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To Transform Penn Station, Madison Square Garden Must Move!

A harkening back to the golden age of Penn Station
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For foodies, MSG means monosodium glutamate, which gives lots of people headaches. In our case, MSG means Madison Square Garden – which also gives Penn Station advocates severe headaches.

Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968, sits in the space formerly occupied by the original Penn Station, Charles Follen Mckim’s Beaux-Arts masterpiece. To create the current MSG arena, developers merely lopped off the old Penn Station at sidewalk level and built above the train tracks and platforms, which still function as they have since 1910. But now all train passengers are crowded into a dismal maze of tunnels and passageways. Over 600,000 daily riders – more than any other transit hub in North America – are subjected to this dehumanizing treatment.

To great fanfare, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced a project to build a new station in the old Farley Post Office Building across Eighth Ave. from the current horror show. However, Cuomo’s project leaves MSG in place and is NOT a substitute for a new rebuilt Penn Station. Among the shortcomings of Cuomo’s Moynihan station program: (1) It serves only AMTRAK passenger plus about 15% of LIRR traffic – a total of 65,000 daily passengers; (2) Because Cuomo’s plan allows MSG to remain in place, it leaves about 535,000 daily LIRR and NJ Transit riders jostling in Penn Station’s grim underground passages; (3) Cuomo’s major nod to alleviating conditions in the old Penn Station tunnels is just to add LED lighting to the ceilings; (4) Cuomo’s $1.6 billion project cost will primarily benefit only 11% of Penn Stations daily users.

Pennsylvania Station

The drum of Madison Square Garden sits directly on top of the original platforms and tracks of McKim’s Penn Station, condemning rail passengers to a warren of dingy underground passages. At top of photo is the banal 2 Penn Plaza office tower that blocks the site’s important Seventh Ave. elevation. At bottom of photo is a portion of the old Farley Post Office, the eastern half of which is slated to become Moynihan Station to serve AMTRAK passengers. There is room for MSG to move into the western half of the now-empty Farley building.

Madison Square Garden must move

Every serious study of Penn Station’s problems has concluded that MSG must move. Recognizing this, the New York Times teamed with architect Vishaan Chakrabarti to promote a plan to convert the existing MSG structure into a massive glass-enclosed train hall: The NY Times plan, while attractive in its simplicity and relative economy, has some significant limitations: (1) It is a little plan that lacks "the magic to stir men's blood." (2) It leaves the 2 Penn Plaza office tower in place – totally blocking view of the station from Seventh Ave. Presence of the office tower also sacrifices a rare opportunity to enhance the civic space and increase adjacent property values. (3) It does little to alleviate the plight of NJ Transit riders, nor does it deal with the need to accommodate increased passenger load from the new Gateway Tunnel project.

The REBUILD proposal that brings back McKim’s original Penn Station solves all of these problems. By twinning the REBUILD plan with Jim Venturi’s plan for making Penn Station through running, the region gets the greatest benefit at the lowest cost: (1) A rebuilt landmark will be a far bigger tourist magnet than yet another glass box; (2) It creates the potential for a magnificent civic precinct that would increase property values and tax revenues; (3) It alleviates many of the bottlenecks that currently plague LIRR and NJ Transit passengers; and (4) It allows for increased traffic from Gateway Tunnel without the vast expense of creating Penn Station South; (5) Rebuilding McKim’s low-rise Penn Station will bring light and air to a section of Manhattan that needs it desperately.

To achieve the greatest public good, Madison Square Garden must move. Of course, conducting the negotiations to make that happen will require that rarest of all commodities: Political will.

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