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In battle over future of Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center surfaces as a curiously praised counterpoint ("seamless" loading dock?)

There’s a huge battle brewing over the future of Madison Square Garden, as some influential organizations and commentators (Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman), seemingly in concert with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and the Bloomberg administration, are urging that the arena, “squatting” over Penn Station for five decades, be moved in ten years.

Why? So the already overburdened station, long a dismaying, dispiriting entry point to the city, can be made more accessible and safer, with stabilizing pillars removed, able to handle the growth the city anticipates (from Hudson Yards, a new Hudson tunnel) with the grandeur the city deserves.

Add Mayor Mike Bloomberg's lingering animosity to arena operators because of their opposition to the mayor’s West Side Stadium plan.

The only problem: MSG, after seeing a 2007 potential move to the Farley Post Office across 8th Avenue fall through, committed nearly $1 billion of private funds to renovate the arena, upgrading suites, seats and functions to compete with other sports facilities, including the Barclays Center.

So the request by advocates--including planning groups like the Municipal Art Society and the Regional Plan Association, creating an Alliance for a New Penn Station, as well as the American Institute of Architects--that MSG get only a ten-year renewal of its operating permit is unfair, the arena and its allies say.

Who's right?

The arena's defense on the permit has some weight, especially since it’s hardly safe to bet that a new arena and train station could be planned in a decade.

But issues of fairness are very tough to parse. After all, MSG gets a seemingly unnecessary tax exemption now worth $16.5 million a year, money that over the past 30 years might be said to have funded a good chunk of that renovation. (See the NYC Independent Budget Office's list of pros and cons regarding that tax exemption, at right.)

In turn, MSG contends that its tax savings are dwarfed by tax savings and subsidies granted to other sports facilities in New York City, including the Barclays Center and Yankee Stadium.

That’s likely true, but none of them have the advantages of MSG’s central location on Manhattan’s West Side and the attendant ability to charge big money for suites, sponsorships, and advertising--and to accommodate a uniquely busy event schedule.

Whatever the recommendation of the Bloomberg-controlled City Planning Commission (CPC), which held a hearing last month, the issue should come to the City Council this summer. (Council Speaker Christine Quinn is on the fence.) Before that, potential new designs for the station and arena, dreamed up by some pro bono teams of architects, should be revealed next month, with a public event on May 29.

(Also see coverage from Crain's, the Commercial Observer, and the Times. Crain's columnist Greg David observed that Bloomberg is unlikely to gain his revenge. The New York Post, in an editorial, defended MSG, while the New York Times called for a ten-year permit, with smaller signage.)

"Seamless" Barclays emerges at public hearing

Proposed MSG signage; photo from DNAinfo
The 4/10/13 CPC public hearing, which I recently watched on video, addressed whether MSG its operating permit be renewed in perpetuity or last only a decade, and whether (and how much) the arena should be allowed to add massive, revenue-generating digital signage to exterior.

The hearing, to an Atlantic Yards watcher, quite remarkable. First, CPC Chairwoman Amanda Burden, warmly friendly to many development projects, including Atlantic Yards, was skeptical and vaguely sneering toward MSG and its defenders.

Also, the Barclays Center was cited not just as a competitor with spiffy modern facilities, but also as an arena that operated more discreetly in its setting, with more modest digital signage and loading dock facilities that work “seamlessly.”

That, of course, was astounding. Only compared to MSG, which has antiquated facilities that require loading on the street, does the Barclays Center elevator/turntable combo--unique compared to most arenas, which have drive-in ramps from parking lots--seem superior.

After all, the Brooklyn arena hardly works perfectly, as trucks stack up on Dean Street and other nearby streets. See for example this video from Atlantic Yards Watch, from a report showing trucks lined up on residential Dean Street waiting to load-in for the circus in March.

Also see this report last November from Atlantic Yards Watch, stating, "Two trucks queued on Dean Street waiting for entry to the loading dock for at least half an hour. The second truck turned off its engine, but the first idled for up to half an hour."

