Madison Square Garden may have to move off Penn Station in 10 years. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)
When the New York Knicks enter the 2023-24 NBA season led by an in-his-prime Andrew Wiggins and cagey-yet-spry 46-year-old point guard Pablo Prigioni (probably), they may be doing so in a new home, thanks to a New York City Council vote that gave Madison Square Garden 10 years to vacate its longstanding location atop Manhattan's Penn Station.
As Deadspin's Barry Petchesky notes, the relocation issue has garnered about as much consensus as anything ever does in New York City government. A local community board, zoning subcommittee, committee on land use and the city council overwhelmingly supporting the 45-year-old building's removal from Midtown to facilitate the expansion and redevelopment of Penn Station, which is the busiest passenger transport hub in the U.S. and the busiest train station in North America, hosting nearly a half-million commuters and visitors every day. (Let me also say, as a New Yorker, that the station as presently constituted is kind of the worst.)
The outpouring of support for the heave-ho probably isn't thrilling James Dolan, the president and CEO of Cablevision, executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company and owner of the Knicks, the NHL's New York Rangers and the WNBA's New York Liberty. The company's 50-year permit to operate MSG atop Penn Station expired earlier this year, but with the Garden in the midst of a three-year major renovation costing a reported $986 million set to be completed this fall, Dolan and his associates had requested that the city extend the Garden's permit in perpetuity. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had recommended a 15-year extension.
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On Wednesday, though, the council gave 'em 10. From Karen Matthews of the Associated Press:
Organizations hoping Madison Square Garden will move to another location applauded the 47-1 City Council vote limiting the arena's permit.
The Alliance for a New Penn Station said the council "has made clear that now is time to get to work and build the Penn Station that New York City and the region desperately need in order to improve transit access and spur economic growth in the city and throughout the region."
Kim Kerns, a spokeswoman for the Madison Square Garden Co., noted that the arena is in the midst of a three-year renovation costing nearly $1 billion.
"Madison Square Garden has operated at its current site for generations and has been proud to bring New Yorkers some of the greatest and most iconic moments in sports and entertainment," Kerns said.
And also, y'know, the Isiah Thomas era.
The Garden has had four homes since opening to the public in 1879 — a pair at the corner of East 26th Street and Madison Avenue, a third on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets (which moved the building off the actual Madison Square) and the current spot, spanning 31st through 33rd streets between Seventh and Eighth avenues, which has stood since 1968. The Rangers have called the Garden home since 1926; the Knickerbockers have played at MSG since the team's inception in 1946; the Liberty played there from 1997 through 2010, but have spend the last three seasons at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., to accommodate renovation work during the Knicks' and Rangers' offseasons.
While it's true that plenty of historic events have taken place at the Garden's current location, from the classic first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971 to the post-9/11 Concert for New York City, the building hasn't seen a ton of success for its principal tenants. The Knicks have won only two NBA titles since it opened, in 1970 and 1973, while the Rangers have raised only one banner, in 1994. Reasonable can differ as to whether they believe the Garden would retain its "Mecca" and "World's Most Famous Arena" cachet if it were to occupy a different set of streets, but its relocation wouldn't necessarily mean razing too much proud championship history. (Sorry, Patrick.)
Where exactly the Garden would move come 2023 remains, as you might expect, an open question. All four architectural firms that presented design concepts for a revamped Penn Station in a design challenge back in May recommended pushing MSG out from above the station, with new locations including a pier on the Hudson River, a U.S. Postal Service processing facility that spans 28th through 30th streets between 9th and 10th avenues, and the back of the James Farley Post Office west of the present location. (The Postal Service is apparently looking to sell off some real estate.)
Dolan and company haven't exactly been receptive to the ideas thus far ("It's curious to see that there are so many ideas on how to tear down a privately owned building that is a thriving New York icon, supports thousands of jobs and is currently completing a $1 billion transformation") and didn't seem too fazed by the vote (“We now look forward to the reopening of the arena in the fall of 2013"). If nothing else, though, it's interesting to envision a future in which Penn Station isn't awful and the Garden finds a new and lovely home; the mock-up by SHoP Architects, who designed the Barclays Center, sure looks pretty rad. (Like Dolan would ever hire the guys behind the Brooklyn Nets' digs.)
The ostensible eviction notice is, in some respects, a bit of community vengeance some five decades in the making. To build the fourth iteration of MSG on its current site, developers knocked down the original above-ground Penn Station, a beautiful and iconic piece of architecture that had stood for more than 50 years and whose demolition sparked the creation of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. Replacing the grand columns, pink granite and sweeping concourse with the not-exactly-aesthetically-pleasing Garden raised the ire of many; now, it seems, there's an end date on the eyesore offending New Yorkers' eyes.
Of course, "it seems" that way right now. MSG will have the right to reapply to extend the permit once it lapses in a decade, and as Charles V. Bagli of the New York Times wrote, "anything can happen in the next 10 years, including several elections for mayor and governor." Seth Rosenthal of Knicks blog Posting and Toasting sums it up well: "This could become a major nuisance someday, but that day is far off. For now, [...] maybe get to work ripping seats out and chipping pieces off the Garden floor for souvenirs."
And if you see any massive swaths of land in New York City — so well known for its wide tracts of open, cheaply available space! — that seem like they'd be a good fit for an indoor arena that could fit something like 20,000 people plus luxury boxes, concessions, concourses and locker rooms, maybe give ol' J.D. a holler. Never hurts to start house-hunting, even if you don't think you'll have to move.
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