NYC considering granting MSG endless permit in exchange for new escalators

The New York City Planning Commission is set to vote tomorrow on a proposal to extend the permit that allows Madison Square Garden to sit on top of Penn Station. (It’s not technically a lease, but rather an operating permit — trust me, neither you nor I wants to spend the time this morning to understand it.) And while the previous plan to extend the permit indefinitely seems to have been warded off by opposition from several major city planning groups, those same groups are now claiming that the new plan would represent a “a gift to Madison Square Garden”:

The city will in fact propose a 15-year renewal, rather than a 50-year one, which is in theory a victory for the planners. But the proposal also contains a major loophole: if the Garden meets certain conditions during those 15 years, it can get a permit to remain on top of Penn Station in perpetuity.

Namely, the Garden would have to come to some sort of an agreement with the three railroads that run beneath it to make improvements to the station, like adding new escalators and elevators. If such an agreement were to reached, and the City Planning Commission’s chair (who is appointed by the mayor) were to approve it, then the Garden could remain where it is, on top of the ever-more-crowded Penn Station. Its special permit, in other words, would have no expiration date.

Whether you think this is a good idea or a terrible one probably depends on your ultimate goals: If, like the Regional Plan Association and Municipal Art Society, you want to get the home of the Knicks and Rangers out of the way (to some undisclosed new location) so you can build a new, grander Penn Station (with some undisclosed source of money), then this is terrible, since it means the Garden can stay put just by buying some improvements for the underground train station. If, on the other hand, you just want MSG to have to pay for its right to use city land instead of getting to remain there for free, then this is potentially an okay deal — depending on what “improvements to the station” mean, obviously, and how this multipartite deal between MSG, Amtrak, and the commuter rail lines would actually be negotiated.

(Or, if you’re the head of the city’s business lobbying group, you think it’s a terrible idea because MSG just spent $1 billion on renovations, and if they don’t get an endless permit to remain in place they’ll … unspend the money or something?)

Meanwhile, a far more constructive bit of government action would be if the state legislature would actually revoke the Garden’s endless property tax break, which is now a public gift of $15 million a year and climbing. Or, hell, even demand that MSG build some escalators if it wants to keep it. Don’t hold your breath, though, given that 1) the New York state legislature never actually does anything if it can help it, and 2) MSG has hired Gov. Cuomo’s former director of cabinet affairs, just in case.

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