Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion plan could cement MSG’s $550m-and-counting tax break in place for eternity

With New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo again proposing an expansion of Manhattan’s Penn Station — this one with an estimated $8 billion price tag, to be funded mostly by ¯_(ツ)_/¯ — Gothamist asked me to look into the state of the eternal tax exemption for Madison Square Garden, the arena that sits atop the train station, which the state accidentally put into place in 1982. The answer: The tax break has now cost New York City a total of $550 million and could hit $1 billion by 2030, legislation to repeal it keeps going nowhere, and Cuomo’s Penn funding plan could write it into tax law forever.

Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion plan (which is at least the sixth iteration of an expansion plan since one was first floated by then-Senator Pat Moynihan in the early ’90s) proposes another massive tax kickback, siphoning off untold billions of future property-tax dollars — technically payments in lieu of property taxes, or PILOTs—from an undisclosed area around the train station to pay for expansion of the transit complex. It’s the same mechanism that was used to partially subsidize Hudson Yards, accounting for just over $1 billion of the city’s $5.6 billion total tab.

The governor’s Powerpoint presentation on his plans includes a diagram on page 51 showing a “development district” that would include Penn Station and several blocks around it. Cuomo’s office referred questions to the state Empire State Development corporation, which indicated that this would be both the size of the new project and the size of the PILOT diversion district, though “the exact boundaries and parcels have yet to be finalized.”

If Madison Square Garden does end up within the area carved out to pay PILOTs, notes Kaehny, that could have the effect of cementing MSG’s tax break in place — or at least limiting the amount of future taxes Dolan and his successors pay, and ensuring that the proceeds go to the governor’s redevelopment project, not to city coffers.

There are a lot of question marks here, to be sure — it’s not even certain whether Cuomo’s PILOT district will be approved by the city council, or if the expansion will ever get off the ground at all — but Kaehny isn’t wrong to worry. Though the way things are going in Albany, even getting a thin sliver of tax payments that immediately get dumped into building a new auxiliary-station-plus-upscale-mall might be preferable to just letting the tax break ride forever.

And speaking of letting the tax break ride forever, here’s what an MSG spokesperson said when asked why that was really necessary:

“We appreciate that people have their opinions about our location, but the truth is that Madison Square Garden’s tax abatement pales in comparison to the billions in public benefits received by the other New York sports venues.”

All the other kids’ parents let them get away with even more! Someday I really want to see the industrial-strength vats of chutzpah that PR professionals bulk-order to keep under their desks.

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2 comments on “Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion plan could cement MSG’s $550m-and-counting tax break in place for eternity

  1. or maybe MSG’s tax break goes away? Presumably creating a district would mean legislation in Albany, and perhaps in the legislation it could remove the exemption, and make them pay (the district instead of the city).

    1. That’s possible, sure. Though given that state legislators currently don’t want to remove the exemption — or even return my emails about it — for fear of pissing off Cuomo, it doesn’t seem super-likely that they’ll use this as an excuse to get rid of it.

      The whole Empire Station Complex is so incredibly vaportecturey, though, that it’s hard to predict much at this point. I feel like Cuomo and de Blasio are competing to see who can propose more “shovel-ready” projects for when and if a Democrat in the White House starts looking for ways to spend on “infrastructure.”

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