Calling for an ambitious Moynihan-Penn Station Master Plan to spur economic development and transportation growth, Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer today issued Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) recommendations that would limit Madison Square Garden’s special-use permit to ten years, rather than “in perpetuity.”
Madison Square Garden makes important contributions to the economic and cultural life of the city, but its location atop Penn Station has stifled the station’s ability to grow, with potentially serious long-term impacts on the economy and future transportation planning of both New York City and the region at large, the Borough President concluded.
“It is time to build a more spacious, attractive and efficient station that will further encourage transit use, reduce driving into the city and spur economic growth throughout our city and our region,” the Borough President said. “While we need to ensure the Garden always has a vibrant and accessible home in Manhattan, moving the arena is an important first step to improving Penn Station,” he added, noting that the station’s daily use has more than tripled since the Garden was originally approved in its current location, with more than 640,000 riders -- well over 100% of its capacity.
A key to improving Penn Station’s capacity is expansion at the track level--where the narrowness of the platforms limits the number of trains that can service the station at one time, causing delays for passengers and transit agencies alike. Unfortunately, the Borough President noted, improvements on the track level are limited by the existence of Madison Square Garden, since support columns for the arena run through Penn Station to its track level. In order to reconfigure and widen the platforms, the columns would have to be moved, which cannot feasibly be done with Madison Square Garden sitting above.
In addition, the Borough President noted that Penn Station’s utilization is expected to rise dramatically over the next decade. A number of new regional transportation plans are currently underway, including East Side Access, a potential Metro-North Train expansion to the west side, the Gateway tunnel project and extension of the 7 Line. All will add dramatically to the number of travelers who pass through Penn Station each day.
Borough President Stringer recommended a conditional disapproval of Madison Square Garden’s requested special permit to operate the arena “in perpetuity,” recommending instead a ten-year limit. The arena’s extreme proximity to Penn Station means that it needs special consideration. The permit requires that “due consideration be given to the proximity of mass transit,” a standard the Garden would nominally meet elsewhere in Midtown. But the Borough President found that in this unique instance – where the proximity of the arena is so close as to stifle growth of Penn Station—that a time limit was both justifiable and in the best interest of the city and the region.
“If we aren’t prepared to accommodate these trains,” Stringer said, “the station will become increasingly congested, and that will not only hurt the economy of New York City, but the entire region.”
Over the last decade there have been several plans to move Madison Square Garden to another location in midtown, plans in which the arena was a willing participant. These plans recognized the importance of the Garden, but also the fact that arenas are regularly rebuilt to ensure their continued viability and competitiveness. While it has recently undergone significant renovation, Madison Square Garden cannot exist in its current configuration in perpetuity, and new locations should be identified to support continued operation in Manhattan in the future, the Borough President said.
In making his recommendations, the Borough President also looked to history. In 1963, when the Garden was originally approved, it was granted a 50-year term to operate as an arena. That limit was imposed by the City Planning Commission largely out of concern that, while Penn Station was fully able to handle the 200,000 passengers it served every day in 1963, it may not be underutilized forever. The Commission was correct – ridership through Penn Station has more than tripled since 1963 and is now well over capacity.
“We need to have the same respect for future projections as the last generation of planners did,” the Borough president said. “We know that over the next 20 years, ridership on rail lines that serve the station is projected to increase by 40%. New rail lines are being proposed, like the Gateway project, which would build new highspeed rail tunnels under the Hudson River.”
The Borough President argued that what’s needed is a comprehensive plan for the entire district – a Moynihan-Penn Station Master Plan – to help provide a roadmap for the area’s future growth. “This task will not be easy, but it must start today,” he said. “It requires collaboration between all levels of government. A new Moynihan-Penn Station Master Plan will require true comprehensive planning that includes zoning and financial incentives for infrastructure improvements.”
A Moynihan-Penn Station Master Plan will help to steer the redevelopment of multiple blocks. A Master Plan would:
- Allow for the future growth of Penn Station by bringing order and flexibility to the underground infrastructure of the area;
- Encourage the transformation of the station’s surrounding sites, many of which are underutilized, one-story commercial buildings;
- Allow density from the station site to be utilized in the surrounding area as a financing mechanism, potentially to accommodate Madison Square Garden in a more appropriate location.
While Madison Square Garden is critical to New York City’s economy, Borough President Stringer added, “Its benefits cannot overshadow the physical constraints it places on New York City’s infrastructure.” With the Garden sitting atop it, PennStation “remains a confusing, subterranean, three-level maze with indiscernible entrances, low ceilings, and exit points that are severely limited. It is simply unacceptable to continue to subject existing and future users to the current Penn Station. Failing to account for Penn Station’s current and future needs could have devastating effects and enervate New York’s ability to compete with world cities.”
In addition, the Borough President recommended the conditional disapproval of large advertising signage on 8th Avenue requested by Madison Square Garden—pending their elimination or significant reduction in size—as the proposed signs could serve to confuse those attempting to use and find Penn Station.
Additionally, the Borough President recommended conditional approval of two ULURP actions. The first is a text amendment that creates a special permit for larger signage on the site. While the Borough President recommended disapproval of the special permit due to the inappropriate scale of 8th Avenue advertising signs (as discussed above), he recommended approval of the text amendment as it allowed increased Penn Station signage. Additionally, the Borough President recommended conditional approval of a related city planning chair certification, which would allow Madison Square Garden to create plazas designed more simply than the traditional plaza. Given that the plazas are outside a busy transit hub, the Borough President noted that it was appropriate to limit obstructions like chairs and benches. However, he recommended several modifications to the plaza including the need to explore appropriate plantings and the removal of signage and pavement inlays that did not assist pedestrian wayfinding.
In February, Community Board 4 and 5 voted to conditionally disapprove the proposed actions based on similar issues of concern. The project will continue to move through the City's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure; the next step will be a review by the City Planning Commission and then final review by the City Council.
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