Lauren Nassef

If only Eliot Spitzer had kept it in his pants, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. “It is absolutely true that were it not for ‘Client 9,’ a deal would have been reached on the Garden and Penn,” insists Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, director of Columbia University’s Real Estate Development program and a partner at SHoP Architects. “We were weeks away from a deal when Eliot got caught.”

Indeed, the same week in March 2008 that The New York Times revealed the governor’s peccadillo in the nation’s capital, he was scheduled to have a meeting with the three railroads, two developers, and one arena operator, as well as city, state, and federal agencies, and the sundry bureaucrats and advocates all involved last decade in finding a new home for “the world’s most famous arena” and the nation’s busiest transit hub. Madison Square Garden (MSG) and Penn Station had been wedded in unholy matrimony more than four decades prior by Pope Superblock himself, Robert Moses. Everyone was hoping for a very happy and lucrative divorce, including Chakrabarti, then leading planning on the project for the developers, the Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust, two of the city’s largest private landlords.

The arena would have moved into state-of-the-art facilities across Eighth Avenue, inside the old James Farley Post Office, Penn would have been reborn on its current site, and millions of square feet of air rights would have been unleashed onto the surrounding blocks, fusing new development along the High Line and Hudson Yards into the Manhattan core.

But then the governor’s libido got in the way. More than lusting after a lost dream, there is good reason to dwell on this history. While it may be true that New Yorkers are too given over to a certain debilitating strain of nostalgia—such as the obsession with a Penn Station few can remember and fewer have experienced—they also love a good fight, and a new one is beginning to shape up over the fate of the arena and the station. If the plan is to succeed this time, it must build on the mistakes and victories of the past without being slaves to them.

The concourse of the original Penn Station, completed in 1910 and designed by McKim, Mead & White.
Detroit Publishing Co. The concourse of the original Penn Station, completed in 1910 and designed by McKim, Mead & White.

It turns out an unexpected gift from Moses is making much of this latest debate possible. Before construction started on the Garden in 1964, it was endowed with a special permit that allowed the arena to operate on the site for 50 years before coming up for renewal. While many planners regard the decision to level the old Penn and build the Garden on top as the single worst ever made by the New York City Planning Commission, the permit has become their saving grace.

Initially, the Bloomberg administration—and especially the owners of Madison Square Garden, in the midst of three-year, $980 million renovation—had hoped the permit would be quietly approved in perpetuity, according to those involved in the reapproval process.

But the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), saviors of Grand Central, and the Regional Plan Association (RPA), champions of the previous Penn plans, learned of the permit and quickly grasped the potential to use it as leverage to reopen the debate over the station.

The groups put together a new coalition to push for a limited permit on MSG, which MAS and RPA pegged at a decade. “This gives everyone plenty of time to get their acts together,” says RPA president Robert Yaro. The time line fits with other current plans to bring new Amtrak tunnels and high-speed rail into the city over the next decade. The groups also reached out to The New York Times, where architecture critic Michael Kimmelman and the editorial board helped build political and public support.

In March, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer sided with the 10-year camp, and even helped develop a legal case for it that has given the planning commission, which holds the real power on land-use issues, the framework to support a limited permit. The commission decided to extend the term limit to 15 years, a split-the-difference compromise that, in light of decades-spanning megaprojects such as the World Trade Center or Hudson and Atlantic Yards, seems appropriate. Said Amanda Burden, chair of the planning commission: “This is a moment in time that could—and should—have historic consequences for the city.”

An underground passageway in the current Penn Station, with rows of shops near gates for the Long Island Railroad.
123RF Photo An underground passageway in the current Penn Station, with rows of shops near gates for the Long Island Railroad.

The push could still be overturned later this summer by the city council and its speaker, and mayoral hopeful, Christine Quinn. She once partnered with the owners of the Garden to defeat Mayor Bloomberg’s dreams of building a stadium at Hudson Yards for football and the city’s 2012 Olympics bid. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” MAS president Vin Cipolla says.

Should the advocates succeed at the council with some term limit intact, that is when the real politicking will begin. The term limit is meant to put pressure on the Garden to relocate, but its real target is as much the political class as anyone, which has been grappling with expanding Penn since the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) first proposed the idea of moving part of the station into the old post office in 1990. Since then, the project has grown and shrunk, collapsing more than once under its own bureaucratic weight. “We’ve got to rally the troops to get this to happen,” city planning commissioner Anna Levin said at a public meeting in March. “It goes beyond these walls.”

