There are moments in the Great City when government seems to be going in two directions at once.
Take last Wednesday. Mayor Eric Adams declared that it was time to start a discussion about moving Madison Square Garden from atop Penn Station, just as state officials announced the hiring of an architect to renovate the decrepit station with the arena still on top of it.
Once upon a time, like say two years ago, whiplash-inducing moments like this might have been the result of feuding between the then governor and the then mayor. But that was then. Now, the new mayor and the new governor get on, more or less.
Instead, this disorienting moment seems to be the result of the mayor’s penchant to shoot from the lip and the governor’s desire to be reelected.
As with many things in New York, it helps to go back about a hundred years to understand what’s happening now.
In 1910, to be precise, the booming Pennsylvania Railroad, in a marvel of early twentieth century engineering, tunneled under the Hudson river from New Jersey and brought its trains to a spectacular new station on the west side. The railroad paid for this extraordinary public work in cash from its own coffers, to the chagrin of some shareholders.
But then, in 1963, a financially collapsing Pennsylvania Railroad tore down that marvelous station, in the defining landmark tragedy of later twentieth century New York, and sold the air rights for a sports arena, the fourth to be called Madison Square Garden, even though it was now across town from the original location on Madison Square.
(At least Madison Square still exists, which is more than we can say for the Pennsylvania Railroad, to which Penn Station still refers).
Worst Train Station
Anyway, moving along, Penn Station, squeezed under Madison Square Garden and dependent for its upkeep on underfunded commuter lines and Amtrak, which took over the bankrupt Pennsylvania railroad’s passenger service, earned a reputation as the worst train station in the developed world.
Enter Kathy Hochul from Buffalo, thrust into office as governor, with a reelection vote now just weeks away, and very eager to show voters, particularly voters in competitive places like Long Island, where trains come from to bring commuters to Penn Station, that she can improve their lives with, in this case, a better train station.
To help build that better station she proposes to rake off money from a massive development project that will produce ten office towers around the station and a couple of apartment buildings. This has inflamed many residents of the neighborhood who have objections, including that no renovation of Penn Station will really be adequate so long as it is crushed under Madison Square Garden.
Enter Mayor Adams, who at a breakfast Wednesday said: “The Penn Station project is a crucial one. I think that area is ripe for housing, is ripe for real investment. And if that fits into Madison Square Garden moving into another location – maybe we’ll help the Knicks win. So we should be willing to speak with Mr. Dolan and see how it fits into the overall scheme of that area.”
Mr. Dolan is James Dolan, owner of Madison Square Garden, as well as the New York Rangers and New York Knicks, who play in the Garden to greater or lesser success.
The mayor’s comments surprised many of those who have been pressing to move the Garden, because their campaign has so far been centered not in the Mayor’s administration but in the City Council, which holds what is probably the ace card in the situation.
When Penn Station was torn down the city issued a permit to operate Madison Square Garden above Penn Station and then extended that permit for another ten years. That extension was nine years ago. At that time, the council told Dolan he should look for another location.
He has had some conversations about moving to Hudson Yards, a few blocks to the west, but nothing much has come if it, yet.
Council representatives plan to meet soon with Madison Square Garden officials to try to light a fire under Dolan to move, no easy task for a guy who is no stranger to driving hard bargains.
There are several proposals for how a much better train station could be built if the Garden is moved. Although the mayor may have been sending a signal when he stressed that the neighborhood was “ripe for housing,” which is very distinctly not a major part of the governor’s plan.
Adams has been taking grief in recent days because the city’s latest performance report shows his administration has fallen behind in the construction of so-called affordable housing, one slice of a larger housing shortage that virtually every New Yorker feels in some way.
So while Hochul is focused on moving quickly to show Long Island commuters she can get stuff done, to use Adams’ phrase, the mayor may be more focused on showing city voters he can create a better redevelopment plan for them, although he has already signed off on the governor’s plan.
Hochul’s urgency is likely why one of her agencies, The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, pressed ahead with the plan to fix Penn Station as it is even as the mayor was talking about changing it.
“The transformation of Penn cannot come soon enough,” Hochul said as she joined the MTA in announcing a $57 million contract to design the renovated station.
The winning team includes British architect John McAslan + Partners.
The MTA pointed out that McAslan + Partners designed the rebuilding in 2012 of London’s historic King’s Cross Station, opening its cavernous interior to natural light.
Critics of the plan were quick to point out that King’s Cross does not have an arena sitting on top of it.
“The Governor’s plan sadly keeps Penn Station in the basement,” said Alexandros Washburn, head of an alliance that opposes Hochul’s plan. “Hiring a fancy foreign architect doesn’t change that. It’s just VERY expensive lipstick.”
MTA officials stressed that they were not opposed to moving Madison Square Garden, just opposed to delay.
“The plan the MTA and partners are pursuing does not hinge on Madison Square Garden moving, but also does not does it preclude it happening in future,” one official said. “Should MSG relocate in the future, the MTA and its partners can refine the plans for reconstruction, but this has been talked about forever and it’s clear transit riders feel they cannot wait a generation, they deserve a better transit hub now, which is why we are moving forward now.”