MSG vs. Penn Station: Why MSG Should STAY

DISCLAIMER: I’m a Knicks fan. Like, a pretty big one. But I did everything I could to keep my often-unrequited fanship out of my opinions that you will see below.

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I’ll let it out right from the get-go: I’m a huge critic of historic preservation simply for preservation’s sake. I understand the wonderful effects that preservation may have for building community morale and the indirect economic benefits that it may yield to the city, but far too often I can’t help but pull my hair out by people who want to see something preserved that keeps the “old feeling” of a certain city or neighborhood or street in lieu of a development that adds to the economic vitality of the region as well as its citizens’ well-being (just look at Broad Street in Charleston, SC, hailed by the American Planning Association as one of America’s “Great Streets of 2012”; the city’s colonial heritage is certainly preserved, but most who have visited would agree that there’s not a lot happening on Broad Street). The current conflict regarding Madison Square Garden in Manhattan is slightly different in that the preservationists are actually the ones in favor of demolition and redevelopment now, but the ideals are the same. Unfortunately the battle seems all but over, but I can only hope that something falls through and MSG remains, enabling the city to reap its economic and cultural benefits for years to come.

First some background: from 1910 to 1963, Manhattan’s beautiful Pennsylvania Station sat on the current site of Madison Square Garden. Adored by many, its Beaux-arts exterior and ornate interior gave those entering the city by rail a welcome worthy of the greatest metropolis on earth. However, amongst financial issues and a sharp decrease in ridership (this was the automobile age, after all), the station was demolished in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden, a brutal sports and entertainment arena that still stands today—the station was placed underneath the arena, where it also still remains. Now, after years of fiddling around with redevelopment plans that were unable to materialize due to what can pretty appropriately be described as “politics” (keep this in mind), the ball may finally be rolling on demolishing The World’s Most Famous Arena to make way for a brand new Penn Station. On June 26th, two key City Council committees voted unanimously in approval of a ten-year permit for the arena, after which Madison Square Garden will have to either pack its bags or reapply for a permit.

In simpler terms: Old Penn Station was beautiful, and the new Madison Square Garden that occupies its former place is ugly. Penn Station, the busiest rail terminal in North America, is currently cramped and dingy, with essentially no natural light or air entering its subterranean concourses. Good move to get rid of MSG to build a better Penn Station then, right?

Not so fast. It’s almost as if we forgot that Madison Square Garden’s owners have done everything possible to adequately renovate the arena at the request of The City Council (without a penny of aid from taxpayers, I might add). It’s almost as if we forgot that the arena should be allowed to remain where it is by New York law. It’s almost as if we forgot that MSG is now just as much a New York Icon as the old Penn Station was—you don’t get the moniker of The World’s Most Famous Arena for nothing—and most importantly, it’s almost as if we forgot that MSG has consistently been one of the top contributor’s to the city’s economy. Madison Square Garden currently adds almost $1 billion to the city’s economy, as well as 6,000 jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenues. Funny that we forgot all these things, considering all of the economic issues that our nation’s cities have been facing over recent years, isn’t it?

As noted, I understand the affect that quality architecture and design can have on the urban fabric of a city. I understand that preservation of historic monuments can work wonders for the pride of a city’s residents, as well as reaping economic and social benefits. In fact, had I been around in the early 1960s, perhaps I would even be one of the few protesting the demolition of the beautiful Penn Station.

Unfortunately, I was not, and the efforts of those who were clearly weren’t enough—the station is gone, and the arena now stands. Nothing we can do now can change that, so it’s time for us to move on and consider the situation at hand. The Garden, while externally ugly, helps the city with immense economic and social benefits. The central arguments of those who have called for its demolition can be summed up quite nicely by a quote from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn: “For the last 50 years, tens of millions of commuters, business travelers and tourists have had the lackluster experience of entering and departing Midtown from a dismal Penn Station that is dangerous, overcrowded, lacks adequate ingress and egress, and is not fully ADA accessible.” Let’s address these one by one and truly examine if demolishing MSG and rebuilding the station is the best way to address these issues and benefit those who live, work or play in New York.

 

1)            Penn Station is dangerous. As Jane Jacobs noticed, the greatest deterrent to crime is people. Penn Station is the busiest train station in North America. There are always people. There are always a lot of people. Ergo, there isn’t much crime. I’ve traveled alone, as a minor, through Penn Station numerous times and never encountered anything more harmful to my well being than a homeless man seeking shelter from the elements.

