Madison Square Garden should not be given a new permit to operate its arena above Penn Station unless the Garden’s owners first agree on key elements of a plan to reconstruct the station, The MTA’s chief builder told the City Council.
Members of City Council met July 18 to discuss a special permit that would allow The Garden to continue operating above Penn Station.
“We need to come to an agreement,” Jamie Torres Springer, an MTA official said in hearing. “We should do that before the special permit.”
The Garden’s operating permit, first granted in 1963 and extended for ten years in 2013, expires this month. The permit is required in order to operate any stadium or arena of over 2,500 seats: The Garden has 20,000 seats.
The MTA position departed starkly from the recommendation from the City Planning commission that is now before the Council. That recommendation is to extend the operating permit for ten years, contingent on the Garden cooperating with the railroads on reconstruction.
Under the planning commission recommendation, the city would review the reconstruction project when plans are 30% complete.
However, Torres Springer said there was no need to wait for the 30%. He said that the MTA and its partner railroads, Amtrak and Jersey Transit, know right now what they need from Madison Square Garden.
These include the right to rip out a now derelict taxiway to build a midblock train hall; property around the Eight Avenue for grander entrances; relocation of systems for cooling the arena and money from the Garden for improvements that directly benefit The Garden, like improved access for loading and unloading trucks.
The Garden pushed back, saying it should not be forced to give up property without proper compensation, a view that was echoed by the architect, Vishaan Chakrabarti.
Chakrabarti described the MTA’s position as “an illegal use of the permit” process that will “end up in a massive lawsuit with Madison Square Garden.”
“It just seems like a drastic overreach,” said Chakrabarti, who is working with the developer, ASTM, on a $6 billion proposed plan to rebuild the station. ASTM called for an open bidding process so they can compete to be the master developer of a rebuilt Penn station.
Under city land use rules, the Council must act on the question by the end of August.
There was no sign at the hearing that the Council was prepared to meet the MTA demand to tie the renewal of the special permit to The Garden agreeing to terms with the railroads.
But city officials said the Council was likely to shorten the ten-year time span proposed by the Planning Commission.
“The Council is not going to kick the can down the road for another ten years,” said Erik Bottcher, who represents the Penn Station neighborhood. “We can not hold back Penn Station any longer. We must deliver a new Penn Station for New Yorkers and we must do it now.”
Gale Brewer of the Upper West Side echoed the point.
“To me ten years is too much time,” Brewer said.
Brewer voted for the ten-year extension in 2013, which did not include some of the detailed commitments that the Garden has now made to improve the streetscape and loading areas. That 2013 extension simply called for the Garden to move within the ten years, which obviously has not happened.
“Why would we not try to do four years? Or something less?” Brewer asked. “Because we can be here to know what is it that is in this plan or is not. If in four years everything is accomplished, then, ok, maybe we can do as we often do, ‘you can have more time’.”
ASTM has proposed to tear the theatre down and build a grand train hall at the eight avenue end of the station.
“We have looked at it, we as in Amtrak,” said Amtrak’s Vice President for infrastructure project delivery, Jeannie Kwon. “We have met with ASTM. We have seen it. We do like what we see, so far. We are very intrigued. We would like to see more. It is an impressive team.”
Kwon said Amtrak would look at the proposal along with the MTA and Jersey Transit when ASTM was ready to present it.
Torres Springer agreed that the three railroads would review the ASTM plan, although he reminded the council that the MTA’s concerns about cost were “well-known.” He urged the council not to be “distracted” by the competing proposals because under any of them the railroads will still need an agreement with MSG.
“It doesn’t matter which plan we are talking about,” said Torres Springer. “We should not let that be a distraction. We need the same things from MSG. We need to come to an agreement. We should do that before the special permit is issued, so that the can doesn’t get kicked down the road.”