MSG Still Wants to Stay Put, but Cracks Open Door To Move East Across Seventh Ave.

MSG officials surprised CB5 when, for the first time, it said it might listen to a new plan to move–but it still wants a special permit to replace one expiring in July that would allow it to stay put atop Penn Station in perpetuity

| 26 Feb 2023 | 07:10

Madison Square Garden is seeking permission to stay right where it is, forever, yet at the same time says it would be happy to listen to “a viable proposal” to move, something proponents of a new Penn Station fondly wish for.

This complicated situation–or one could just call it a classic New York real estate situation—emerged at a hearing of the land use committee of Community Board 5. The hearing is a first step in the process of considering the Garden’s request that its current permit to operate, which expires in July, be extended in perpetuity.

The Garden says sports fans and concert goers love the location, which is literally right on top of Penn Station, the busiest rail and subway hub in the country, if not the world.

But that’s the rub. While the Garden has many fans, Penn Station has few. But while up to 22,000 fans can come come to cheer the Knicks and Rangers on game days, over 450,000 commuters a day trudge through Penn Station daily. And pre-Covid, over 600,000 were passing through Penn Station. Critics say the best way to fix it properly is to move the Garden and build a new above ground station.

“No realistic proposal for moving the Garden has been discussed in the ten years since the last permit was issued,” said the Garden’s head of government affairs, Richard Constable.

That seemed consistent with the application the garden submitted recently to stay where it is–the application that is now being considered by the Community Board and will ultimately be weighed by the City Planning Commission, the City Council and the Mayor.

So there was palpable surprise when another MSG official, Joel Fisher, an executive vice president, hours into the hearing seemed to leave the door open to moving.

“Moving across Seventh Ave probably would satisfy us,” Fisher said, referring to the Garden’s desire to remain close to the transit hub.

“If a viable proposal came to us we would listen,” Fisher said.

Most ordinary New Yorkers understandably focused on the part of the Garden’s comments answering whether the Garden would move: No, in the application to extend the permit, maybe, at the hearing.

But in the world of New York politics and development the really significant words were the ones the MSG officials used to modify the word proposal. Viable and realistic. Which means financially acceptable

“Where is the money going to come from?” Fisher asked, “We will always listen and cooperate if it makes sense.”

But while MSG cracked open the door to listening, MSG Entertainment CEO James Dolan has no intention of cooking up a new plan to move on its own–especially after the company said said it pumped $1 billion into renovations in the 2011-13 overhaul. MSG is private property and it is not up to MSG “to come up with a proposal to move,” said Elise Wagner, an attorney representing MSG at the hearing.

MSG has, in fact, discussed at least two proposals to move, in the past, as far as is know. One to the western half of the Farley Post Office (The Eastern Half is now the gleaming Moynihan Station for Amtrak) and the other to the western portion of Hudson rail yards. The Empire State Development Corp, which floated the Hudson Yards proposal, put the price tag for a rebuild of PennStation with an MSG move–including demolition of the existing arena and site acquisition of a new spot–at $8.5 billion. MSG officials say they consider that estimate to be “low” and point out it did not include the cost of building the arena on the new site--only the acquisition cost of the land.

Neither idea, apparently, advanced much beyond the talking stage The Farley Post Office extension had been kicked around before the last special permit was extended for ten years by the City Council and the Hudson Yards idea more recently. The actual permit was that was approved in 2013 did not have any stipulations about pursuing a move in the ensuing decade.

Moving across Seventh Avenue, as raised by one caller at the hearing, would create an interesting dynamic for the governor’s plan to subsidize the reconstruction of Penn Station with revenue thrown off by building super tall towers nearby.

The principal private developer in the plan is Vornado Realty Trust, which recently announced it would slow walk new projects because of rising interest rates and sagging office use.

The property across seventh avenue is largely owned by Vornado, which is beginning the demolition of the historic Pennsylvania Hotel. Moving the Garden would create a new use for that property, although the Garden at the moment makes no payments of the sort the Governor has envisioned–so called payments in luei of taxes, or PILOTS.

Other major arenas in New York, such as the Barclay Center and Yankee Stadium do make such payments.

