City gives Madison Square Garden just 15 more years, but with a huge loophole intact

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Madison Square Garden. (wallyg via Flickr)
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The City Planning Commission today approved a Bloomberg administration proposal to allow Madison Square Garden to operate atop Penn Station for just 15 more years.

The idea, one championed by urban planning organizations, is to pressure Madison Square Garden to move elsewhere, so that the railroads can finally turn the dismal, labyrinthine Penn Station into an urban transit hub befitting a great world city.

"It is over one of the big mass transit centers in the city," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg today, following a press conference in East Harlem about New York City's new Major League Soccer team. "And for the city to have the flexibility down the road of doing something, I think that's important. And I think giving them 15 years, it isn't like tomorrow. ... It's a lifetime."

Madison Square Garden's 50-year operating permit is expiring, and not unexpectedly, the company wanted it renewed in perpetuity. 

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They didn't win that battle, but they did win a major loophole.

As Capital first reported on Monday, if, during the Garden's new 15-year permit, it is able to reach a deal with the three railroads that operate beneath it to make improvements to the station, like adding escalators and elevators, and the city's planning commissioner approves that agreement, then the Garden will get a permit to operate atop Penn Station forever.

When I asked Bloomberg earlier today why that exception was needed, the mayor, perhaps not understanding the question, responded rather vaguely: "Because you're right above this mass transit location and if you needed to do something for the greater good of the city, leaving the city in the position of being able to do something down the road. Doesn't mean they're gonna do it. But we would be derelict in our duty, I think, to take that away."

The urban planners who first championed a short-term renewal for the Garden, and who only got some of what they wanted, expressed dismay at the loophole in the language, which is expected to be released later this week.

“This would essentially allow four people in a room to decide for themselves what is best for commuters, the future of the area and the vitality of the city— requiring only a rubber-stamp approval from planners without further public review or City Council oversight,” said Robert Yaro, the president of the Regional Plan Association and co-founder of the Alliance for a New Penn Station, in a statement.

“It seems like a step backward into the dark old days, and contradicts the open planning process the Bloomberg administration has championed,” said Vin Cipolla, another Alliance member and president of the Municipal Art Society, in an accompanying statement.

The City Council will consider the commission's recommendation this summer.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn has yet to take a position on the matter.

The owners of Madison Square Garden, meanwhile, are unhappy at the prospect of a 15-year-lease, loophole or not, because they believe they deserve a straight-up extension that lasts forever.  

A spokesman for M.S.G. sent over the following statement:

"We are extremely disappointed in today’s vote, especially because MSG meets all of the requirements for the permit. We hoped and expected that City Planning, which currently issues virtually all special permits without term limits, would base its decision on the merits of the permit application. Instead, the Garden – a key driver of the city’s economy that supports thousands of jobs, and which is currently investing nearly $1 billion of its own money in its arena – is effectively being held hostage by a decision by public officials 50 years ago to demolish the original Penn Station. Companies must be able to invest in their businesses and make long-term commitments with confidence in the fairness and predictability of the regulatory environment. City Planning’s decision to assign an arbitrary expiration to the permit is inappropriate, unfair and unwarranted. We look forward to working with the City Council in the final phase of this process."