Photo © Flickr user freddan212
A view from 8th Avenue of Manhattan's Madison Square Garden.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Santiago Calatrava, SHoP Architects, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—four busy firms—will have to find time during the next six weeks to brainstorm. The Municipal Art Society (MAS) has given them until May 29 to develop ideas for moving Madison Square Garden from its present site, directly above New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Transferring the Garden would allow the station—an underground warren designed for 120,000 passengers a day, but now serving more than five times that number—to be rebuilt as something less depressing, possibly even as grand as the station that was famously torn down in 1963.

The MAS competition comes at a fortuitous time. The City Planning Commission, chaired by Amanda Burden, is deciding whether to renew the permit that has allowed the Garden to operate above the station. Burden presided over a nearly five-hour hearing on April 10 at which citizens and planners practically begged the commission to limit the new permit to 10 years (or, as the AIA New York executive director Rick Bell put it, “10 years or less”), which would force the Garden to start looking for a new site. Among the planners who testified at the hearing was Vishaan Chakrabarti, the SHoP partner and Columbia professor, who told the commissioners that the decision they make about Penn Station may be the one future generations remember them for. Robert Yaro, chairman of the Regional Plan Association, argued that the commission might never get another chance to undo “the biggest planning mistake of last half century.”

The owners of Madison Square Garden have asked the commission to renew their permit in perpetuity, and at the hearing they seemed inclined to offer little in return. Along with the permit renewal, they are demanding the right to hang huge, digital signs on the Eighth Avenue side of the building and have promised to make improvements to the public spaces around the Garden that can only be described as meager. The company’s landscape designer wasn’t even sure that her clients would pay for sidewalk repaving. Commissioner Irwin Cantor, who is an engineer, couldn’t resist comparing the promised improvements to “putting lipstick on a pig.” Over and over, representatives of the Garden, a public company, said they have no compelling business reason to move. Those representatives also claimed the Garden could construct a much larger building—up to five million square feet—on the site, without city approval, though probably not without Amtrak’s cooperation.

It’s true that Madison Square Garden tried to move before, to a site over the James Farley Post Office on the west side of Eighth Avenue, but the plan fell apart when New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2008. Now Yaro says the most likely site for a new Garden is the two blocks between Ninth and Tenth Avenues and 28th and 30th Streets, home to the Morgan postal sorting facility. For its competition, the MAS deliberately chose firms with station, arena, and theater experience, hoping their proposals will help persuade the city to, in the words of MAS president Vin Cipolla, “do the right thing.” Advocates of an improved Penn Station can only hope one of the ideas presented next month dazzles not only the public and the commission, but also the seemingly intransigent owners of the Garden.