2)            Penn Station is overcrowded and doesn’t offer an adequate welcome to those entering New York. It’s hard for me to argue with this. I’m sure I speak for a number who have entered the city via Penn Station when I say that it is indeed cramped, dark, and ugly, and it’s a shame that tourists, business travelers, and other commuters must experience this when entering such a great city. But what do they do after they leave the station? Walk or ride to work in one of it’s innumerable office buildings, shops, or restaurants; tour its various landmarks or vibrant districts; study at one of it’s world-class educational institutions; or simply meet a friend or two, adding to the city’s already vibrant social fabric. While it would be nice to have a greater entrance to such a great city, the city itself is so great that an ugly train station does little to inhibit one’s urges or needs to experience and embrace it. While this may sound strange coming from someone who honestly loves and appreciates the benefits of an architectural masterpiece, Penn Station is good enough.

3)            Penn Station must improve capacity, lacks adequate ingress and egress, and is not ADA accessible. Unfortunately, those in favor of Penn Station’s rebuilding made it clear that this goal, while practical and necessary, is only secondary to their aesthetic goal when they fought for the elimination of a clause in an initial permit allowing for MSG to remain if it works with the railroads that use Penn Station to improve infrastructure, which would require only the approval of the City Planning Commission. This was seen as a “loophole,” and any such deals must now be approved by the members of the City Council, who have made it clear that they want MSG gone. As for proper ingress and egress and ADA accessibility, these improvements are clearly possible at a cost much lower than the cost of demolishing a commercially stable and iconic arena.

 

There is no practical reason for Madison Square Garden to be demolished. While it may be ugly on the outside, The Garden is now an iconic and more than adequate (thanks to ongoing renovations paid for in full by the arena’s owners) sports and entertainment venue hosting the Knicks and Rangers, two staples of New York sports, and hundreds of concerts each year, adding to the city’s economy and supporting thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, it’s demolition and rebuilding of Penn Station would be incredibly costly to the city and its taxpayers, as would be the construction of a new arena elsewhere in the city; let’s not forget how ridiculously expensive sports facilities truly are. Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium will eventually cost taxpayers $4 BILLION—that’s public money that could be used for, oh, I don’t know, basic infrastructure or the improvement of an educational system in freefall.

Furthermore, a plan for redevelopment would require cooperation between local, state (both New York and New Jersey) and federal governments, as well as the railroads that use Penn Station, and indirectly related institutions such as the US Postal Service. Want proof that this won’t work? WE’VE TRIED IT BEFORE. Numerous projects have been proposed for the redevelopment of Penn Station and relocation of The Garden that fell apart due to—say it with me—politics! What was Einstein’s phrase about insanity?

Herein lies the problem with historic preservation. Adding to a city’s culture and pride can raise citizen morale, thus adding to creativity, social innovation, and economic benefits, and thus preservation is very important. However, we need to identify and steer clear of preservation simply for the sake of preservation when it in fact adds next to nothing substantive to the city besides being a bit more pleasing to the eye.

Madison Square Garden does its job and then some. Penn Station, while not exactly in a magnificent fashion, does its job as well. It’s really a shame that MSG is ugly, that the city is now deprived of a beautiful structure in the old Penn Station, and that entering New York isn’t as grand an experience as it once was (a point against which I could argue, but I’ll save that for another time). However, we’re now left with an iconic and economically stable sports and entertainment facility in Midtown that does so much for the city’s economy and social fabric, and a rail station beneath that does the job it needs to do, and could certainly improve without demolishing the arena on top of it. If MSG were to be torn down, the various parties were to SOMEHOW come together to agree on a rebuilding plan, and a new, beautiful Penn Station were to be constructed in its place, perhaps it would be more pleasing to the eye, and perhaps it would even add to the area’s urban fabric (not a guarantee if the project is given to a starchitect). Unfortunately, my eye’s pleasure will do little to help taxpayers who needed to pay for the costly redevelopment, nor will it help the local government earn back anywhere close to the billions of dollars it paid for the project, money that could be spent on more pressing issues. But hey, it’ll be pretty, and unfortunately for a number of stakeholders, that’s all that matters.

 

Sources and Acknowledgements:

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