And while MSG’s proposed signage is far more extensive, it is in more of a business district--albeit with residences nearby--rather than butting into a rowhouse district. (And no one got to vote on whether Barclays Center could slap a big Barclays logo on the arena roof, which, as approved initially, was supposed to be a green roof.)

And MSG’s unappealing exterior architecture, already slammed by Kimmelman, led Vikki Barbero, chair of Manhattan CB5, to say the Manhattan arena had to be updated, “otherwise, it will become a second rate cousin to the new and glamorous Barclays Center in Brooklyn.”

Arena at transit hub?

It was also notable to hear the consensus is that an arena should not be on a transit hub, a rather slippery formulation often inaccurately used to describe the Barclays Center. An arena like MSG sitting directly over a major transit station imposes huge constraints and, actually, the Barclays Center is below grade and adjacent.

“I can’t find anywhere in the world-- we’ve been looking for a place where there’s an arena on top of a major transportation hub like this, and we haven’t been able to find one,” said Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association (RPA) at the hearing.. “There’s a good reason--it doesn’t work.”

But an adjacent hub like the one in Brooklyn, not so bad. The stairs from the far end of subway tracks lead to a new station and then the plaza that serves as an entrance path to the arena. The Long Island Rail Road is a long block away. Those distinctions are usually elided, given the Barclays Center’s transit access, but they are important.

Fawning at a sports star

One note: former Knick and current team front office staffer Larry Johnson testified about how MSG was a beacon for athletes and thus deserved to get a permit renewal.

Despite the essential nonsense of such statements, he got fawning treatment from Commissioner Angela Battaglia, who said, “It is a privilege for us to have you.” It seemed ridiculous then, a sign of unnecessary worship of athletes--especially one who, while good, is hardly Hall of Fame material.

And it seems even more unwise now, given Johnson's rather unwelcome reaction to the coming out of Jason Collins, the league's first openly gay player.

The hearing leads off: signage

Early in the hearing, Burden asked MSG attorney Elise Wagner (of Kramer, Levin, which also represents Forest City Ratner on Atlantic Yards), should the arena have advertising signage outside.

Wagner responded that every arena has such signage, including Barclays.

How does it compare to Barclays, Burden asked.

“My understanding is that much of their advertising related to sponsors,” Wagner responded, not so accurately. Yes, each entrance has a sponsor attached. But the messages in the Barclays Center oculus is most definitely advertising.

Commissioner Michelle de la Uz, of the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn, observed, “I think what you're proposing is vastly different.” Indeed, as DNAInfo reported, “MSG reps are asking for the right to install four 77-foot LED display panels--almost twice the size of the existing regulation-sized 40-foot signs--on four sides of arena.”

Later, though MSG officials acknowledged the amount of signage was negotiable, they were unwilling to put a dollar value on expected revenue.

The issue of loading

Burden asked Wagner, with some edge in her voice, “are you saying there are no constraints on the Garden... it operates perfectly well?” Does it, Burden asked, have plenty of room for loading operations?

Wagner stressed the issue of balance, noting that the location allows people to to to the arena by public transit. “We're in the middle of midtown, the loading is difficult,” she allowed, but the Garden “is able to overcome” constraints.

Loading, repeated Burden, “is not optimal.”

Commissioner Orlando Marin asked if there was any way to avoid trucks on the streets and sidewalks.

Wagner said “there is a line of trucks along the curb,” but they don’t block traffic. In order for changes, to loading, “there would have to be major structural changes made to the Garden,” and that’s not part of the application.

Has that been studied?

Yes, MSG has looked at that, Wagner said, but “there’s no profitable way to do that.” That, of course, is worthy of greater inquiry.

She stressed that trucks are kept outside the arena “for a minimal amount of time.”

“If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig,” countered Commissioner Irwin Cantor. “You’re not persuasive that this type of work is infeasible. Is it truly infeasible, or is it just money? You’re asking for an open ended future, and you’re offering nothing in return.”

What MSG is offering, as others would testify, is what facility operators understandably claim: world-class events, area employment, thrills for the needy who get free tickets or opportunity to meet athletes.