Whether Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams are prepared to press the ceo of the Garden, James Dolan, to make such payments, either as part of a deal to extend the present permit for the Garden or to move it, is, at best, uncertain.

But it is clear that Dolan was staking out his strongest bargaining position by asking for the most straightforward extension of his present permit and, now, saying it is up to others to come forward with a better idea.

One CB5 member, E. J. Kalafarski, objected to MSG’s insistence it needed the permit in perpetuity because it is a burden to keep having to ask for a new special permit.

He said that MSG “Saying it is a waste of everyone’s time that really rubbed me the wrong way,” Kalafarski said. “As long as it [MSG] sits on top of Penn Station, it has to be assessed more frequently.”

Indeed, Mike Greeley, another CB5 land use member, said that the time frame for this extension “needs to be much shorter” than the last ten year extension “because we don’t know what the MTA plans to do” with Penn Station redevelopment plans.

The MTA has supported the Governor’s position that the station can be well renovated without moving the Garden, which state officials say will be time consuming and expensive.

MSG officiials stressed that the permit renewal was not an appropriate tool to pressure the garden to move. But they did raise other possible concessions the Garden was willing to explore.

Bobby Castronovo, Senior Vice President and General Manager of The Garden said one of the things that the Garden could address in exchange for renewing the permit is how to accommodate the huge tractor trailers which are too big to fit into the MSG loading docks.

Apparently trucks became taller and wider at some point after the original 1963 permit to build the Garden, and today’s trucks are forced to do a lot of unloading on West 33rd St. disrupting the neighborhood.

A number of Knicks and Ranger season ticket holders weighed in at the hearing, arguing to keep MSG where it is. Most local activists and urban planners who weighed in strongly disagreed.

Joanne Dunbar, a Rangers season ticket holder who supports keeping it where it is. “MSG is so much more than a building,” said Joanne Dunbar, a Ranger’s season ticket holder. “It’s an icon. There is nothing like a Rangers playoff game at the Garden.”

Robert Yaro, former president of the Regional Planning Association said, “The Garden does not belong sitting on top of the busiest transit hub in the country.”

Yaro describd the decision to allow this, when the original Pennsylvania Station was demolished in 1962, is “probably the biggest planning mistake in the city’s history...The Garden has moved three times in the last 100 years. It’s time to move it again.”

One of the leading proponents of moving the Garden to make way for a better Penn Station, Samuel Turvey, rejected MSG’s claim there had been no proposals.

“Madison Square Garden is being careful to use elastic adjectives like “viable” to qualify its claim that they haven’t been presented options to their current location,” said Turvey, whose group, ReThinkNYC, has offered a plan for a new Penn Station that is one of what Turvey called “numerous credible plans proffered by different groups and civic organizations.”

He added: “Vishaan Chakrabarti’s plan has been out since 2016, parts of ReThink NYC’s plan since as early as 2017 and a comprehensive plan in 2020. While Alex Washburn and the Grand Penn Community plan is more recent it is clearly a viable and substantive plan for Penn and moving MSG.”

Turvey accused Governors Cuomo and Hochul of ignoring these ideas in favor of the massive redevelopment plan their agency, The Empire State Development Corporation, created with Vornado.

“The Chakrabarti, Grand Penn Community Alliance and ReThinkNYC plans are viable, make quite specific proposals, are fair to Madison Square Garden—but most importantly are equitable to our citizenry and, channeling Alex Washburn, won’t “deform our city,” said Turvey.

“The good news is at least two alternate plans have actively proffered acceptable sites East of 7th Avenue and hopefully Madison Square Garden’s wordsmithing can quickly become irrelevant,” Turvey added. “Let’s all rally to find an acceptable solution for Madison Square Garden and see if we can’t pivot to the truly transformative resolution of the Penn Station dilemma we deserve. “

As the mammoth four hour session was winding down, Layla Law-Gisiko, the chair of CB5’s land use committee noted, “it is very significant that they would consider moving.” So many people lined up to speak during the virtual session--nearly 200 who were limited to a maximum of two minutes each--that there is going to be a part two session of the land use committee on March 8.

“The Garden has moved three times in the last 100 years. It’s time to move it again.” Robert Yaro, former president of the Regional Planning Association