‘The Garden has to go’ to make Penn Station great, but it won’t go quietly

Madison Square Garden. (wallyg via Flickr)
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There are many obstacles standing in the way of transforming the famously depressing Penn Station into something more befitting of the nation's busiest transit hub, and one of those obstacles is Madison Square Garden.

In order to build a new Penn Station,"the Garden has to go," said Robert Yaro, the president of the Regional Plan Association, at a hearing held by the City Planning Commission on Wednesday.

And so, in recent months, advocates like Yaro have latched onto the imminent expiration of the Garden's 50-year operating permit as means of bringing about an overdue change of scenery.

Rather than renew that permit in perpetuity, as Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan would like to do, organizations like the Regional Plan Association and the Municipal Art Society have been arguing for an extension that lasts only 10 years.

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Goaded, perhaps, by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman's crusade in favor of that very idea, and by subsequent support from the Times editorial board—the city is listening.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Community Board 5 have both endorsed a 10-year time limit.

And on Wednesday, at that City Planning Commission hearing, Madison Square Garden's high-powered attorney, Elise Wagner, was forced to account many times over for the Garden's existence atop Penn Station.

"We really believe that the Madison Square Garden special permit and the planning for Penn Station are two different things," she said.

"It's a very competitive industry, as you know, and when they're trying to obtain different types of concerts and the NCAA regional final, which they just were able to get, if there's a term and people know there's a term, it would be a very negative thing," she continued.

But hasn't there always been a term? Isn't that what this whole hearing is about?

"We knew about the 50-year term, but the public did not know," she said, adding, "And I think we all assumed the special permit would be renewed without any issue in perpetuity."

In 1962, the city allowed Pennsylvania Railroad and Madison Square Garden to demolish the original Penn Station, an architectural jewel, so that the Garden could build itself a new home in its place, the Garden's fourth, and the railroad could build a cramped train station underneath.

At the time, the railroads were dying, or so everyone thought. Fewer than 200,000 people used the station on a daily basis.

Today, more than 600,000 do, and the numbers are expected to grow, and grow.

By 2030, Yaro says those numbers are expected to grow by 60 percent.

At the same time, Amtrak is plotting two still-unfunded projects that would create a trans-Hudson tunnel into Manhattan from New Jersey and also bring high-speed rail to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, both of which would benefit from a more suitable rail station, should either actually materialize.

Yaro argues that the benefits those projects could bring to the region, not to mention the city's very status as a world-class metropolis, is at risk.

Irwin Cantor, one of the city planning commissioners, on Wednesday hinted at a possible compromise, one that takes into account the $1 billion that Madison Square Garden is now in the process of spending to fix up its interior.

"Is it reasonable to just throw a 10-year number out on the table, when at the very least, logically, we give them the opportunity to amortize out part of their investment if not all their investment?" he asked Yaro. "And you've heard me earlier indicate to these people that from a personal point of view, the idea of infinite ownership is not something I'm looking at favorably. But at the same time, it just strikes me that the 10-year period…Is there another date that can be put on the table?"

The City Planning Commission is expected to vote on Madison Square Garden's application for a new permit in perpetuity by its existing permit's expiration in late May.

If the commission approves or modifies the Garden's request for a new permit in perpetuity, the application would go to the City Council, where the ultimate decision will most likely rest with Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in whose district the Garden is located.

She has yet to take a position on the matter.