Fix Penn Station Now; Raze $1 Billion Knicks Garden Later

New York’s grimy Madison Square Garden has been an eyesore for all of its 50 years and hope has never died that one day the wrecking ball will swing.

But for the owners, the Dolan family, who are nearing the end of a $1 billion makeover, the Garden -- with its Knicks, Rangers and musical acts -- is a wonderful cash cow.

It’s perched atop the depressing, low-ceilinged maze known as Penn Station, daily hive for 600,000 scuttling commuters.

The Garden’s presence is one major impediment to the 25-year-old dream of turning the decrepit and overcrowded Penn station into a smoothly operating city gateway.

Then there’s the bureaucratically toxic stew that includes three cash-strapped railroads (The Long Island Railroad Co., New Jersey Transit Corp. and Amtrak) and the nearly bankrupt U.S. Post Office.

Now the Municipal Arts Society is turning up the heat on a languishing plan to transform Penn Station.

At issue is the Garden’s operating permit, which has expired. The Dolans want it extended in perpetuity. Advocates would like the city to renew the permit for as little as 10 years, during which time a relocation plan could be devised.

(A plan to move the Garden a block west to rise within the stone walls of the Farley Post Office Building in 2008 fell through.)

Lost Cause

Moving the Garden is probably a lost cause in the short term, since the Dolans have been flushing millions into the brown monster for three years now. The $1 billion the family says it will ultimately spend so far entails little more than rejiggering the seating bowl for better sightlines.

In truth, Penn can be vastly improved around the Garden. The arena roofs a considerable chunk of the station, but there are acres of ugly, useless plazas that are fair game to create expanded and more welcoming railroad entrances. Skylights and clerestories can be punched in to help create a civilized experience for travelers.

The station runs under the Garden so passenger movement and services for the railroads can be organized on a single, broad, easily navigated concourse. (Now they are Balkanized in separate mazelike fiefdoms on three different levels.)

A deal to extend the operating permit must assure the flexibility needed to improve the station. And it must insist on a vastly improved flow into the arena, especially at the dreadful entry through the Two Penn Plaza office building and over an especially ugly bridge that happens to occupy prime real estate above a no-longer-used driveway.

Architectural Ballet

These essential improvements are also architectural opportunities.

The station could choreograph the movement of people among station, subways and arena into an architectural ballet bathed in gorgeous light drawn from above. A talented architect could recapture much of the glory of the 1910 McKim Meade & White station, demolished to widespread horror in 1963.

The other Penn wild card is a long-planned additional tunnel to New Jersey. It is needed to handle a large expected increase in travel demand. In the latest of a long line of political grandstands that has tortured the Penn project, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled the tunnel in 2010.

The plan needs to be revived and improved in a way that will genuinely extend Penn, as opposed to the murdered plan, which abetted a completely separate station.

The Municipal Art Society has asked four teams of architects to rethink the Penn plan. I hope at least one will design around the continued presence of the Garden and will create a persuasive extension to the new tunnel.

The essential plan, though, would find a way to supply backbone to the politicians essential to getting the station overhauled.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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