A principal advocate for moving Madison Square Garden to make way for a grand new Penn Station announced Monday April 17 he has joined an Italian development firm as a consultant backing their plan to rebuild the station while leaving MSG in place.
That is likely to put it on a collision with Community Board 5 which only last week recommended that Madison Square Garden’s special permit that expires July 28th only be granted for three more years to force it to move from its present perch atop Penn Station.
“We have consistently stated that we are open to an approach that leaves Madison Square Garden in place if it can also result in a great public station, and we have finally seen a realistic concept that will achieve this in partnership with the community, the Garden, and the station’s constituents,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder and creative director of the firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism. “It is time for us all to coalesce around a great and achievable vision for the future of Penn Station.”
Chakrabati was referring to a plan circulated in recent weeks by the American arm of the Italian infrastructure and development company ASTM. Under that plan, ASTM would buy from the Garden the HULU theatre on the Eight Avenue side of Madison Square Garden and demolish it to make way for a multi-story portal into Penn Station, now known world-wide for its dark and cramped conditions.
The comments from Chakrabati came in an announcement from ASTM that Chakrabati and his firm had signed on as Collaborating Design Architects for ASTM’s Penn Station plan.
The ASTM plan has drawn interest from state officials because of ASTM’s willingness to put its own capital in, a departure from the current plan to finance renovation of Penn Station with money thrown off from a massive redevelopment project lead principally by the largest property owner in the surrounding neighborhood, Vornado Realty Trust.
While Vornado says it still believes in that plan, it has slow walked any further construction in the midst of rising interest rates and sagging office use. It’s current plan involves completing the two towers it is rehabbing, but it is not going to proceed with any of the other towers planned for the area until conditions improve in the city’s real estate office market.
Chakrabati’s decision to join the ASTM project was noteworthy because he has offered one of the three major proposals to build a better Penn Station by moving Madison Square Garden, which has been at its current site since 1968. His plan would have dramatically reclad the frame of The Garden in glass to fill the station below with light.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Chakrabati was scoffing at the idea of a sports arena on top of a train station. At a forum at Cooper Union he showed a slide of Madison Square Garden superimposed on Grand Central Terminal to dramatize the problem.
Yet in his announcement Monday, he said he was “thoroughly impressed” with ASTM’s alternative plan, “which promises a light-filled public transit hub similar to what PAU has always envisioned—and equally swayed by the extraordinary work the team has done to create stakeholder consensus.”
ASTM has launched a major outreach effort on behalf of their proposal, lead by their chief American executive, Pat Foye, who has lead both the Port Authority and The Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA is a major stakeholder in the renovation of Penn Station, the busiest rail hub in North America connecting commuter rail lines to the city subways and Amtrak.
Another important proponent for moving the Garden and building a new above ground Penn Station, Samuel Turvey, said he did not think Chakrabati’s decision to back the ASTM plan was the end of the debate.
“I don’t think Vishaan’s sentiments square with the Community Board 5 vote on Thursday night, our views or many, many others,” said Turvey.
The Community Board voted to recommend that Madison Square Garden, which operates under a special permit from the city, be required to move within three years.
“MSG sits on top of Penn Station constraining opportunities to make significant improvements,” The Board wrote in a ten-page resolution.
The Community Board did not directly address ASTM’s proposal, which has been presented to members, but it raised several arguments for moving the Garden, including that its decades-old design can’t accommodate the large trucks needed for current shows and that the 1162 structural columns that hold up The Garden plunge right through Penn Station.
“The columns supporting the Garden are a major hindrance to upgrading or expanding tracks and platforms,” The Board wrote.
The Board announced that it would be holding a public discussion on “the current state of Penn Station and its future” on Monday, April 24, at 6:30 pm at the Cullman Education Center at the Museum of Modern Art, 4 West 54th Street.
The discussion is free to the public but requires registration at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-future-of-penn-station-tickets-615256969157
A spokesperson for MSG Entertainment rejected the premise of CB 5s recommendation:
“The special permit process is not about whether Madison Square Garden should move, and we have no plans to do so. We remain committed to enriching our community and continue to work collaboratively with all key stakeholders throughout our public review process.”
Turvey suggested that with the state’s original redevelopment plan moribund, the choice was now coming down to “a Penn Station which costs billions that we ‘can live with’. Or do we insist on something worthy of the moment and transformational.”
“I think the ASTM proposal is more credible than that proffered by the state, especially as it increases the size of the train hall and adds windows on 8th Avenue--all without requiring the demolition of many blocks in the neighborhood. However, we have yet to hear about the transit component of the plan and many other details.”
ASTM said it “will unveil additional design and construction details in June 2023.”
“I think the next few months will be telling as folks have the time to compare and contrast this plan with those put forward by the state, Alex Washburn and the Grand Penn Community Alliance Plan and the Richard Cameron/ReThink NYC proposals,” Turley said.
MSG has generally resisted pressure to move, but recently suggested it might consider relocating across the street to a site on the East Side of Seventh Avenue.
That site happens to be owned by Vornado, which would likely welcome a use for the location other than an office building.
Moving the Garden remains the best solution, said Alex Washburn, New York’s former chief architect, and a long time proponent for a new above ground Penn Station.
”The ASTM project is still an arena on top of a train station,” Washburn said. “The arena would be better if it doesn’t have a train station under it and the station will be better if it doesn’t have an arena on top of it.”
He noted that ASTM was only one of may international firms with deep pockets. ASTM has yet to detail, among other things, how it intends to recoup its investment, whether through fees on users like the commuter railroads, rental charges for shops in the new station or other payments.
Better proposals may yet emerge, he said: “Let the competition begin.”
“It is time for us all to coalesce around a great and achievable vision for the future of Penn Station.” Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder and creative director of the firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism.