July 19, 2022

I’m sure everyone thought I was crazy when I said it.

For months I’ve argued that you’d have to move Madison Square Garden to create a wonderful new Penn Station—a transit hub and public space desperately needed by New York City and those who pass through it.

Maybe it seemed too ambitious, especially when compared with the low bar set by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to build lots of new office-use skyscrapers to finance modest improvements to Penn. Really? Move MSG? Get out of here.

But in the past six months, something amazing has happened. What was once unimaginable has become a part of the conversation about Penn’s future. More and more, it seems, public and private officials are coming to the same conclusion: Yes, MSG can be moved. And moving it is a good idea.

And not just good for the station but also for the arena itself—one of the oldest in the country, one that despite its owners’ ambitious updating, is showing its years.

Plenty of other locations

Following a six-hour public hearing last month, state Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan marked a sea change in the stance of public officialdom when she said that MSG would indeed have to be moved to make way for a new Penn. Many who spoke at the hearing-myself included-had hit hard at the same idea. After all, how can you build a great station with soaring, light-filled atria like the original if you have a giant, round sports and concert venue on top of it?

Samuel Turvey, chairman of the ReThinkNYC nonprofit, not only argued that Madison Square Garden must be moved, but he also went so far as to suggest six potential locations including two in Hudson Yards and others just to the east of the current site.

There is also a growing if belated realization that the city law granting MSG special permission to operate at the site expires next June. The permission already was extended once for 10 years, to give the arena’s owners, the Dolans, time to find a new home. At the time, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was quoted as saying the arena needed to move to make way for a great new Penn Station.

It’s amazing how fast 10 years can go by.

Although the Dolans have done as good a job as can be expected updating the Garden, there is little hiding the fact that it is nearly 60 years old. Access and egress are so bad that many concertgoers slip away before a band’s encore to avoid getting stuck in a molasses sea of homebound fans crowding the cinder-block stairwells.

Precedent for change

Let’s remember that Penn Station wasn’t demolished—it was decapitated. The bottom portion is still there, including much of the foundation. So re-creating the architectural masterpiece, or a modern interpretation of it, is easier than one might think. And imagine a glorious new sports and concert arena as well. Keep in mind: This would be the fourth time Madison Square Garden has moved from its original home on Madison Square. And it used to have a roof garden. So there is precedent for change.

Of course, such an ambitious move is likely to take time and money.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s development agency is about to approve a plan that keeps MSG where it is. Let’s hit the pause button. Let’s do the right thing and get both the station and the arena that New York City deserves.

Alexandros Washburn, an architect and former chief urban designer for New York City, is executive director of the Grand Penn Community Alliance.