Sign of the Times: Michael Kimmelman on Madison Square Garden

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.

What of MSG’s reluctance?

I keep trying to frame this in terms that are beneficial to the Garden’s owners. They are private property owners. If their building needs to be moved, they should be compensated. But they have a permit, and if that expires, they can’t operate there.

Another issue is eminent domain. I don’t think it would be necessary in this case, but the safety and the economic future of million upon millions of New Yorkers depends on an improvement to Penn Station. That is potentially grounds for finding a new home for the Garden, even if they are reluctant. In the end, this should really serve all interests. It’s not about Madison Square Garden, but it should also serve the interests of the Garden not to have the oldest, dingiest and [most] embarrassing arena of a major city.

What is more troubling to you: the design of MSG or the current layout of Penn Station?

The Garden is not the main concern, except that its presence atop Penn Station limits necessary improvements to the station. Unfortunately, the arena has to move in order to make basic fundamental improvements to the station. In the process, we can get a better arena for the city and its owners. If Madison Square Garden were not sitting atop Penn Station, people might not be talking about building a new arena, but then again, the owners might not be as married to the site because they want a site served by public transportation.

Have the renovations ongoing at Madison Square Garden improved its architectural quality?

Not enough, but in the end—I need to keep stressing—this is not an architectural question. It’s a question about planning.

I would let other people decide whether the Garden is competitive with The Barclays Center, but certainly the Garden should be—and is in our imagination—one of the great symbols of New York City, with a profound history. It has moved on many occasions, yet it remains the Garden.

What needs to be done in order to bring the Garden’s ownership to the table?

If I were the owners of the Garden, I would naturally be reluctant to consider this. I would have been down this road before and would be skeptical it would work this time. But I would also think that if, in the end, I can come out of this with a new, state-of-the-art arena and that there are public interests involved who want to make this work, that this is a process that will ultimately be worth my time—even though I have been burned before.

You’ve written about a number of other architecture and civic planning issues impacting New York. What are the most critical?

There are isolated things I’ve written about that are ongoing and important subjects, among them what will happen to 53rd Street with the development of MoMA and the Folk Art Museum. Also, the central library plan at 42nd Street, which strikes me as, on the face of it, a highly dubious and potentially disastrous financial and architectural plan.

Then there is the East Midtown plan, which is an uncooked proposal. I’m not against taller buildings or developing that part of the city, but I think the plan does not proceed from any consideration, any real serious consideration, of infrastructure challenges.

I think East Midtown is an unfortunate and potentially very damaging development that should be left for a later date, when there’s a more serious scheme for improving transit and public spaces in that area and after we have seen further development of lower Manhattan and [the] Far West Side.

In your opinion, has the push for East Midtown development been accelerated by the development at Hudson Yards?

It has been accelerated by the imminent end of the Bloomberg administration. It actually competes with Hudson Yards and lower Manhattan. It is hard to see how it’s in competition with Chicago and London and Shanghai but not developments next door.

You’ve also written about the city’s response to Hurricane Sandy. Could you elaborate on that?

It is a profound and complex issue, imagining the city as a sustainable place with neighborhoods that are fit for a changing climate. We need to take this seriously, and it won’t be solved by building one barrier or two.

Will it be addressed successfully over time?

We are an amnesiac society. It’s a common thing that after a certain amount of time goes by, we forget about disasters. It’s too easy just to forget about the problems Sandy caused and the larger problems it predicts.

It will take an enormous amount of vigilance, and the next mayor needs to make it a central plank, which, with all the other things going on in the city, might be hard to do.

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