MSG allowed to ‘chug’ away atop Penn Station



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Madison Square Garden and the Penn Station Image: Madison Square Garden, Emmanuel Milou, CC BY-SA 2.0

The City Planning Commission voted on July 12th that the Madison Square Garden in Midtown, New York City (US) be given a 10-year extension of its special permit to operate a large arena atop the Penn Station, contingent on The Garden making a series of immediate improvements on the adjacent sidewalks and streets – while also working cooperatively with the railroads on a major renovation of the Penn Station.

‘OUR TOWN’ stated that the Chair of the Planning Commission, Dan Garodnick, said The Garden had made “a number of commitments”, including getting the huge tractor trailers off of 33rd Street and dressing up the bleak façade along the Eighth Avenue, with three dimensional signage highlighting the importance of the spot.

The 19,500-capacity Madison Square Garden, colloquially known as The Garden or by its initials MSG, is a multipurpose indoor arena in New York City (US). It is located in Midtown Manhattan between the Seventh and Eighth Avenues from 31st to 33rd Street above the Pennsylvania Station.

The Pennsylvania Station is the main interCity railroad station in New York City (US) and the busiest transportation facility in the Western Hemisphere, serving more than 600,000 passengers per weekday as of 2019.

“It will do a lot to make MSG a better neighbor,” Garodnick said as the Commission voted on July 12th to approve the recommendation and send it on to the City Council.

‘OUR TOWN’ further stated that while the Commission staff described the Garden’s commitments as significant improvements, the proposed extension of the operating permit disappointed the advocates. They had hoped the expiration of the current permit later this month would provide the leverage to simply force The Garden to move, making way for a new above ground station.

Said Samuel Turvey, a Principal Advocate for a new above ground station rebuilt from the tracks up, “We are being asked to nip at the edges when much more important questions need to be answered. We think the MSG should move. We also believe this site and the region deserve a great above ground station once MSG is moved.”

Garodnick said that “there has not been a meaningful alternative” site proposed for The Garden, and that under those conditions the neighborhood should not have to wait for improvements that The Garden has committed to making in exchange for permission to stay.

The Commission proposal also seemed to fall short of the request of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), one of the three rail agencies that use the Penn Station, that the extension of the operating permit be used to push The Garden into agreeing to land swaps.

The railroads say that these swaps would facilitate their vision of an improved station. That vision from the railroads-Amtrak, NJ Transit and the MTA – has been competing for the public’s support with a proposal from a private developer, ASTM, which instead of swapping property proposes to pay Madison Square Garden in cash for some of its land. It recently unveiled cost estimates for its plan, which it projects will cost $6 billion.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is a public benefit corporation responsible for public transportation in the New York City metropolitan area of the US State of New York. The MTA is the largest public transit authority in the United States, serving 12 counties in Downstate New York, along with two counties in Southwestern Connecticut under contract to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, carrying over 11 million passengers on an average weekday systemwide, and over 850,000 vehicles on its seven toll bridges and two tunnels per weekday.

New York (US)-based ASTM North America is a fully integrated transportation P3 concessionaire seeking to develop greenfield projects across North America.

The MTA said it welcomed the recommendation.

Enthused John J. McCarthy, the MTA’s Chief of External Relations, “We are pleased that the City Planning Commission is recommending that the MSG be required to work with the MTA and the other transit agencies to ensure that the arena become compatible with a world-class Penn Station. This is consistent with the Governor of New York Kathy Hochul’s vision to make the Penn Station a facility that puts New Yorkers first.”

The MTA has said that this is a poor use of public money, but Governor Hochul has said that all plans will be considered. At a meeting of the Commission on July 10th, Garodnick said he did not know what renovation plan would emerge from the current debates. The Commission will require The Garden and the railroads to return when designs for a renovated Penn Station are 30 percent complete, which the Commission staff described as a common industry benchmark.

In the meantime, Garodnick said The Garden has made a series of commitments to improve the often dismal conditions on the sidewalks and streets around The Garden. They will have six months to flesh out these commitments and two years to complete them, the Commission said. For example, The Garden currently parks trucks on West 33rd Street as they wait to unload for events at The Garden. The Commission said that The Garden was committed to finding new locations to stage these trucks. The Garden also committed to give Amtrak, the actual owner of Penn station, better signage along the Eight Avenue.

A Commission staffer put in, “You won’t be saying [to yourself] ‘where is the entrance to the Penn Station?’, there will also be new sidewalks around The Garden with benches and trees, as per The Garden’s commitments.

Washington, D.C., (US)-based the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, doing business as Amtrak, is the national passenger railroad company of the United States. It operates interCity rail service in 46 of the 48 contiguous US States and three Canadian provinces.

The Commission acknowledged that a number of these improvements might conflict with or be superseded by larger renovation plans currently being debated. There would have to be continuing conversations to choreograph the work, the Commission said.

Amtrak has said, for example, that it needs to repair the waterproofing of the ceiling of the Penn Station, which in many places is only inches below the sidewalk or street along Eighth Avenue that The Garden is promising to improve. More dramatically, the ASTM plan calls for the demolition of the theater along the Western edge of The Garden to create a grand entranceway to a new Penn Station. That would obviate the need to make the currently blank wall more palatable. Both the MTA and the ASTM plans would use the derelict taxiway between 31st Street and 33rd Street to create multistory entrance ways near the Seventh Avenue.

Garodnick said he hoped a grand new Penn Station would emerge from these discussions, but that there was no way to know how long this would take. In the meantime, he said, “we did not think we should wait for that”.

The Commission’s action was prompted by a City requirement that arenas larger than 2,500 persons receive special permission to operate. When The Garden was built in the 1960s on the site of the former Pennsylvania Station, the City gave it a special operating permit for 50 years. When that permit expired in 2013, the City Council extended it for 10 years on the condition that The Garden finds a new location. That never happened, creating the present situation when the current permit expires later this month.

One of the most prominent activists in the Penn Station neighborhood, Layla Law-Gisiko, said the City should hold the Madison Square Garden on a shorter leash – “A 10-year permit for the MSG is too long considering the rapid planning efforts for the Penn Station, and the goal of enhancing compatibility between the arena and the train hub.”

Law-Gisiko is a member of the Community Board Five and President of the City Club of New York.

Another advocate for a new Penn station, Alexandros Washburn, chief architect of the Grand Penn Community Alliance, said that granting another 10-year extension to the Madison Square Garden “will be like déjà vu all over again”.

Washburn recommended a four-year extension – “That’s more than enough time for the MSG to prove it will live up to its obligations while, at the same time, allowing for ambitious new plans for the station and the arena to be conceived and discussed – plans that would be truly transformative. The passionate discussions occurring now about Penn Station and the Madison Square Garden could yield one of the great public works of our time. Why cut them off with this misconceived extension?”

The Grand Penn Community Alliance’s mission is to advocate for a major (complete) renovation of the Penn Station.

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