Most crucial will be public support. To kick things off, MAS launched an architecture competition—“an architectural provocation,” as Cipolla puts it—to come up with new schemes for both the station and the arena. “A world-class city needs a world-class train station, but it also needs a world-class venue,” Cipolla said.

He tapped four of the city’s most prominent firms to tackle the challenge: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, SHoP, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R). “The current Penn and MSG are a blight on the city,” Charles Renfro, AIA, said. “It’s inhumane and humiliating to pass through either, and it’s up to us to make sure something gets done.”

Credit: Diller Scofidio + Renfro

See the complete proposal from DS+R in ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.

Surprisingly, the DS+R proposal is the most conventional, at least as far as the siting goes. The firm is maintaining the current Penn footprint and moving the Garden into the back of the Farley post office, as was the case before. Above the station will rise “a great new civic center for 21st-century New York,” Renfro said. “It goes from fast-to-slow, trains and grab-and-go below, to more relaxed and contemplative uses above.”

The complex will be dense but not tall, light and heavy at once—“aerated,” as Renfro puts it. “We want to create something monumental, but for our fast-moving digital age,” he said. The idea is to bring mobility back to what is a very rigid location now.

Credit: H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture

See the complete proposal from H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture in ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.

H3 and SHoP have each taken a broader approach, focusing on the entire surrounding district, one of the few corners of Manhattan that is still rough around the edges—in large part because of the problems at Penn. John Fontillas, AIA, the partner in charge at H3, calls his firm’s approach “holistic,” and it begins with taking a page from Kimmelman and moving the Garden to the site of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center along the Hudson River. There would still be a transit connection, with the new No. 7 subway extension to Hudson Yards. “The arena is just as important as the station, and we have to think about how it can be tied into its surroundings, with Times Square, the Chelsea arts district, the Theater District, and the conventions all right there,” Fontillas says.

Credit: SHoP Architects

See the complete proposal from SHoP Architects in ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.

SHoP wants to create the city’s first “Innovation District,” and points to London’s King’s Cross as a model, where the station was rebuilt recently by John McAslan + Partners. (Tech startups and high-end shops quickly followed, and now Google has its European headquarters there.) The Garden would shift to a postal facility on 30th Street while still being connected to an expanded Penn, and the city as a whole, by an extension of the High Line. “How cool would it be to get off the train and hop on the High Line to go to a game or the galleries,” Chakrabarti says.

Both SHoP and H3 had the same idea of a new tower of 2,000 or even 2,500 feet to the east of the Seventh Avenue station, a beacon signaling the new heart of the city—and one that would help pay for the station and the arena through the sale of air rights.

Credit: SOM

See the complete proposal from SOM in ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.

SOM took MAS’s provocation to heart and did away with the arena. “Madison Square Garden could go anywhere,” principal Roger Duffy, FAIA, says. “Frankly, it’s a sideshow, and not something we should be focusing our energy on.”

Instead, his firm offers perhaps the most defiant proposal: doubling the size of Penn by annexing the adjacent blocks (which is likely to happen anyway when high-speed rail comes in two decades) and creating a park on top. Floating 200 feet above it all, Superstudio-style, is a new mixed-use complex, a visual marker for the station and the new neighborhood. Like DS+R’s building, it would be designed to let daylight through.

These plans might seem an affront to the Garden, but there is good reason to believe that arena owners would support one for the right price. Already SHoP’s Barclays Center in Brooklyn is stealing acts like the Rolling Stones and the Ringling Bros. Circus, despite renovations that have vastly improved the Garden’s interior. The fact remains, it is the oldest arena in the country. And it has been reported that the arena could make back its almost billion-dollar renovation outlay in as soon as five years, thanks to broadcast rights, so that cost should not be a factor in the move.

“There is no plan for these stations [at Penn], so it is not fair to saddle the Garden with responsibility for them,” Elise Wagner, the Garden’s attorney, said at a public hearing in April. This could also be seen as a plea, though: Present us with a viable plan, as you did before, and we will go.

Even then, the risks are manifold. The plan could come undone yet again, and probably will. So it went with Battery Park City, with Hudson Yards, and with dozens of New York megaprojects. The advocates have to be prepared to carry on and keep pushing. “We know this is just the beginning,” Cipolla says.