New York's Penn Station Makeover Faces Arena-Sized Obstacle

Every day, more than 600,000 thousand rail commuters navigate the crowded maze of tunnels and tracks that is Penn Station. Mass transit advocates would like to replace the aging station with a world-class transportation hub. But there's a big obstacle: Madison Square Garden, the arena that sits directly on top of Penn Station. And the Garden's owners show no signs of moving.

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Mass transit advocates in New York City are daring to dream big. Penn Station is North America's busiest transportation hub and some civic organizations argue it's time to replace it with a world class train station.

But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, there's at least one big obstacle: Madison Square Garden, the world famous arena, sits right on top of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Every weekday, more than half a million commuters pass through the warren of underground tracks, tunnels, and passageways that is Penn Station. Here's what a few of them have to say about it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's always crowded and everybody is rude.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five-twenty-seven...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They don't run according to schedule. That's when you see the crowdedness. It's a pain in the neck, to put it mildly.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's too congested, especially when about 5:30 and everyone is trying to get on a train, people are pushing. It's just ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You have a mad rush of a lot of people in a very small, little spot. You get beaten up a little bit or you feel like you're like cattle.

ROSE: A glamorous gateway to New York City, it is not. Vinn Cipolla is the head of the Municipal Art Society, a nonprofit organization that's pushing to revitalize Penn Station. He says a station that was designed to handle 200,000 riders a day is now serving three times that many.

VIN CIPOLLA: Penn Station is really an expression of a defeatist attitude about New York. It was created in a time when we were turning our back on the city. It was the heyday of urban sprawl. That has changed. New York is on the rise and we deserve a world-class train station.

ROSE: But you can't talk about Penn Station without also talking about Madison Square Garden, the nation's busiest arena, just a few hundred feet overhead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Good evening, everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena.

MICHAEL KIMMELMAN: The problem is that Madison Square Garden, quite apart from the fact that it is a hideous building, sits on top of the station.

ROSE: Michael Kimmelman is architecture critic for The New York Times.

KIMMELMAN: And therefore, any real changes can only happen if Madison Square Garden is moved.

ROSE: Kimmelman and other critics of Madison Square Garden think the time to talk about moving the arena is now. The Garden's original permit expired earlier this year; normally that would be a formality for a major business like The Madison Square Garden Company, which also owns several local sports teams and music venues. But earlier this year, the local community board voted unanimously to deny the Garden's request to extend the permit in perpetuity. Instead, the board recommended extending it for only 10 years.

But Madison Square Garden's lawyer, Elise Wagner, says that's not fair to the company.

ELISE WAGNER: You have an ongoing major business, which is the busiest arena I think in the country. To suggest that the Garden, a public company, should have now a 10-year term on its permit is really inappropriate.

ROSE: The Garden has moved before. It hasn't been located in Madison Square since the 1920s. But the arena's owners showed no interest in moving now. In fact, they're in the process of renovating the Garden to the tune of $1 billion.

HANK RATNER: We've set out to build a new Madison Square Garden inside the iconic exterior.

ROSE: That was CEO Hank Ratner, unveiling the first phase of renovations in 2011. By this fall, the arena will have all new seats, new luxury boxes, new food concessions. And lawyer Elise Wagner says four million visitors a year are very happy with Madison Square Garden.

WAGNER: When you talk to people about the Garden, they have incredible memories about the first time they came to the Garden. If you talk to the players, they talk about this being the greatest place to play. You talk to major entertainers, they're thrilled to be at the Garden. So the idea that the Garden would have a term limit on it or wouldn't be here, it's just bizarre.

ROSE: New York City Planning Commission holds a hearing tomorrow on the Garden's special permit, though it's the city council that may have the final say.

Joel Rose, NPR news, New York.

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