MIDTOWN — The World's Most Famous Arena was on the ropes.
Madison Square Garden, which applied in January to replace its lapsed operating permit with one that lasted "in perpetuity," was instead facing a 15-year expiration date recommended May 22 by the City Planning Commission.
Community groups and local leaders, seeking to relocate the Garden to make way for an expanded Penn Station, hailed the decision as a victory.
But they also looked warily toward what some said could be a "fatal loophole." If the arena owners made certain improvements to Penn Station, opponents feared, the Garden could still win an indefinite permit with approval from the transit agencies that use the rail hub.
That meant the arena still had some fight left. That is, until two weeks ago, when Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker who represents the West Side and is also running for mayor, took what observers said was a game-changing position.
Quinn, taking her first public stance on the Garden showdown more than six months into the debate, announced June 19 that she supported a stricter 10-year limit — one without any loophole.
Just one week later, the city's Land Use Committee and Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, followed suit, supporting a 10-year permit with no loophole.
The votes were overwhelming: 18-1 on the committee, 7-0 on the subcommittee.
"She has an enormous amount of influence over what we would do," said Councilman Mark Weprin, who serves on the Land Use Committee. "Madison Square Garden is not only in her district, she's also the speaker."
"It's very hard to say which direction things were leaning — the outcome really did depend on her thinking," he said.
Quinn's decision to join the debate "was a 100 percent the factor. There's no one person who matters more in this process than Quinn."
Some of that influence stems from a simple City Council practice: In land-use matters, tradition dictates that council committees defer to whichever member represents the property at hand, according to members and observers.
"It's not the end-all-be-all, but we give the local member a great deal of discretion," one council member said.
Quinn's status as City Council speaker and a frontrunner in the Democratic mayoral primary — a poll last week found her virtually tied for the lead with former Rep. Anthony Weiner and former Comptroller Bill Thompson — was also a factor, observers said.
Still, some council members chafed at her role: The councilwoman who led the fight against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bid to build a West Side Stadium in 2005, one argued, had suddenly become the most visible advocate for a new Manhattan arena.
"It's a little surprising that the speaker, the one who was so adamant about not having the stadium on the West Side, now wants a new arena," one council member said.
"The Garden's moved before, so it wouldn't be that outrageous to move again. That being said, I've been watching people trying to site stadiums recently, and it's not that easy," the member added, referring to a proposed Major League Soccer stadium in Queens.
A Quinn staffer scoffed at the comparison to the West Side stadium.
"It's comparing apples and oranges. The West Side Stadium is a completely different project. And if you look at the 2008 articles when there was some serious consideration of moving the Garden, she was saying even then we need to move the Garden," the staffer said.
Garden officials have insisted it should remain in place. And while MSG officials declined to comment for this story, they previously said the arena was "being held hostage" by the City Planning Commission's recommended 15-year limit.
But the permit process is approaching its final round, with a vote later this month by the full City Council — which is expected to approve the 10-year limit.
"The process is rounding third and heading home," Mann said, short of any last-minute maneuvers by the Garden. "There's the potential for litigation — that the city acted arbitrarily and capriciously. Or if the Garden is really, really convinced that they don't want to be part of this process, they can just sit tight and not do anything.
"That would be unfortunate," Mann added. "I think we all hope that after this process, there's some time for a kind of regrouping and a coming back together to work on the Garden and the future of Penn Station across Midtown."