WTF is up with that “vote” on a new Madison Square Garden: an investigation

Checking back in on a Friday afternoon because I have a bit more information about that new Madison Square Garden proposal that, according to a very bad website, “the City Council voted [on] this week in a Community Board Five meeting,” which is not a sentence that makes any sense.

Turns out the vote had nothing to do with the New York City council, but rather was of the Land Use, Housing & Zoning Committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 5, which is a just slightly less significant body. (Community board consideration is a required piece of the city’s land use process, but their votes are just advisory.) The meeting took place on Wednesday on Zoom, and can be watched in its entirety here.

The board’s unanimous vote was actually on several things, including endorsing including this project in the environmental impact study for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion project, and also allowing for a shorter extension of MSG’s operating permit — you know what, let me just quote myself here by way of explaining what that is:

Madison Square Garden itself is privately owned, but an obscure section of city zoning law (Section 74-41, if you’re playing along at home) requires any arena of more than 2,500 seats to obtain a special permit from the city. MSG’s initial permit was issued in 1963, and for whatever reason was set to expire after 50 years; when that date rolled around in 2013, the city council, bowing to the wishes of Penn renewal advocates, granted only a ten-year extension, ostensibly to give the Garden’s owners time to make plans to decamp to a new site. (Technically, MSG could stay put, but only if it reduced its capacity to 2,500 seats—the arena can currently pack in over 20,000 spectators, depending on the event.)
Since 2023 is right around the corner, and it would almost certainly take years to get this mammoth project approved and built, CB5 has now formally endorsed the idea of a short-term extension to let the Knicks and Rangers hang out for a few more years at the current MSG in the meantime.

What happens next is not much, at least immediately. Committee member E.J. Kalafarski said during the meeting that a draft scope of the project, which is the very first step in the land use process, was “published on the internet this last week”; I haven’t been able to find it yet, but will keep digging. In any case, after that it needs to have a draft environmental impact statement done, and then it goes back to the community board for consideration, then to the borough president, then the city planning commission, and finally the city council. (If the state takes over the property, it would go through a different approval process — as the Brooklyn Nets arena did — but would still take a while.) So, nothing final for a year or two at least, but this is the beginning of the beginning.

As far as how much this would cost or who would pay for it, none of that is even remotely sketched out yet. And the design documents published by New York Yimby are just some sketches done by former Manhattan city planning director and current local resident and architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, which may or may not be adopted by whatever developer may or may not be interested in building this monster.

So, this is still very early days, but it does seem like there’s at least a little momentum for “clear out the current MSG space to make for better Penn Station access by building a new MSG a block away something something something.” This is very much worth keeping an eye on, but it’s also very likely that nothing much will be happening immediately, especially what with no one knowing whether big urban office buildings have a future anymore or not. More news as events warrant.

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10 comments on “WTF is up with that “vote” on a new Madison Square Garden: an investigation

  1. Wasn’t the opening of Moynihan Hall in the post office building supposed to alleviate some of the Penn access issues?

    They’re encouraging all Amtrak and LIRR passengers to use Moynihan, which would leave the Garden entrances for NJ Transit and the subway.

    NJT will have a different access point whenever they sort out the new tunnel issue. At one point it was going to be Macy’s basement, but I know that got rejected.

    So, why bother moving an arena that’s actually ideally situated when other solutions for transit access are in the works?

    The destruction of the original Penn Station was awful, but over 50 years later, it’s time to focus on what’s best moving forward.

    1. Moynihan isn’t really a solution for anybody — definitely not LIRR riders, and probably not Amtrak either:

      https://www.vice.com/en/article/3an5b9/between-gods-and-rats-the-moynihan-train-hall-is-a-temple-to-modern-mediocrity

      It’s more a mall attachment with a couple of escalators to platforms added. Think of it more an equivalent to the Oculus on Fulton Street than an actual train station.

      Still, agreed that tearing down an entire freshly renovated arena and building another one across the street just so that commuters can have skylights while waiting for their trains is unlikely to be cost-effective on any planet. Maybe if there’s so much demand for midtown office and retail space that developers will pour billions of dollars into the project and make it pay for itself — but that was the idea behind Hudson Yards, too, and that didn’t work out so well.

  2. You mean… I can watch a meeting of the Land Use, Housing & Zoning Advisory Committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 5 online from my own home?

    Wow, 2021 is already awesome!

    1. I’ll let someone like Neil that’s in NYC correct me if I misread it, but my take when the renovations occurred was that Dolan was taking the chance (gamble is too dramatic of a word because he has the deck stacked with lobbyists and general super rich guy connections) that he may not get a permit extension in 10 years because he was confident in his ability to lobby and extend. And I think he’s right in that assessment – NYC has consistently given him what he’s wanted and hasn’t exhibited any sort of stomach for utilizing their extreme options, namely that they could’ve just revoked the permit 7 years ago instead of granting an extension. So he’s factoring all of the sound and fury into the process but is confident they won’t do anything that resembles revocation or eviction. In fact if they do ever force relocation I expect them to give him a ton of money (or free land or whatever) even though they are under no obligation to do so.

      1. Yeah, that’s my take as well. “Screw it, I want my renovations, and if they try to evict me then I’ll just say ‘Then you gotta repay me for my renovations first!\'”

  3. There was a joint committee meeting in July 2020 and this resolution has a small section about MSG.

    https://www.cb5.org/cb5m/resolutions/2020-july/resolution_9/

  4. Presentations and stuff can be found here:
    https://esd.ny.gov/empire-station-complex

    Draft Scope of Work (July 2020).
    https://esd.ny.gov/sites/default/files/EmpireStationComplexDSOW.pdf

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