Christine Quinn to Madison Square Garden: Make way for a new Penn Station

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Inside Penn Station. (Matthias Rosenkranz via Flickr)
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Council Speaker Christine Quinn today said that Madison Square Garden should relocate to make way for a new Penn Station.

"[T]he Garden has moved in the past, and can do so again," she wrote, in a letter to Madison Square Garden president Hank Ratner.

Today, the City Council held a hearing on the fate of the popular arena, at which M.S.G. produced director and Knicks superfan Spike Lee to testify to the desirability of keeping the historic venue right where it is.

The Garden currently sits atop the increasingly crowded Penn Station, used by some 600,000 commuters a day.

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That number is only expected to increase.

Quinn did not attend today's hearing, but this afternoon she released her letter to the press.

It is the first time she's declared her stance on the issue, and because Quinn is both speaker of the Council and the councilmember representing the arena's district, her position matters, and amounts to a serious defeat for the Garden.

On land-use issues, the Council typically defers to the member in whose district a project resides. That's doubly true when the member is also the speaker.

The Garden's 50-year operating permit expires this year.

While the Garden sought (and apparently expected) the city to renew that permit in perpetuity, the Regional Plan Association and Municipal Art Society mounted a campaign urging the city to renew it for only 10 years, after which the Garden could re-apply for a new one.

The uncertainty created by a short-term permit would, theoretically, pressure the Garden to relocate to a location that didn't impede the redevelopment of 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 in April.

The Commission ultimately recommended a compromise of sorts: that the permit be renewed for 15 years (rather than 10), and that should the Garden, the three railroads that occupy the terminal and the City Planning Commissioner agree on a plan to improve access to the station, the Garden could stay put in perpetuity.

Quinn's position hews closely to the advocates: a 10-year term, loophole free.

"Significantly improving Penn Station while Madison Square Garden sits atop it has proven to be an intractable problem, and it is my belief that finding a new location for the Garden is likely the only way to address the ongoing capacity and safety issues at Penn Station, as well as to bring this area to its best and highest use," wrote Quinn, who called for the creation of what she's calling a "Commission for a 21st Century Penn Station."

"This is an enormous first step," said Yaro today. "The city is essentially putting the Garden and everyone on notice that the status quo isn't acceptable any longer. We all collectively have a lot of work to do now to engage the state and federal officials and the Garden in moving ahead to build a new station, get the Garden relocated and so forth. 

Several logistical steps remain (Council subcommittee, commitee and full Council votes, among them), not to mention the Herculean effort elected officials will have to make to come up with the billions of dollars necessary to resurrect Penn Station.

After all, a somewhat similar plan to relocate Madison Square Garden and remake Penn Station, one that actually had the cooperation of the Garden, failed just a few years back

But Yaro, for one, remains hopeful.

"This is how big projects start," he said.

Quinn's Democratic mayoral rivals Anthony Weiner and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio also came out today in favor of moving the Garden from its current site.

Joe Lhota, the leading Republican mayoral candidate and a former employee of M.S.G., said he doesn't think it should be moved.