A key New York City Council committee approved a five-year renewal of Madison Square Garden’s special operating permit – five years short of what the city recommended and many, many years short of what owner James Dolan has pushed for.
In an initial vote on Monday afternoon, the City Council Committee on Land Use approved a five-year permit for Madison Square Garden, noting that long-term plans to redesign Penn Station – which languishes underneath the 22,000-seat arena – and ongoing use conflicts between Madison Square Garden and the transit hub prevent the approval of a longer-term permit.
“Because of this use conflict, at this time the council cannot determine the long-term viability of an arena at this location. Therefore five years is an appropriate term for this special permit,” said Council Member Erik Bottcher, whose Manhattan district includes Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. The permit approval also requires the development of a “transportation management plan,” aimed at resolving the conflict between pedestrian access to Penn Station and the Garden’s truck loading operations.
The full council is expected to vote to approve the permit at its stated meeting next month.
The Dolan family, which owns Madison Square Garden, has long advocated for a permanent operating permit. After an original 50-year permit expired in 2013, the city approved a 10-year permit. With that permit expiring this year, Dolan has again pushed for the authority to operate the 22,000-seat arena above Penn Station in perpetuity.
But the city, local lawmakers and the local community board have backed alternative plans for much shorter permits, with stipulations that the arena’s owners cooperate in the redesign of Penn Station.
Last month, the City Planning Commission recommended a 10-year permit renewal for Madison Square Garden at its current location, with added requirements that the Garden contribute to public realm improvements in the area, including new entrances to Penn Station and prohibiting trucks on 33rd Street, as well as being generally compatible with the planned redesign of Penn Station.
The plan approved by the City Council’s Committee on Land Use on Monday afternoon is a modification of the city’s recommendation, shortening that permit renewal to five years and removing some of the stipulations that the City Planning Commission attached to its recommendation.
“A short-term special permit is not in anyone’s best interest and undermines the ability to immediately revamp Penn Station and the surrounding area,” Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp. said in a statement after the vote. “The committees have done a grave disservice to New Yorkers today, in a shortsighted move that will further contribute to the erosion of the City – that’s true now and will be true five years from now.”
Ongoing negotiations over the council’s modification, which have included Bottcher, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Department of City Planning and reps for the Garden, were continuing up until Monday afternoon. The council committee hearings scheduled on Monday afternoon were delayed more than three hours because of ongoing negotiations, according to a council spokesperson.
The City Council speaker’s office and the MTA had advocated for an approach that would have renewed the permit for two years, and then another eight years if the Garden met conditions showing that it was cooperating with Penn Station redesign plans, according to a council source. If it didn’t meet the conditions under that plan, the permit would only be renewed three more years. Ultimately, Bottcher characterized the straight five-year renewal as the simplest approach.
The plan approved by the council land use committee will still need to be approved by the full City Council at its stated meeting on September 14.
The failure to secure a permanent operating permit is not necessarily surprising, but it is another blow for Dolan, who has found himself in New York lawmakers' crosshairs recently. Dolan’s use of facial recognition to block attorneys in litigation against his company from entering the arena has caught backlash from lawmakers and state Attorney General Letitia James. Some state lawmakers have also pushed for eliminating the Garden’s property tax exemption.