Why an Infinite Permit Is Too Long

Testimony by RPA President Robert D. Yaro submitted to the New York City Planning Commission in regard to Madison Square Garden's Special Permit Request

I am writing to urge the City Planning Commission to deny Madison Square Garden’s (MSG's) request for an infinite special zoning permit to operate an arena on its current site above Pennsylvania Station. Under section 74-31 of the Zoning Resolution, which outlines the Commission’s responsibilities in granting special permits, when granting such permits, the Commission “shall find that the hazards or disadvantages to the community at large through the location of such use at the particular site are outweighed by the advantages to be derived by the community from the grant of such special permit use.”

I believe that there is no reasonable way that you can make this finding, since the disadvantages of permitting the Garden to stay at its current location over Pennsylvania Station would far outweigh any advantage it would provide to the public. Further, subsection “e” of this section authorizes the Commission to “authorize any special permit use for such term of years as it deems appropriate.” This clearly authorizes the Commission to issue a permit for a period of limited duration in situations such as this one.

For this reason, I would urge that the Commission adopt the recommendation of both Community Board 5 and Borough President Stringer that the city deny MSG's request for a permit of infinite duration and instead grant MSG a new, 10-year special permit to provide time for redesigning Penn Station in conjunction with a new arena in another west Midtown location. In so doing, the Commission can send a clear message to MSG and to federal, state, city and railroad officials that the continued location of the Garden over Penn Station should not be permanent and that a new and expanded Pennsylvania Station is urgently needed to meet the mobility and economic development needs of the city, the metropolitan area and the Northeast.

In this letter I will outline the multiple and severe disadvantages to the city and its residents that would result from the city granting the Garden’s request for a new special permit of infinite duration. And I will also underscore why these disadvantages far outweigh any advantage that granting this permit would provide.

BACKGROUND

When the Pennsylvania Railroad built Penn Station a century ago, it provided New York City with what was widely considered to be the grandest railroad hub ever built anywhere in the world. The new station also gave the city the transportation capacity needed to accommodate much of its inter-city, commuter rail and transit mobility needs for decades.

The grand scale, classical architecture and iconic public spaces of the original Penn Station made it one the man-made wonders of the world. It was one of the great early 20th century edifices that proclaimed New York to be the quintessential global city -- the financial, cultural and communications capital of the United States and, indeed, the world. And as in other great cities, and as we now see at the restored Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station took on an even more important civic and economic role, creating a grand gateway to the city for inter-city and regional travelers and providing New Yorkers with a great civic space and a focal point for economic development and public life.

Then, in 1962, under a 50-year special permit granted by this commission, Madison Square Garden and the Pennsylvania Railroad were allowed to demolish the original Penn Station in order to build the existing arena on air rights over a poorly planned basement-level station. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan stated that this represented "the greatest act of civic vandalism in New York's history." And famed architect Vincent Scully famously noted that at the current Penn Station, where before "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” Today, the physical limitations imposed on Penn Station by its position under Madison Square Garden undercut the quality of life and safety of several hundred thousand daily commuters and create a blighting influence on property values in the surrounding community.

MEETING CURRENT AND FUTURE DEMAND

Since the current makeshift underground Penn Station was built half a century ago, passenger volumes have increased to almost a half-million daily trips. The current station wasn’t designed to accommodate these passenger volumes, much less future demand, which is expected to grow by significantly by 2030. Today, Penn Station is a daily humiliation to the several hundred thousand people who must use it -- a far cry from the uplifting experience commuters and visitors once had at the original Penn Station.

The station’s narrow platforms (some as little as 17 feet wide, far shy of the current 30-foot national minimum for platforms with tracks on both sides) are further obstructed by 1,163 columns needed to support the Garden, further constraining passenger movements and the station’s capacity. This is several times the number of columns that would be present at a modern or even an historic train station, and their excessive number and poorly designed locations on platforms block access for wheelchairs and passengers with "wheelie" bags, severely limiting pedestrian movements at the station. Consequently, trains arriving at Penn have to increase dwell times significantly to provide passengers with sufficient time to exit trains and platforms to the station’s narrow stairs and escalators. This limits both public safety and the station's overall capacity.

Under the important and timely "Penn Vision Study" now being prepared for the MTA, Amtrak and NJTransit, the railroads are developing proposals to redesign the station’s concourse level and improve street access and visibility. These should be essential first steps in the process of improving the station's horizontal circulation and access to and from surrounding streets. But these proposals don’t correct the fundamental problem imposed on the station by the presence of MSG overhead: its constrained platforms, stairways and escalators, low ceiling heights and the absence of daylight in every level of the station.

