Madison Square Garden permit renewal hearing dominated by talk off Penn Station renovation plans

Transit-friendly urbanists squared off against Rangers fans at a hearing Wednesday night regarding Madison Square Garden and the possible renewal of “The World’s Most Famous Arena’s” operating permit.

The face-off at the Manhattan Community Board 5 committee hearing on Feb. 22 focused on whether the arena has a future in its current location.

The hearing comes after MSG Entertainment filed for a special permit that would allow it to keep holding events in its present form in compliance with a city law that requires arenas with more than 2,500 seats to get special permits to operate. In 2013, city lawmakers shortened the Garden’s request for an indefinite permit, instead granting it a 10-year license, now up for renewal.

This process has collided with Governor Kathy Hochul’s effort to improve Pennsylvania Station, the busiest transportation hub in North America, which has been stuck under the hulking square-block arena in a run-down subterranean form since the ‘60s.

At the hearing, MSG associates made the case for why they believe the special permit renewal should be granted in perpetuity, as they did unsuccessfully 10 years ago. Though transit advocates and its area City Council Member Erik Bottcher have suggested that the renewal process marks an opportunity to move arena and make room for a new above-ground version of Penn Station, MSG management said it was premature to talk about the arena’s compatibility with a Penn Station renovation project given the fact that state agencies have not settled on a design for that project, or secured public approvals. 

MSG Executive Vice President Joel Fisher said that neither the MTA, nor Amtrak or New Jersey Transit had ever raised the possibility of relocating the arena in their “many conversations” but that the venue would be cooperative during the renovations process as it moves forward. Fisher argued that an indefinite special permit actually would allow them to work better with the transit agencies, without the distraction of future renewals.

“Granting the special permit and perpetuity will allow us all to think about that — other than to continue to go through this process year in and year out, or however long we are granted a special permit. Because it’s just a waste of time for all of us,” he said during the hearing.

Transit advocates begged to differ.

At the virtual hearing, which attracted around 200 people in attendance, a large portion of the public argued that the company’s permit should not be renewed in order to expand the possibilities of Hochul’s proposed plan to upgrade the transportation hub. 

“We can’t plan and build the station with the capacity that the city and the region that we are going to need for the next century with the garden sitting on top of it,” said Robert Yaro, the former president of the Regional Plan Association. 

The current iteration of MSG, the third version of the venue previously located further downtown near the actual Madison Square, and an adjacent office tower were built in the mid-1960s on the footprint of the former beaux-arts Penn Station — a grand structure whose demised helped spur the city’s landmark preservation movement.

While the Knicks, Rangers, Billy Joel and others play above ground, Penn Station rumbles below the streets, but in recent years has begun to re-emerge through renovations and the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall across the street from MSG.

Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station
The Moynihan Train HallPhoto by Dean Moses

Sean Fitzpatrick, deputy Chief of Staff at MTA Construction Development, speaking on behalf of NJ TRansit and Amtrak, said that the agencies’ biggest concern is making sure that cooperation on the renovation project is written into any special permit. 

Other community board members with their focus on the Penn Station project suggested that the city should only provide a short-term extension to the permit that will allow it to revisit it as it gets further along in its Penn Station planning.

“Under the current structure, perpetual renewal would result in a moral hazard where MSG need not cooperate with the railroads because it already has what it’s looking for. It seems happy with the status quo,” said David Sigman, a member of the community board.

On the other side of the issue, a handful of sports fanatics and other MSG appreciators stuck up for the area. 

“MSG, Penn Station, the New York Rangers for me, they go hand in hand in hand. They’re timeless treasures in the community,” said Thomas Panico, a 40-year Ranger season ticket holder from New Jersey.

Other supporters included recipients of the Garden of Dreams, a charitable program MSG provides for young people with financial and health challenges.

The community board’s Land Use Committee will have to vote on the proposed renewal at next month’s meeting before the community board’s full vote. The board’s input will be the first stop of the venue’s campaign to convince the City Planning Commission and the City Council to grant them a new permit.

With reporting by Robert Pozarycki