The Accidental Ingenuity of James Dolan

When Madison Square Garden unceremoniously announced on March 27, via late-afternoon calls to reporters, that it was moving forward on a renovation of its arena, it seemed to be the death blow to the planned redevelopment of Pennsylvania Station and the surrounding area. The Garden, led by chairman James Dolan, was exhausted with the lack of progress in a slow-moving, state-led plan to remake and expand the station, to be called Moynihan Station, which required the Garden’s moving to a new arena in the neighboring Farley Post Office.

But if anything, the Garden’s exit seems to have brought a new, heightened attention to the Moynihan Station plan among officials and other actors involved, as observers and politicians alike engage in a tug of war over how the project will proceed, and who will move it forward.

Preservation groups like the Municipal Art Society want the state to get going on a smaller version of the plan; Senator Charles Schumer is pushing for some form of redo to Penn Station on top of an expansion into the Farley building; and Governor David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are sparring over whether the Port Authority will be given control over the project.

Now the designated developers, too, have their own idea on how to proceed.

According to multiple people familiar with discussions, the joint venture of the Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust wants the Port Authority to come in and buy the current Madison Square Garden, along with its hotly desired air rights, a task that would cost somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. The developers have told officials that this purchase by the public sector, which would be effectively paid back by the developers should the entire project come together, is necessary to right the troubled large-scale plan. By the public sector taking a risk that the developers apparently find too risky and/or expensive—in the failed plan, billions in funding and numerous agreements for the entire project were needed before the Garden could get a new arena—the developers seem to be reasoning that the Garden would be given enough certainty to be lured back to the table.

Of course, there are many steps before that plan becomes anything more than a concept, as the bistate Port Authority would first need to be convinced that spending nearly $2 billion of highly sought money meant for regional transportation is a worthy investment, one that would come before actually rebuilding a train station. And then even if the Port Authority got behind the plan, it would still require the consent of the Garden.

The Garden has made no signs that it will deviate from its renovation plan, and a Garden spokesman, Barry Watkins, was unequivocal about the company’s intention to renovate.

“We have been and continue to be moving full steam ahead on the renovation of Madison Square Garden,” he said.

The new plan also would require Governor Paterson’s putting the Port Authority in charge of the Moynihan Station project, a step he said earlier this month he would likely take, but has yet to execute. Mayor Bloomberg has publicly criticized the concept of giving the Port Authority control, as has Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the local representative, and Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, chairman of the Assembly committee that oversees authorities.

Governor Paterson has set an internal deadline of the end of June for the state to craft a path forward, according to people familiar with talks.

The Accidental Ingenuity of James Dolan