Unfortunately, however, the Penn Vision study assumes that Madison Square Garden is a permanent feature on this site and that therefore most of these provisions of the station’s design can’t be seriously modified. To fix these larger structural elements, it would first be necessary to relocate the Garden, and then it would be possible to rebuild the station in phases from the track and platform level up. And despite its many virtues, implementing the Penn Vision study won’t change the fact that this subterranean station lacks the overall capacity, dignity and amenity required to make this an uplifting experience for its users or to significantly improve the station’s outward appearance, its contributions to the economy of the city and property values in the surrounding neighborhood.

WHY MSG'S NEW SPECIAL PERMIT SHOULD BE TIME-LIMITED

The City Planning Commission’s decision to grant the Garden’s original 50-year special permit and allow the demolition of the original landmark Penn Station was what many observers consider to have been perhaps the biggest mistake ever made by this Commission. It was made, of course, at a time when it was widely assumed that train travel and even dense urban centers like Manhattan were a thing of the past. Today, of course, train traffic is booming and an essential element of the city's long-term success and well-being. With this decision you have the opportunity to recognize these changed circumstances and rectify the mistake made by the Commission half a century ago. Individuals and cities rarely get second chances, but today in considering Madison Square Garden's proposal it is within your power to decide that this mistake won’t result in the current Garden and subterranean train station will become a permanent feature of the city's infrastructure and streetscape.

I would urge that you deny the Garden's request for a new permit of infinite duration and instead provide the Garden with a 10-year-long permit. With this decision you would initiate the process of building a new Pennsylvania Station and a new arena that can once again provide New Yorkers and visitors to the city with both the world-class transportation hub and world-class arena they deserve. And you would begin the process of making Penn Station once again a focal point for the city's economic development and public life. In denying the Garden's request, you would also be representing the broad public interest, not the narrow interests of a single private company.

For half a century the location of MSG above Penn Station has proven that we can’t have both a world-class arena and a world-class train station on the same site. The co-location of MSG and Penn Station has undercut the utility and public benefits of both. The Garden has moved several times in its history, and can and indeed, must move again. Today the Garden is the second-oldest arena in the National Basketball League and oldest in the National Hockey League. Even its recent renovation leaves it outmoded by many industry standards and in comparison with two other new arenas in the region, Brooklyn's Barclays Center and Newark's Prudential Center. It can only provide the amenity and utility its patrons deserve by relocating to a new site elsewhere in Midtown. While a number of possible sites could be suitable for a new Garden, there may soon be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to relocate the Garden to the site of the nearby Morgan Postal Annex, because the projected dramatic decline in postal volumes may no longer require that it remain at this valuable Midtown superblock site. This site could be permanently lost to other uses unless steps are taken soon to facilitate this move.

Pennsylvania Station, on the other hand, by its very nature as the hub of the Northeast’s and the region’s rail systems, cannot be relocated. The Garden's location over Penn Station blocks the station's access and egress to the street and precludes significant modernization of the station's tracks, platforms, concourses and vertical circulation systems. Further, MSG's design and location over the station have necessitated almost daily truck loading and unloading for Garden events with trucks frequently blocking surrounding streets, sidewalks and pedestrian plazas. And the elimination of the station's mid-block taxiway following 9/11 makes it necessary for travelers, often with heavy luggage, to walk around these trucks across heavily trafficked streets, to hail taxis or get to subway stations.

WHY A NEW PENNSYLVANIA STATION IS NEEDED AND HOW IT CAN BE BUILT

Virtually all of New York's global city competitors -- including London, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo and others -- are restoring, expanding or building new central train stations with roles similar to that of Penn Station. Most cities are designing these facilities to provide the transportation capacity and amenity needed for decades to come, as the original Penn Station once did. They are making these investments because, as noted above, in addition to their essential transportation role these places serve as grand gateways -- the places where international and inter-city travelers and business leaders make their first impression of the city. And as we have seen at Grand Central, when properly designed, these places are becoming great civic spaces and cornerstones for regeneration of entire central business districts. London and other cities are using these revitalized facilities as anchors for tourism and public life and focal points for innovation districts that are becoming drivers for community and city-wide economic development.

In the Northeast, the Federal Railroad Administration is preparing "NEC Future," a long-range master plan and Tier I Environmental Impact Statement for a modernized and expanded Northeast rail corridor, the goal of which is to provide expanded capacity and reliability and reduced travel times for high-speed, inter-city and commuter rail services throughout the Boston-to-Washington corridor. Amtrak is also advancing its own plans for high-speed rail service and improvements to the NEC’s major train stations. As a part of this effort, Amtrak and the District of Columbia are planning a new two-level expansion of Union Station, behind its historic Burnham headhouse. Boston is planning a major extension of South Station, with a modern extension of its historic headhouse and new tracks, platforms and pedestrian concourses. Through these efforts, both cities are replacing narrow, inadequate 100-year-old platforms and concourses with modern, high-amenity facilities. FRA and Amtrak are also planning new high-speed rail stations in Baltimore and Philadelphia in the heart of their central business districts. The goal of these efforts is to create the amenity and transportation and economic development capacity for decades of population and economic growth across the Northeast --everywhere, that is, except New York.

