Keep Madison Square Garden on a tighter leash: NYC should only grant MSG a special permit for three years

NEW DAILY NEWS, Liz Krueger, Brad Hoylman-Sigal, Tony Simone

“It is absolutely essential for us to fix Penn Station and build a modern, world-class transit hub that centers on the needs of transit riders and puts safety first. Ideally, MSG should relocate to facilitate a total transformation of Penn Station.”

As the members of the Legislature who represent the Penn District, we urge New York City to reject Madison Square Garden’s special permit application to continue operating its arena in its current location in perpetuity. The application is currently pending before the City Council.

In June, the three railroads that operate in Penn Station — Amtrak, the MTA, and NJTransit — concluded that MSG is incompatible with the transit hub on which it sits. The Compatibility Report issued by the railroads confirms what every commuter already knows: “MSG’s existing configuration and property boundaries impose severe constraints on the station that impede the safe and efficient movement of passengers and restrict efforts to implement improvements.”

Transit advocates, elected officials, and community members agree — the busiest train station in the Western Hemisphere should not be hampered by an arena that causes safety hazards on the platforms and prevents us from building a station that adequately accommodates commuters and visitors from around the world. However, if New York City ultimately decides to grant a special permit, the permit should be for a maximum of three years and contingent on MSG cooperating with the railroads to make the arena fully compatible with the planned redesign of Penn Station.

In the more that half century since the destruction of the original Penn Station, MSG has created significant limitations on the station while occupying the space without paying property taxes. We are working in Albany to end unnecessary MSG’s property tax break which is saving it more than $42 million this year. The current station, originally designed for 200,000 daily commuter rail and subway users, was handling more than 650,000 daily passengers before COVID and is straining under the surge in traffic absent an increase in capacity.

This contributes to severe congestion on the platforms and corridors, putting limits on train frequency. MSG’s configuration also results in low ceiling heights and limited air flow into the concourses and platforms, creating a safety risk in the crowded station. As Community Board 5 and many advocates note, the National Fire Protection Association has ruled that the current state of Penn Station’s platforms do not meet the requirements for a safe evacuation in the event of an emergency. It is obvious to everyone that Penn Station cannot continue to exist in its current state.

It is absolutely essential for us to fix Penn Station and build a modern, world-class transit hub that centers on the needs of transit riders and puts safety first. Ideally, MSG should relocate to facilitate a total transformation of Penn Station. However, if MSG is permitted to stay, we believe the new special permit must be limited to three years.

This permit must be contingent on MSG making itself fully compatible with Penn Station as defined by the railroads. Additionally, MSG must be required to provide the railroads with all the spaces necessary to complete the reconstruction of Penn Station at no cost. This includes the taxiway MSG owns that has been unused since 9/11 to construct a mid-block, light-filled train hall, as well as areas along Eighth Ave. to create new higher-capacity and accessible entrances. MSG benefits tremendously from its location atop the transit hub and it is only reasonable that the arena cooperate to fix Penn.

If MSG stays they will have a duty to not only improve Penn Station itself but also to the Penn District, and a new three-year special permit should be tied to that. They can begin with their loading operation which has long taken place on public streets, causing significant disruptions to vehicular and pedestrian flow and negatively impacting its neighbors. MSG must move all loading operations below ground, beneath the arena.

After considering MSG’s application, the  City Planning Commission concluded that MSG should be required to provide adequate public spaces, amenities, and entrances compatible with the transit hub, and encouraged the Garden to work with the Community Board and other stakeholders to achieve an “ambitious public realm scheme.” Just as we build a state-of-the-art train hub, we must create modern public spaces, including plazas, improved wayfinding, increased bike storage, and public bathroom facilities. All of these requirements must be explicitly outlined in a restrictive declaration that MSG enters with the city in order to hold them accountable.

The MTA, NJT and Amtrak have a rare opportunity to transform Penn Station into the modern, safe, and efficient transit hub that passengers deserve. We strongly urge New York City to ensure that this opportunity is not wasted and to prioritize the needs of Penn Station and the surrounding community over MSG’s desire to operate its arena in perpetuity.

Source: New York Daily News