The Manhattan Borough President and key Manhattan legislators have coalesced around a call to relocate Madison Square Garden from atop Penn Station as part of any plan to improve the dismal station and redevelop the neighborhood.
“We maintain that moving MSG is in the best long-term interests of our city,” the legislators said in joint testimony submitted to the state’s Empire State Development Corp and posted on July 11 by one of them, State Senator Brad Hoylman.
The owners of the Garden, which has sat atop Penn Station since the late 1960s, pushed back, however. “If the Garden were forced to relocate, Knicks and Ranger fans, as well as millions of concert-goers, would no longer have a centrally located, easily accessible, mid-town Manhattan venue to root for their favorite teams or performers,” said Richard Constable, Executive Vice President of Government Affairs for MSG Entertainment Corp, which owns Madison Square Garden. “The millions of New Yorkers who experience the magic of the Garden are not clamoring for the Garden to move.”
This debate, escalated in recent days by the legislators and civic groups, has complicated Governor Kathryn Hochul’s plan to renovate Penn Station and pay for that renovation with revenue thrown off by a major development plan to build office and apartment towers in the adjacent neighborhood.
The plan, initiated by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, was conceived with Madison Square Garden staying where it has been since the financially crippled Pennsylvania Railroad tore down its original 1910 masterpiece in the 1960’s and sold the right to build an arena and office tower on top of the station.
“The MTA, the governor and the Mayor have all clearly stated that their goal is to fix the existing Penn Station,” the chief spokesman for MSG, Natalie Ravitz, said, accurately, to Crain’s.
Yet in a sign of the complexity of the situation, MSG officials were at the same time talking to one of the areas other key property owners, Related Companies, about the possibility of moving Madison Square Garden to Related’s Hudson Yards to the west, a city official reported. Spokespeople for Related and the Garden each said their company had no comment on this.
Connoisseurs of Manhattan real estate development say the question of what to do about Penn Station is one of the most complex development challenges in recent history, rivaling the rebuilding of lower Manhattan after 9/11.
Any plan requires the support of multiple city, state and federal agencies (as well as the state of New Jersey, whose Jersey transit trains are a major user of Penn Station).
Also involved are three of the most outsized personalities in New York business: James Dolan, owner of both the Garden and teams that play in it (not always so well); Steven Roth, Chair and CEO of Vornado Realty Trust, which has been assembling property around Penn station and the Garden; and Stephen Ross, chairman and founder of Related, whose Hudson Yards has transformed the western edge of Manhattan in the ‘30s.
The deal Cuomo made with Vornado, and embraced by Hochul after some tinkering, would extend the march of tall glass and steel buildings westward and, they hope, throw off substantial new revenue to fund the repair of Penn Station.
State officials told legislators last week that the city and the state are on the verge of an agreement on how to divvy up this revenue from the Vornado development project – how much for Penn Station, in other words, and how much for the city to pay for the increased, police, fire sanitation and other services required by the thousands of new office workers and residents the plan is designed to attract.
A study last week by The Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School suggested the state is being way too optimistic about the amount of revenue the development project will actually throw off, in part because of the tax breaks Vornado would receive, leaving the reconstruction of Penn Station billions short.
The EDC will offer more detailed financial information before its upcoming vote on the revenue apportionment, an EDC spokesman told The Times.
A number of neighborhood groups have flatly opposed the new office towers and the dislocation of local residents and businesses. But a second line of resistance seems to be gaining steam: that for the project to be done properly, Madison Square Garden should be moved.
That was the unified position taken in the testimony submitted to the EDC by all of the legislators representing the neighborhood: Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine; State Senators Hoylman, Robert Jackson and Liz Krueger; Assembly Member Richard Gottfried; Council Member Erik Bottcher and, notably, U.S. Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, who are otherwise in a fierce battle for political survival after their congressional districts were redrawn
“The gateway to New York, its largest transportation hub, should represent the City,” the elected officials wrote. “A new grand train hall can be built if Madison Square Garden is moved to a more appropriate site.”
The Garden’s present design and location cramps the train station while at the same time dumping delivery trucks and equipment onto the streets, they said.
“All trucks associated with MSG and its operations, including loading and news vehicles, should be accommodated within the building, and taken off our streets, sidewalks and open spaces,” the officials demanded.
They noted that while the Garden is not technically even part of the current redevelopment planning, “the impacts of its presence and operations will continue to have an adverse impact on the surrounding streetscape that will be difficult to mitigate.”
“Identify a New Home”
They called on the governor to convene “a group of stakeholders to identify a new home for Madison Square Garden,” which has that name, by the way, because its first home was adjacent to Madison Square. It has moved several times since.
“Understanding the challenges of moving MSG, we maintain that moving MSG is in the best long term interests of our city: the ability to provide for a grand above-ground train hall, enable the construction of wider platforms and realigned tracks, allow for track expansion without displacing residents, facilitate ease of public realm improvements, and provide for the addition of through running.”
The EDC noted last year that relocating the Garden would cost the public $8.5 billion. “Any plan to move the Garden completely ignores the practical implications of such a move,” said MSG’s Constable, “as well as the basic fact that we own the building and the land.”
However, the city and state have considerable leverage right now over the Garden because its right to that location expires next year, after having been extended by the City Council ten years ago on the express condition that a new location would be explored.
Officials say they believe the company’s core concern in resisting a move is financial – whether the company can continue to receive real estate breaks the current Garden receives, as well as government support to build a new arena, as the Buffalo Bills are receiving from the state.
“Madison Garden is clinging to this like a grandmother to a rent-controlled apartment,” said one prominent proponent for moving the Garden and building a new above-ground station, Alexandros Washburn, an architect and executive director of the Grand Penn Community Alliance.
One opponent of moving the Garden, officials reported, is Steven Roth of Vornado, who fears it would reduce the value of the property he has assembled around The Garden/Penn Station site.
But Washburn, NYC’s chief urban designer under Mayor Bloomberg, said the opposite was likely true.
“The great public work is going to make all the land around the station quite a bit more valuable,” said Washburn.
He called on the EDC to delay its upcoming vote on the current plan pending a further discussion of moving the Garden.