Late last month, the New York City Council told Madison Square Garden it has 10 years to find a new location. The news was a clear sign that the city intends to advance ideas for building a new Penn Station, which exists on the same site. In the end, the most iconic arena in the Northeast went up against the most congested travel hub in North America, and lost.
Some brief background for the unfamiliar: the splendid original Penn Station was demolished in 1963 and replaced with the current stadium-station complex. Many expected the Garden to be granted a new lease in perpetuity. But opponents of that plan convinced the council to reconsider — most notably, Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, who called the present Penn Station a "calamity," and the Municipal Arts Society, which solicited lovely renderings of a new one.
There's unanimous agreement that the current Penn Station, a drab underground tunnel trapped below the Garden, is a monstrosity unbecoming of a great city. But that general hatred threatens to overshadow the tricky details of this major change. Indeed, so far the news of a potential new Penn Station has been received with loud cheers and little criticism.
The 10-year clock for moving the Garden and planning a new Penn creates a historic opportunity for whoever becomes the next mayor of New York. With that election in full swing, it's high time to start asking the serious questions.
1. How will a new Penn Station improve transportation? Every day, several hundred thousand people move through Penn Station to ride Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, Long Island Railroad, and six New York City subway lines. The construction of Moynihan Station across the street from Penn will create a new home for Amtrak travelers, but that project has financial obstacles of its own, and Amtrak accounts for a rather small percentage of Penn traffic.
Stephen Smith of the New York Observer recently pointed out a number of steps that can enhance Penn's capacity without creating a whole new station: widening platforms, integrating commuter rail operations, and digging a new tunnel to New Jersey, among them. If billions are spent merely giving Penn a facelift, it's reasonable to wonder how much money and motivation will be left for the crucial work of actually improving regional mobility.
2. How much economic value would a new station create? New downtown rail stations do seem to increase neighboring property values. One recent meta-analysis found that average residential and commercial property value in a railway station both rose — roughly 4 and 16 percent, respectively [PDF] — and a study of two new stations in major British cities also found that nearby property values increased considerably [PDF]. What's less clear is how much of that increase was tied to improved accessibility, which requires transportation improvements in addition to a new physical station, and brings us back to question number one.
Then there's the question of office space. A broad plan for a renovated Penn Station district, released this summer by the Municipal Arts Society, estimated that 10.4 million square feet of new office space in the area would "be readily absorbed" within 30 years. That's the equivalent of four entire One World Trade Centers (itself still not filled). Such expectations may need to be tempered, especially since nearby areas of Hudson Yards and Midtown East will also be creating vast amounts of office space during the same time period.
3. Is the money better spent elsewhere? Always a difficult and subjective question, to be sure. But for the billions it will cost to remodel Penn Station and move Madison Square Garden, the city could pay for a number of key transportation projects with greater potential to enhance mobility. These include a long-awaited tunnel across the Hudson, future phases of the longer-awaited Second Avenue Subway, or the "X line" subway route through the outer boroughs (where more and more commuters are heading anyway).
4. Where will Madison Square Garden — and all its patrons — go? The Garden has moved several times in its history, and if it has to move once more, it will certainly thrive in its new home, too. Kimmelman and others have suggested giving the Garden a new waterfront space just south of the Javits Center, a few avenues west of its current location atop Penn Station. That would give the Garden an attractive space near Hudson Yards, the High Line, and the emerging 7-train extension. It's certainly not a bad idea.
But no one seems to be asking where all the people who currently move through the Garden will go. The Garden does smother Penn Station right now, but that situation also means there's a direct, underground connection between the two venues. With 320 events a year at the Garden, which holds about 20,000 per event, that's 6 million more people who would flood already crowded midtown streets if the arena moved. What additional transport projects will be required to accommodate this new foot traffic — over and above the costs of a new Penn Station itself?
To conclude: every New Yorker, if not every frequent Northeast Corridor traveler, wants a better Penn Station. That much is clear, and let's hope that day does soon arrive. Before it does, however, the city's next mayor — whose term will overlap will key preliminary phases of the project — had better do a little less clapping and a lot more critical analysis. With voters still making up their minds, now's a great time to start.