That is because, unless this Commission takes action to limit MSG's tenure above Penn Station, FRA, Amtrak and the commuter railroads must assume that New York wants the Garden to remain a permanent feature above Penn Station, and that therefore only limited improvements to the existing station can be accommodated.

WHY A 10-YEAR SPECIAL PERMIT FOR THE GARDEN IS APPROPRIATE

Because Penn Station and the adjoining North River Tunnels serving the station are the biggest choke-point in the entire NEC system, Amtrak is moving forward with the proposed "Gateway Tunnel" project, which would build two new tunnels under the Hudson River, and a new southern extension to Penn Station below the so-called 780 block, between 30th and 31st streets.

The projected completion date for this project in 2023 would follow shortly after the completion of the Long Island Rail Road's East Side Access terminal near Grand Central Terminal and completion of improvements at Moynihan Station, across 8th Avenue from Penn Station.

If MSG were to be relocated by 2023, completion of these station projects (the southern extension of PSNY, ESA and Moynihan) would open a 10-15 year window of opportunity to divert trains from the existing Penn Station, which in turn would permit the phased construction of a new Penn Station on the existing station site. The new station should be built around state-of-the-art design standards with wide platforms, modern vertical circulation systems (including wider stairs and escalators and elevators) and wider concourses and high ceilings and abundant daylight throughout the station would once again make entering the station an uplifting experience.

The new station also should reconnect with the surrounding district and nearby transit facilities. Majestic public spaces, abundant daylighting of concourse and even track levels and new pedestrian plazas on 7th and 8th avenues would give the new station the same qualities that Grand Central has in East Midtown, and allow for the transformation of the surrounding neighborhood.

By 2035 or 2040, however, increased passenger volumes into Penn Station would close this window of opportunity. For this reason, it is imperative that the Garden be given only a 10-year special permit at its existing location, to allow its timely relocation. This would allow New York to take advantage of this opportunity to build a grand new Pennsylvania Station with the capacity and amenity needed for the rest of this century.

Granting the Garden a 10-year permit would set in motion a process that will allow Pennsylvania Station to again become a positive feature in the city's life and a driver of its long-term success. The area surrounding the station could be redeveloped in coordination with the station's reconstruction, creating several million square feet of new commercial, hospitality and retail space, and providing the catalyst for a dynamic new district connecting Hudson Yards with the rest of Midtown. This joint development project also could help finance the construction and operation of the station.

And by initiating the process of relocating MSG, the city can insist that plans for a new Penn Station be incorporated into the Federal Railroad Administration’s NEC Future Master Plan and EIS, Amtrak’s plans for the new Gateway Tunnels and Northeast high-speed rail system and the reauthorization of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA), expected to be enacted by the Congress later this year or next.

A 10-year permit for the Garden would permit Penn Station to be redesigned to meet the city's transportation needs for decades to come. In addition to its expanding commuter markets, it would have the capacity to provide international visitors to New York with frequent, fast and convenient access to JFK and Newark airports. It also would become the hub of a modernized and expanded Northeast Corridor service, and it would become the center of a new regional service of through-running trains connecting all of the region's centers, providing New Yorkers and suburban residents with new options for in-bound and reverse commute services.

On the other hand, if the city were to give the Garden an infinite permit to operate an arena on its current site, it would perpetuate the mistake made by this Commission in 1962, and make the current Madison Square Garden a permanent impediment to the modernization of Penn Station and the city’s growth and development and detriment to the surrounding district.

Regional Plan Association is working with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design on conceptual plans for a new Penn Station and revitalization strategies for the surrounding district. As part of this effort, we have met with officials from London, Paris, Rotterdam, and Antwerp and visited grand new or restored train stations in these cities. We also have surveyed the design of new stations in other global cities, which has informed our design concepts for Penn Station. We are eager to share these plans with the Commission and its staff.

CONCLUSION

In virtually every other global city, new and modernized train stations, in addition to their transportation role, are serving as catalysts for tourism, innovation and economic development, focal points for public life and major new landmarks in the urban landscape. With this decision, the Commission has the opportunity to look beyond narrow land use and transportation concerns to begin the process of building a new Pennsylvania Station that will become a long-term legacy of city building and place making that can be a positive force in New York’s growth and development for decades to come, as the original landmark Penn Station was a century ago. We hope that you will seize this important opportunity by granting Madison Square Garden a 10-year permit to remain on its current site.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert D. Yaro, President, Regional Plan Association