The City Council, caught like a dashing commuter between Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, decided that the conflicts between the arena and the railroads that use the station are too great to decide right now if the Garden can remain on top of the station for the long term.
Instead, the council’s committee on land use voted unanimously to give The Garden a five-year renewal of the special permit that allows it to operate its 20,000 seat arena–far shorter than The Garden had sought.
“By extending their permit by five years we’ve started a clock that will help get all parties to the table to do something meaningful,” said the neighborhood’s Council Member, Erik Bottcher. “It starts a clock, but also gives enough time and space, but not too much time and space, to solve this puzzle. And I think we’re set up and the stars are aligned here in a way they haven’t been aligned in many many years to get a great Penn station.”
The railroads that use Penn Station–Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the MTA’s Long Island Railroad–have said the Garden as currently configured is “incompatible” with the safety and comfort of the 600,000 daily rail users.
The MTA, which is leading the renovation effort, has demanded that The Garden cede property and help pay for renovations, which would include improving truck access to the arena. But the Garden has favored a plan where it would be paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the property needed to fix the station.
“Because of this use conflict at this time the council can not determine the long term viability of an arena at this location,” Bottcher said at a meeting of the Land Use and franchise subcommittee. “Therefore five years is an appropriate term for this special permit to address this use conflict in the short term while requiring the development of a transportation management plan.”
The five-year permit was half the length that had been recommended by the City Planning Commission and far shorter than the “in perpetuity” permit the Garden had requested. It was longer than the three years both Community Board Five and three Manhattan state legislators had recommended.
“We are disappointed in the City Council’s land use committees’ decision to limit Madison Square Garden’s special permit to 5 years,” MSG Entertainment, the arena’s owner, said in a statement. “A short-term special permit is not in anyone’s best interest and undermines the ability to immediately revamp Penn Station and the surrounding area. The committees have done a grave disservice to New Yorkers today, in a shortsighted move that will further contribute to the erosion of the City–that’s true now and will be true five years from now.”
The MTA had not taken a specific position on the length of the Garden’s operating permit, but it had pressed the Council to tie any extension to getting commitment from the Garden to support the renovation.
The council action kept the Garden on a “short leash” but did not directly require any specific action of the sort the MTA was pressing for. “MTA will continue to work with our railroad partners and all community stakeholders to deliver the Penn Station that New Yorkers deserve,” said a spokesman, Aaron Donovan.
The council’s closely watched announcement was delayed for some three hours, apparently by a last minute push by the staff of the council speaker, Adrienne Adams, to give the Garden at least a ten-year permit, but with a provision to cut the term back if progress had not been made on renovating Penn Station.
One stakeholder described observers of the situation as “flabbergasted” since the proposal likely violated the City Charter and would have thrown the issue back in front of the Council in an election year.
But Bottcher rebuffed the idea.
“That it was considered at all was a sop to the Garden, but the Hail Mary pass came up short,” one official said.
“Erik was heroic today,” said one of the principal advocates for moving the Garden and improving Penn station, Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of land use for Community Board Five. “The leadership that he demonstrated was really remarkable.”
For his part, Bottcher thanked the Speaker and her staff and said he was pleased that the outcome would keep The Garden, the railroads and other stakeholders at the table to negotiate a deal that has so far eluded everyone.
“There are proposals on the table that show a great deal of promise and give me hope that in the immediate term we can create a world class train station with MSG in place,” said Bottcher, who at the same time said he hoped at some point the Garden would move.
The Grand Penn Community Alliance, which advocates moving The Garden to build a new above ground station, hailed the Council plan. “The exciting conversation about the future of Penn Station and the Garden can continue and intensify,” the group said in a statement.
“Now there’s finally the chance for a plan that delivers what an overwhelming number of New Yorkers surveyed want, a grand Penn Station, a revitalized neighborhood around it, and a 21st Century Madison Square Garden,” said the Alliance’s chief Architect, Alexandros Washburn. “And the stakeholders will be held accountable to the Council, so they’ll do the right thing. Now, let the competition for the best plan begin!”
The Council’s land use committee voted unanimously to approve the five year permit. The full council will vote in September.
In a sense, this moment has been more than half a century in the making as the city keeps shortening Madison Square Garden’s leash. The Garden was built on top of the remnants of the old Pennsylvania Station, torn down in in the 1960’s by the fiscally failing railroad.
At the time the city gave The Garden a fifty year operating permit. When that permit expired in 2013 The City Council granted a ten year permit on condition the Garden move to make way for a better train station.
That never happened. Now the clock is being reset for five years.
“The Garden has had ten years to work with the City and State to come up with a better Penn Station plan and has thumbed their nose at the whole exercise,” said Samuel Turvey, chair of ReThink NYC, another group advocating for a better Penn Station.
“While we greatly preferred a shorter permit of 3 years with more restrictive conditions as CB5 and their leadership rightly championed and recommended, the 5 year period may be short enough to hold MSG’s feet to the fire and all the other key stakeholders so that we continue the important process of finding the best solutions to the conundrum posed by Penn Station in real time.”