The notion of tearing down Madison Square Garden right after it got $1 billion in renovations and building a new one in an unknown location just so Penn Station can have some skylights if anyone comes up with money for it may be, on the surface, a little nuts, but it’s sure getting lots of high-profile supporters. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and the local community board have both endorsed terminating MSG’s use permit to the city property where it stands. The New York Times editorial page, as noted earlier, has also jumped on the bandwagon. And yesterday, the heads of the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association, the two civic groups behind the proposal, took to the Daily News op-ed pageto tout the idea, saying that limiting MSG’s permit renewal to ten years “would provide the time, attention and focus required to find a new and strategic site for the Garden, allowing the city to have both a splendid modern arena and a great train station.”
On the one hand, there’s nothing actually wrong with keeping the permit renewal to ten years: If MSG’s owners can be talked into building elsewhere by then, fine, and if not, the city can always just give them another renewal in 2023. But while the MAS and RPA no doubt see themselves as righting a historic wrong — the demolition of this to make way for the current MSG — and more space for a nicer train station is no doubt a good idea, has anybody actually stopped to think about how much it would cost to clear space for an arena (which would need to be near a transit hub as the current MSG is, and so on expensive land), build it, and then build a new Penn Station on the current site? There’s something to be said for already existing infrastructure: It may be imperfect, but at least it’s already paid for.
The hope here is that the ten-year permit renewal is being pursued mostly as a negotiating ploy: We don’t know what the city may want to do in the future, or what MSG may want to do, but let’s at least limit the length of the permit so the city can keep its options open. The fear is that this will end up a self-justifying project, where the city ends up having to spend millions (or billions) of dollars to “help MSG relocate” just so that commuters can have a nicer place to get off their trains in the morning. We already narrowly dodged that bullet once, but bad projects never seem to die.