The Sit-Down

Sign of the Times: Michael Kimmelman on Madison Square Garden

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman sparked a fire under Madison Square Garden, but will his influence lead to solutions at the arena and Penn Station?

Earlier this year, Michael Kimmelman, the chief architecture critic at The New York Times since 2011, wrote a column addressing Madison Square Garden’s request that its special permit to operate an arena atop Penn Station be renewed in perpetuity. In it, Mr. Kimmelman suggested that the City Council grant the Garden a 10-year permit, enough time for the various stakeholders to plan for both a renovated Penn Station and a new location for Madison Square Garden. In a show of Mr. Kimmelman’s relative influence, the City Council did just that. Now the clock is ticking on finding a solution for the futures of both the “World’s Most Famous Arena” and the city’s busiest rail hub. Nicknamed “The People’s Critic” by New York magazine for his insightful focus on the New York Public Library, redevelopment after Hurricane Sandy and affordable housing, Mr. Kimmelman spoke with The Commercial Observer last week about the viability of a 10-year term and what can be done to convince stakeholders to come to the table. 

Credit: Fernando Pereira Gomes

Credit: Fernando Pereira Gomes

The Commercial Observer: You were an outspoken proponent of limiting the term of MSG’s special permit. Now that the City Council has voted to limit the term to 10 years, are you confident that an adequate solution for the futures of both MSG and Penn Station can be found in that time frame?

Mr. Kimmelman: I am hopeful, [but] I am not confident yet. The first hurdle has been overcome, which is to set a reasonable limit for there to be discussion involving the Garden and the railroads to try to cook up some kind of solution that could actually provide a healthy, civilized station and also a better home for the Garden. The problem is, spending these next 10 years productively and not letting them be squandered will be a challenge. Compelling all parties to talk will be difficult. It’s hard to imagine that can happen without having someone in charge—someone that has some authority.

The decision provides a limit to the permit and closes the loophole, which never should have been there in the first place.

Theoretically, this could just create a cycle where we have the same discussion every 10 years. Could you see that happening?

It is possible, but it would be very sad. It would not benefit any of the parties involved. It doesn’t benefit the Garden. The building will be 10 years older.

The Municipal Art Society recently released a number of potential designs for a new Penn Station. Do you view any of them as viable?

I can say that what they did was as intended: to lay before the public the notion that it is possible to imagine an improved and different station that serves 21st-century New York. I don’t know that any of those will come to fruition, but it captures the creative element involved. This is not some architectural fantasy. It is not a design-driven issue. This is about the economic and physical health of the city and its citizens and the millions of people that come to the city.

The project is not about architecture—it’s about transit and safety. All of those plans, at their heart, for them to work, need to revolve around improvements to safety and transportation and to increase capacity. In the process of addressing [those concerns], it’s possible to have a spectacular new station befitting the city.

MSG will complete a three-year renovation process over the course of the summer. Is it realistic to ask the arena to move, given the investment it has made? 

Absolutely. The costs they have put in to this will inevitably be amortized. The Garden knew full well that its permit was expiring, and it made a business decision to invest. The public is not responsible. If you decide to invest $500 million in a rental apartment when [your] lease is coming up, the landlord is not responsible—you are.

What are some of your realistic suggestions for the future of MSG?

There are possibilities out there, and they need to be explored—one of which the Garden already explored, that came apart when Eliot Spitzer came apart, at the back of the Farley Post Office.

Another potential option is the Post Office processing site a block south. Another is the area around Hudson Yards, which will be linked by [the] 7 train and could be better served by the extension of subway lines.

I think the point is there are various possibilities.

Follow Gus Delaporte via RSS. gdelaporte@observer.com