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MSG Says It's Being 'Held Hostage' After City Limits Permit to 15 Years

By Alan Neuhauser | May 22, 2013 1:34pm | Updated on May 22, 2013 4:55pm
 The Department of City Planning granted Madison Square Garden a 15-year renewal on its special permit to operate as a large-scale arena.
Planning Commission Recommends 15-Year Pemit for MSG
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MIDTOWN — The Department of City Planning voted Wednesday morning to limit Madison Square Garden to a 15-year renewal on its permit to operate as a large-scale arena — a decision that prompted the venue's owner to claim it was "being held hostage" by the city.

The Madison Square Company had sought an unlimited extension for The World's Most Famous Arena, which had been operating under a temporary certificate of occupancy since its 50-year permit expired in December.

The Madison Square Garden Company said it was "extremely disappointed" in Wednesday's outcome.

"We hoped and expected that City Planning, which currently issues virtually all special permits without term limits, would base its decision on the merits of the permit application," the company said in a statement.

"Instead, the Garden — a key driver of the city’s economy that supports thousands of jobs, and which is currently investing nearly $1 billion of its own money in its arena — is effectively being held hostage by a decision by public officials 50 years ago to demolish the original Penn Station.”

It called the 15-year cap "arbitrary...inappropriate, unfair and unwarranted."

Local leaders and community groups, by contrast, had advocated for a 10-year cap, which they said would help force the arena to relocate and make way for an expansion of Penn Station, the busiest and one of the most overcrowded transit hubs in the country.

City Planning ultimately tried to find middle ground, Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden said Wednesday.

"The special permit term limit we are approving today recognizes that Madison Square Garden occupies a unique location on top of a major transit hub," Burden explained, adding that the vote was unanimous.

"We have endeavored to balance the need to avoid disruption to Madison Square Garden’s arena business with the explicit  goal of making meaningful improvements to Penn Station — either through relocation of Madison Square Garden or through a plan for integration of Penn Station improvements onto the Madison Square Garden site."

City Planning also voted to limit the size of the eight-story LED signs that Madison Square Garden had applied to erect around the outside of the venue to no more than 40 feet above curb level and prohibited the signs from displaying advertisements or videos.

The City Council has 50 days to vote on City Planning's decisions, a City Planning spokeswoman said. If it does not, the measures will automatically go into effect.

Amtrak, which owns Penn Station, did not immediately return a call and email for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Local leaders welcomed the 15-year expiration date, but also voiced concern, about a provision in the decision that could still allow Madison Square Garden to remain in place in perpetuity, with apparently little oversight from the city or community groups.

Under Wednesday's resolution, if Madison Square Garden strikes a deal with the three rail agencies that use Penn Station — Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the MTA — to improve the transit hub's "means of access and egress," such as by installing more elevators, escalators, stairways and other amenities, City Planning Commissioners can then grant the arena a never-ending permit.

“This would essentially allow four people in a room to decide for themselves what is best for commuters, the future of the area and the vitality of the city — requiring only a rubber-stamp approval from planners without further public review or City Council oversight," Robert Yaro, president of the Alliance for a New Penn Station, said in a statement.

Raju Mann, chairman of Community Board 5's Transportation Committee, called the caveat "a gift to Madison Square Garden" in an interview with Capital New York .

"Madison Square Garden fundamentally inhibits Penn Station's ability to grow and handle the transportation challenges it faces," Mann said at a May 9 meeting of Community Board 5. "The goal is to try to figure out how we can improve transportation and also build a great new arena."