For half a century Madison Square Garden, the fourth arena of that name, has sat atop Penn Station like a dental cap sealing the root of an extracted tooth.
Now, after all that time, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has joined with two other railroad behemoths, Amtrak and NJ Transit, saying the arena and the station are “not compatible.”
“The Garden’s site plan and loading arrangements may have been compatible with Penn Station and the surrounding community in the early 1960’s,” The MTA, Amtrak and Jersey Transit said Friday in a report.
“Today, however, MSG’s existing configuration and property boundaries impose severe constraints on the Station that impede the safe and efficient movement of passengers and restrict efforts to implement improvements, particularly at the street and platform levels.”
The timing of this statement was dramatic. Coming essentially on the eve of the City Planning Commission hearing June 7th to consider whether the Gardens permit to operate a large arena on that site should be extended after it expires July 24th.
A spokesperson for MSG Entertainment, which owns the Garden, pushed back: “We are disappointed to see this compatibility report from the MTA and the other rail agencies, considering how we have been cooperating throughout this process. This is the opinion of a few and not all stakeholders involved.”
The question of the Garden’s location has become entangled with several other interlocking issues, including how to create an acceptable train station, whether to expand the station to accommodate more trains and whether to build ten new super-tall office towers around the station.
If holding two thoughts at once is a challenge in public debate, integrating all of these interests has become one of New York’s most difficult and important civic Rubik’s cubes.
Which is why on any given day it seems the focus is on the most immediate piece of the puzzle.
Jamie Torres-Springer, who is the MTA’s President of Construction and development, told the MTA Board the other day that the MTA had been asked by the City Planning Commission for a report on whether the Garden and the train station, the busiest in North America and possibly the dankest, were compatible
“So at this point, we would have to say that they are not compatible and not headed in the direction of compatibility.”
On its face, this statement would appear to support the community and architectural movement to force the Garden to move so a better Penn Station can be built.
But that interpretation is, to say the least, confusing, since the MTA under the direction of Governor Kathy Hochul has been vehement that Penn Station can and should be improved quickly without waiting the years it would take, to say nothing of the costs, to find a new location for the Garden and move it.
The MTA holds this view so intently that it is even resisting a middle plan, proposed by an Italian developer, to leave the Garden in place but rip away the theatre and other structures around it to make way for a grand entrance on Eight Avenue.
Torres- Springer, in fact, said at the MTA meeting this would be a waste of scarce capital, even if some of the capital would come from the Italian developer, ASTM. Among other things the developer would need to buy the Madison Square Garden Theatre from The Garden, at a price that Torres-Springer said was in the neighborhood of a billion dollars.
On Friday, June 2, the MTA and the other railroads submitted their “compatibility report” to the city planning commission, laying out what they wanted from Madison Square Garden in exchange for the new operating permit it is requesting.
Fundamentally, the railroads want MSG to pay some of the costs for renovation and to agree to what they called “property swaps” in which MSG would give the railroads some land it owns to create a new midblock entrance to the train station, build new entrances at the corners of 31st and 33rd and Eight Avenue and build a new loading area for trucks servicing MSG events to get them off the streets.
The phrase “property swaps” appeared to mean the railroads were not offering to pay MSG for any of its land, on the argument that the success of MSG was completely dependent on Penn station.
One of the biggest of the “swaps” would be that MSG would turn over the now unused taxiway along the eastern edge of The Garden to create a new entrance and atrium for Penn Station.
Torres-Springer’s statement to his board suggested he was staking out a bargaining position in this complicated conversation with The Garden.
“Up to this point—and we have reached out to Madison Square Garden and asked them—proposed a set of measures that they can take to make themselves compatible,” Torres-Springer said. “Haven’t heard anything from them yet. So at this point, we would have to say that they are not compatible and not headed in the direction of compatibility.”
The MTA’s Long Island Railroad is a principal user of Penn Station, along with New Jersey Transit, although the station is actually owned by Amtrak.
The compatibility report from the railroads was a response to a zoning amendment the planning commission has drafted to accompany any new permit for The Garden as well as the statement’s about it by the planning commission chair, Dan Garodnick.
In a statement when the review process began in February, Garodnick said of the Garden’s application to stay where it is:
“I expect to see the applicant commit to us that the arena facility will be made appropriately compatible with a world-class 21st century Penn Station and the MTA and other railroads’ plans to reconstruct and improve it. If the compatibility finding will require modifications to the current design of the arena facility, I expect information to be presented as to those issues and MSG’s willingness to cooperate. The Commission will of course evaluate all information submitted by the applicant. But the CPC also intends to hear from the railroads on those issues. Of course, the input of the MTA will be critical in the Commission’s deliberations.”
A spokesperson said the planning department anticipated that both MSG and the MTA would attend Wednesday’s hearing.
The question of winning concessions from Madison Square Garden, in exchange for extending their permit to operate the Garden where it is, was central to the recommendations made recently by Mark Levine, the borough president.
He recommended to the Planning Commission that they approve a five-year extension of the permit, during which time the city would seek to negotiate a plan with many of the elements of the ASTM proposal. Under Levine’s recommendation, if this plan was successfully negotiated, the Garden would then be given a permanent permit to operate at its present location.
Several prominent community activists and architectural advocates criticized Levine for going soft on the Garden, and weakening the hand of negotiators by not sticking with the demand that the Garden move. In the days since he issued his recommendation, Levine has told a number of stakeholders that he still believes moving the Garden would be a good idea.
One of those advocates, Layla Law-Gisiko, is moderating a virtual panel discussion on the same day as the Planning Commission hearing. She will feature well known critics of the present Penn Station, including Samuel Turvey and Alexandros Washburn, each of whom has offered a plan for moving the Garden to make way for a new Penn Station.
Law-Gisiko is the chair of the land use committee of Community Board five. She was also recently named the new president of the City Club of New York, which is presenting the panel discussion. The event is free and registration is at: www.cityclubny.org
“This is a critical moment for our city, and it is crucial that we engage in thoughtful discussions to understand the potential impact of various decisions regarding MSG,” said Law-Gisiko.
The Planning Commission hearing is scheduled for 10 am, Wednesday June 7, and the City Club Panel is at 6:30 pmThus, The City Club said, its event “will serve as a debriefing session for those who did not have the bandwidth to participate in what promises to be a lengthy hearing. Attendees will have the chance to catch up on the proceedings, gain key insights, and engage in a meaningful dialogue about the potential future of Madison Square Garden.”
The planning commission hearing can be viewed live at: https://www.youtube.com/@nycdepartmentofcityplanning
The Planning Commission will ultimately make a recommendation to Mayor Adams and the City Council, which will make the decision on The Garden’s future.
“...MSG’s existing configuration and property boundaries impose severe constraints on the Station that impede the safe and efficient movement of passengers and restrict efforts to implement improvements, particularly at the street and platform levels.” “Compatability Report on MSG” by MTA, NJ Transit and Amtrak