What happens when the ‘Times’ tells the City Council to stand up to the Dolans?

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Madison Square Garden. (alldoing.com)
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This morning, the Times published a plea from its commanding architecture critic Michael Kimmelman to the New York City Council, asking it to reject a request from the owners of Madison Square Garden to extend its lease indefinitely, and give them license to increase by several times the size of the building's signage.

Kimmelman writes: "The last thing New York needs is to enshrine the aging and oppressive Garden, which may be the world’s most famous arena but is also one of the ugliest and, for millions of commuters using the station trapped beneath it, a daily blight."

The signage, he writes, "would include signs of up to eight stories high on the corners of 31st and 33rd Streets on Eighth Avenue, and a 5,300-square-foot 'media wall' on that avenue’s facade."

The matter is being voted on by a community board tonight, and then will go on to the zoning and franchise subcommittee at the New York City Council, before finally coming full Council vote.

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It may well be, as Kimmelman argues at length, that granting an ever-lasting extension to the Dolans, this removing the city's only real source of leverage in negotations, would be highly unhelpful to efforts to revitalize the neighborhood and to realize the dream of making Penn Station a pretty place instead of an awful one.

But that may not matter anyway. Because the lease extension would be helpful to M.S.G.'s owners, the Dolan family, who have put a lot of money into renovating the Garden, and whose political might in New York is well established. 

James Dolan, don't forget, went head-to-head with Michael Bloomberg and won on the proposed West Side stadium, which would have posed a threat to his business.

The Dolans have also managed, pretty comfortably, to parry whatever challenges have come up to the generous, longstanding tax breaks M.S.G. gets from the city.

Related: Between 2000 and 2012, James, Charles and Helen Ann Dolan donated $354,100 to a handful of mostly state politicians. Among them, significantly, is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who got $9,300 on June 22, 2001 from Charles, Helen and James Dolan, plus an additional $48,000 check to his leadership PAC from James that same day.

The stadium idea was deeply controversial and poorly argued by the administration and might never have happened anyway. But it was Silver who finally sunk it.

Silver, who happens to be a huge Rangers fan, has also been instrumental in helping preserve that tax abatement on the M.S.G. property, which was first negotiated during the Koch administration. 

In recent years, city lawmakers have grumbled about the tens of millions of dollars that could be recouped if the abatement were scaled back or eliminated. Efforts to change the arrangement won support in the City Council, but never got voted on in Albany.

(A Times story in 2008 about the City Council voting to end the tax deal lead with this line: "Madison Square Garden and its chairman, James L. Dolan, may have run out of friends at City Hall." The measure passed 40 to 3.)

It is Albany that matters on revenue issues, and which, for arcane reasons, gets the final say over many of the most important decisions involving New York City real estate. So while the city can determine the terms of M.S.G.'s lease, it's only the state that can take away its tax deal.

Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz, a Democrat from Brooklyn, once sponsored a bill to repeal the Dolans' tax break. This was in 2005, around the time of the West Side stadium fight.

As Cymbrowitz recalls it, he was surprised to find out that, even as the Dolans were running ads opposing the expenditure of public funds on a new stadium, they "were getting a government exemption and abatement" on M.S.G. So he put in a bill to repeal it.

"If it's good for the West Side Stadium, then it's OK for the Garden," he recalled thinking at the time.

It even had Republican co-sponsor in the State Senate: Marty Golden, also of Brooklyn. Bill sponsored by members of the majority conference in both chambers usually have a good shot of passing and landing on the governor's desk.

Not this one, though.

"We carried it for two years and it got no traction," Cymbrowitz told me. "When you sponsor a bill and you start doing press conferences and it makes a lot of sense and people don't jump on, it's surprising."

When I asked Cymbrowitz whether he still supported rolling back the tax abatement, he said, "At this point, no. I don't think rescinding the tax would do anything. It wouldn't accomplish anything."

He went on to say M.S.G. "has been and remains an important part of New York City," and "It's really done well for New York City."

I spoke earlier today to the Council's zoning chairman, Mark Weprin of Queens, about the upcoming committee vote on the Dolans' lease. He told me it's too early to tell how it's going to turn out.