Wagner said that exterior improvements will benefit the area, but trucks got larger after MSG was built, so they can’t fit into the ramp.

What MSG could build

Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin, who noted that MSG owns the site, asked what could be built as of right if the arena disappeared.

Wagner said the owners could build a 2.5 million square foot office building--nearly as big as the Empire State Building, which has 2.7 million sf-- without provision for transit improvements, and even twice as large if such transit improvements were included.

(Another MSG attorney, Paul Selver, later noted that “the Garden could leave the building there, and simply reprogram it for another use.”)

The renovation and the permit renewal

Burden asked Wagner to explain the business decision, including MSG’s consideration of moving in 2007.

The deal fell through to go to Farley, she said, and the Garden couldn’t wait to see if it was revived: “It’s a competitive industry, the Barclays Center was being built.”

In deciding to invest a billion dollars, did MSG expect it would remain where it was, in perpetuity, asked Commissioner Kenneth Knuckles.

MSG, Wagner said, has already moved several times. If there were an appropriate site, she said, the Garden would study the option. Unstated was that the renewal of the operating permit, at least until the criticism crested, was considered automatic.

Burden asked the RPA’s Yaro, who suggested a ten-year term, what could “reasonably be accomplished in ten years,” given that the city and state have not previously come up with a plan for a new train station.

Yaro said several federally initiated projects are under way regarding rail, and all other Northeast Corridor cities are revamping their Amtrak stations. So there’s a window of opportunity to use the Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue as Moynihan Station for Amtrak.

Yaro, like others, acknowledged a mistake in allowing an arena to be built over a then-moribund station. Fifty years ago, he said, “ the presumption was that the railroads were going out of business... They dropped 1163 columns onto the platforms” in building MSG, thus blocking even wheelchair movement. “A modern Penn Station would have 200 columns.”

“The Garden acted in good faith,” Yaro said. “They know that even with these improvements, it’s not competitive with what we’re seeing at Barclays.... I think that’s because there hasn’t been a place for them to go... The city needs to help them move.”

(His evidence that MSG’s not competitive? That a dog show had to be shared with an external site. I’m not sure that MSG isn’t competitive with Barclays. It may have antiquated loading, but it’s still way more booked.)

Yaro acknowledged there were many moving parts in the plan, including the possibility of using the Morgan post office site in Chelsea for MSG. Also, Kimmelman has has suggested the Javits Center site. Neither have the same transit access as the current arena.

“Is it reasonable,” Cantor asked, “to just throw a ten-year number on the table, when at the very least we give them the opportunity to amortize out part of their investment?”

“Wee heard today their presumption was a rubber stamp,” said Yaro, suggesting MSG “made that investment at their peril... I believe relocation of the Garden requires heroic actions of the type that went on around Times Square [revitalization].”

He hinted at--but didn’t specify--that MSG would get some form of compensation. Later Vishaan Chakrabarti, who directs Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate and formerly ran the Moynihan Station project, observed that the sale of air rights would have funded MSG’s previous move.

Lawrence Burian, MSG executive VP, later pointed out that, when Chakrabarti wanted to move MSG to Farley, “I do recall that Vishaan’s plan was to build two skyscrapers on top of Penn.”

Defending MSG; is tax break fair?

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, defending MSG, pointed out that, at a less accessible location, the “operation would have a serious negative impact on traffic.”

He suggested that renewal “should at least be in the 25 to 30-year range.” He acknowledged that concerns about signage raised by Community Boards 4 and 5 were “legitimate.”

de la Uz asked if there was “any conversation about whether [the tax break] is something should continue.”

Gottfried responded by suggesting it was unfair to target MSG, given that New York City gives tax benefits “to an extraordinary number of corporations.”

“Unlike many sports facilities,” he said in a dig at Yankee Stadium, “the Garden was never heard to announce they were moving.”

The Daily News reported 4/14/13 that MSG opposed a legislative attempt, by Assemblyman David Weprin and Sen. James Sanders, both of Queens, to kill the tax break.

