Despite his lack of formal design training, Michael Kimmelman has excited many readers, both architecturally adept and not, with his focus on urban issues. The Observer has begun to hear some grumbles, however, that that is all he cares about—bike lanes here, old housing projects over there, riverfronts a world away. What does he think of the Atlantic Yards apartment buildings or the World Trade Center Memorial. Won’t he weigh in on some capital-a Architecture already?
Well, today, as always seems to happen, he has done us one better.
What started out as a lament for the loss of Penn Station, which by our math Mr. Kimmelman may just remember from his days as a Manhattan youth, turns into an ingenious idea for the salvation of one of the most ill-gotten spots in the entire city. While everyone was thinking, isn’t Michael late to the party, weren’t these ideas done away with before, we get something entirely new and clever:
The thought is: Move Madison Square Garden to the southern end of the Javits site, at 34th Street and 11th Avenue. That is a prime location in what is hoped to become the busy intersection of a new Midtown South. The state, in conjunction with the city, would provide the Garden’s owners with a turnkey, or at least a very generous, deal: a new riverfront arena, partly financed by the substantial air rights gained in return for acquiring the Garden’s present site.
The new arena, unlike the current Garden, would compete as an up-to-date sports and entertainment center with the one rising at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. It would stand at the northern culmination of the completed High Line, and at the doorstep of a redeveloped Hudson Yards, where the new extension of the No. 7 subway line from Times Square will stop. Generations of New York sports fans have attachments to the Garden, but it has been moved several times before. The present arena is a flimsy, aging eyesore, notwithstanding the millions that its owners have lately been pouring into refurbishment — money that would have been amortized by the time a prospective new arena could be made ready.
Why should the public subsidize a private arena? To serve the larger public good: the money would go toward improving the lives of millions of New Yorkers and others who use Penn Station. Both the city and state have legal sticks to compel the Garden to move, among them a special permit the city grants, and could decline to renew, which allows the Garden to operate at its present site. But that route carries its own costs, political and financial.
It’s the kind of idea that makes you wonder, why didn’t I think of that.
And it in the middle of it all, we get a very elegant explanation for just what makes the current station so bad, one almost fit to stand alongside Vincent Scully and Ada Louis Huxtable’s famous proclamations:
To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.
What is the value of architecture? It can be measured, culturally, humanely and historically, in the gulf between these two places.
It can also be measured in column inches, maybe even in a book deal.