exempt. Retro-active only works if they were actually liable before.

Walter May 21, 2013 - 8:41 pm

The back taxes thing was in jest. MSG is more than a sports arena anyway, and it’s owner has already gotten a huge subsidy through not paying taxes, while occupying some of the most valuable land in the city.

Does every theater in the city have a property tax exemption? If not, why should MSG?

AG May 21, 2013 - 10:42 pm

every sports facility does in some form…. I don’t think they should… but again – unless you change it for ALL – there will be a lawsuit.

and yes – many theaters and other types of venues do… either because they are not-for-profit or for some other reason.

EgoTripExpress May 21, 2013 - 2:51 pm

In “Pennsylvania Station” by Steven Parissien it was implied that the advantage GCT had over old Penn was that GCT’s builders, Warren & Wetmore, intended skyscrapers to be added to it’s footprint in the future. While old Penn on the other hand was build by Charles F. McKim who was a diehard Classicist and viewed high rises as “anti-urban.” Maybe a high-rise could’ve been added, but something could have to have been demolished.

Frank B May 21, 2013 - 5:39 pm

That’s right; I remember there being schematics somewhere that would’ve made Grand Central Terminal into a building extremely similar to Michigan Central Station.

As a matter of fact, Grand Central Terminal and Michigan Central Station were both built by Reed and Stem in partnership with Warren and Wetmore.

Ironically, had Pennsylvania Station been built with the potential to become a skyscraper, bankrupt Penn Central would have likely sold the airrights to someone looking to build a skyscraper, without completely destroying Pennsylvania Station.

Grand Central Terminal had this ability, but because Pennsylvania was destroyed, Jackie Kennedy Onassis rallied New Yorkers to stop any modification or demolition to Grand Central whatsoever.

paulb May 22, 2013 - 1:23 pm

I really like that photo; it was a beautiful space when new. But I have a feeling if it still existed its impracticalities would be glaring at us now. I don’t believe we need a trophy station to board Amtrak for Boston or D.C., and there must be ways to fix the existing platforms and make more space for commuters without spending moon-shot money.

majortom1981 May 24, 2013 - 9:24 am

I think its a good idea to look at this realistically Give MSG a 15 year permit and have them look into ideas to improve Penn station first like the article stated.

Who would know better on what is required to take columns away while keep MSG standing better then the owners of MSG.

You do not want to do anything huge till east side , grand central project is done though.

johndmuller May 24, 2013 - 8:41 pm

Imagine that one builds an (attractive) overpass raising a few blocks of 8th Ave. – between the Post Office and MSG – some 50 feet or so. Then we could rip up the street and create an atrium-like enclosure over the cross-section of platforms and tracks that were exposed.

There would be some new space available for practical elements such as passenger circulation and track access, perhaps resembling the photo, and welcome natural light and some relief from the claustrophobia. If some artistry were applied to the bridging and atrium design, the final result might even be suitably pleasing to the eye.


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