“All other teams, including the Yankees, Nets and Mets, have received, and continue to receive, significant public subsidies, including property tax exemptions, that are estimated to total more than $2.3 billion,” MSG responded in a statement.

The Daily News 4/16/13 reported that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver oppose removing the tax break. Could the campaign contributions from Cablevision to Cuomo and the longtime MSG ties to Silver have an impact?

The “seamless” Barclays turntable

Burden said at one point, “Barclays has a major turntable beneath the arena that can handle trucks in a seamless way.”

Her point was seconded by Chakrabarti, who also happens to be a partner in SHoP, the key Barclays Center architect.

He called it “madness” to use forklifts to unload a truck rather than bring it into the building. “The Barclays Center works seamlessly because of a proper loading function,” Chakrabarti claimed.

The future vision

MAS, its president Vin Cipolla told the commission, “has embarked on an exploration of what the future of the site might look like.”

Was the assignment, Burden asked, to have new MSG and Penn Station on the same site?

No, Cipolla said. “One of the ideas is to really be ambitious for New York.” (See a Daily News op-ed from Cipolla and Yaro.)

MSG's Burian, however, said “it is not our view an appropriate use of police power to put a deadline on us that is unrelated to our actual use.” He said it was misplaced to use the process, penalizing his employer, to put pressure on public bodies to revamp the station.

After all, he said, the arena was still an arena, so its use hadn’t changed.

Back to loading and Barclays

Burden countered by bringing up the issue of loading, “operating the Garden in a contemporary manner.:”

Burian responded that the loading only occurs 50-60 times a year, for concerts, as opposed to sports events. “It’s not like there’s loading trucks day and night... I think findings show it does not interfere with Penn Station.”

“There are trucks all over the site,” Burden responded with an edge in her voice, “when they were intended to go in loading dock doors.”

The trucks, Burian countered, are mostly not in the public thoroughfare.

“They’re visible, they’re a blight on the landscape,” Burden responded.

Burian said MSG was proposing to screen off the trucks to make them less visible, and noted trucks also are unloading for Amtrak, and all the retail outlets.

”I will tell you: people talked about the magical turnable at Barclays," Burian said. "Wait ‘til that turntable, one time has a mechanical dysfunction.”

He looked back at a colleague and continued, in an aside “It’s already happened.” (Yes, I'm told, some snags have delayed use of the loading dock, but the bigger problem has been coordinating deliveries.)

“Talk about what the disaster is going to be when that turntable isn’t able to be fixed,” he said. “There’s no perfect answer.” Should MSG move, he added, the traffic impacts would be seen as a disaster by locals during the environmental review.

MSG's business plans

Burian noted that MSG just negotiated a new deal with the Big East conference to have its basketball tournament at the Garden for more than 10 years.

Burden said MSG made a decision to invest when it knew the special permit was expiring.

Burian said “nobody ever dreamed” it wouldn’t be renewed, and “no lender asked us.” He said MSG complied with the requirements of the permits.

“Frankly, had we not invested, and we were still talking about Farley... we’d still be talking about Farley... we’d be with the oldest building in the NBA, in desperate need for renovation," he said, "while CitiField, Yankee Stadium, Barclays got billions of dollars in public subsidies... We feel what we did, without a dollar of public subsidy, is not only good for us but good for New York.”

“Barclays has very little [signage],” Burden said later. “They only have got it on the inside of the ring.. it’s very hard to see that... are you proposing you stay within the height of what Barclays has?”

(It's not so hard to see that, neighbors on residential Pacific Street say.)

“There’s no magic,” allowed Burian. “If you disagree, we would work with you.”


  1. Here's an interesting investigative tack for you, Norm: how much in Cablevision stock has the City Pension Fund held on to as the price dropped and dropped. Big number. Don't know if they also have FCE stock, but it's a sweet "subsidy."

    1. Thanks, Bob Windrem. Many reasons to be skeptical of Cablevision/MSG, but that doesn't make Barclays a shining example.


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