City prepares to offer a long-term ‘gift’ to Madison Square Garden

Inside Penn Station. (Matthias Rosenkranz via Flickr)
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The Bloomberg administration is preparing to offer a major concession to the owners of Madison Square Garden, in the form of an opportunity to keep it in its current location indefinitely.

The City Planning Commission, a majority of whose members are appointed by the mayor, will on Wednesday consider a proposal from city planning commissioner Amanda Burden that includes a provision that could effectively turn a 15-year extension on the building's lease into a permanent one. 

The provision, described to me by critics and confirmed by city officials, is, according to Raju Mann, the director of policy and planning at the Municipal Art Society, "a gift to Madison Square Garden."

In recent months, some of city’s most prominent urban planners have seized upon the imminent expiration of Madison Square Garden’s 50-year permit as a rare opportunity to do something dramatic about the low-ceilinged maze of a train station underneath.

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Rather than extend the permit for another 50 years, advocates of building a new, grander Penn Station have argued that the commission should grant Madison Square Garden a permit for just a decade, enough time for it to find a new home elsewhere in Manhattan.

The city will in fact propose a 15-year renewal, rather than a 50-year one, which is in theory a victory for the planners. But the proposal also contains a major loophole: if the Garden meets certain conditions during those 15 years, it can get a permit to remain on top of Penn Station in perpetuity.

Namely, the Garden would have to come to some sort of an agreement with the three railroads that run beneath it to make improvements to the station, like adding new escalators and elevators. If such an agreement were to reached, and the City Planning Commission's chair (who is appointed by the mayor) were to approve it, then the Garden could remain where it is, on top of the ever-more-crowded Penn Station. Its special permit, in other words, would have no expiration date.

“We think this exception would be a mistake,” wrote Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, and Vin Cipolla, the president of the Municipal Art Society, in a letter to planning commissioner Amanda Burden last week. “Although the City Planning Commission cannot solve this problem singlehandedly, we would like to underscore that the only way to regain a train station worthy of New York's status as a global city and to meet the needs of a growing economy and population is to relocate the Garden and build a new station from the track and platform level up.”

The planners take particular issue with the notion that the permit in perpetuity would not be subject to the city’s public approval process, known as ULURP, as the current application is now.

“We are deeply concerned the framework for renewing the permit in perpetuity outlined on May 6 requires no additional public review or transparency,” they wrote. “Such an approach would not be in the long-term interests of transit riders, the surrounding neighborhood or broader city and region.”

The city counters that all of the railroads have their own public review processes, though Mann notes that their processes aren’t nearly as transparent as the city’s.

If the commission approves Burden's proposal, as expected, it will still have to overcome one very significant hurdle: the City Council, which is to vote on the application this summer.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn has yet to say where she stands on the matter.