Common Cause/NY Letter on Madison Square Garden’s Special Permit

Last week, Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY, sent a letter to Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Land Use and Planning Committee Chair Rafael Salamanca, Jr. and Council Member Eric Bottcher ahead of the New York City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises meeting on Madison Square Garden’s special permit. In the letter, she pushes the City Council to grant a non-renewable 3-year extension of the special use permit.

Full letter below.

August 25, 2023

Via Email

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams

Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr., Chair, Land Use Committee Council Member Eric Bottcher

Re: LU0246-2023, Madison Square Garden Special Permit

Dear Madame Speaker and Council Members,

As a good government organization that works for an effective, equitable and responsive democracy, Common Cause/New York has an ongoing interest in government’s role in ensuring fair and equitable land use procedures that are responsive to community concerns. For a number of years, we actively sponsored the New York Commons project and continue to host its website, which allows community members to learn about active development issues affecting public properties throughout New York City. As part of the New York Commons project, we held listening sessions regarding development and land use issues in each of the five boroughs. We learned that communities felt cut out of the land use process and wanted a more active role in deciding the fate of properties within their neighborhoods. We have found that often land use decisions which appear to favor real estate developers and other wealthy interests over the concerns and even objections of community activists and neighbors of proposed projects contributes to public cynicism and lack of faith in local government’s ability to adequately represent the interests of all of its constituents. All too frequently, it appears to the public that local government is not a strong negotiator for the greater public interest, caving into developer and wealthy interests demands, too often responding to those demands by subsidizing projects with public subsidies or tax breaks given without adequate oversight or controls. See, e.g. the July 21, 2023 article in the New York Times, entitled New Yorkers Got Broken Promises. Developers Got 20 Million Square Feet.

The current request by Madison Square Garden that its special land use permit be extended in perpetuity can only be seen as the most extraordinary – if all too predictable – chutzpah. As the July 24, 2013 Council press release entitled City Council Vote on Special Permit Will Facilitate Revitalization of Penn Station and Relocation of Madison Square Garden made clear, Madison Square Garden has been on notice for the past 10 years that “it has ten years to vacate its 45-year-old premises and find a new home”. As The City Council stated in that July, 2013 release, “[f]inding a new location for Madison Square Garden is the only way to address the ongoing capacity and safety issues at Penn Station and will make best use [sic] this area.” And yet, here we are, exactly where the situation stood in the summer of 2013, except that Madison Square Garden has been the beneficiary of additional millions of dollars in tax abatements without adequate oversight, increasing the tax burden on everyday New York City taxpayers.

However, this City Council has the ability and the authority to rectify the situation and demonstrate to City residents that organizations and their wealthy owners who believe they are above the law are wrong. Common Cause/NY urges the Council to make it clear to Madison Square Garden and its owner that the current Council will follow-through on the position taken 10 years ago and actualize the requirement that Madison Square Garden must move by granting a non-renewable 3-year extension of the special use permit at issue.

Common Cause/NY strongly endorses the measures recommended by Reinvent Albany in their July 18, 2023, testimony to the NYC Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchise. We agree that the Council should, in addition to granting a non-renewable 3-year extension to the special use permit, adopt the following measures:

  • Require Madison Square Garden to cede the taxiway and other property needed to build improvements to Penn Station and its entrances at no cost;
  • Pass a resolution supporting A846 (Weprin) / S1632-A (Kavanagh), state legislation that would repeal the MSG tax abatement; and
  • Require Madison Square Garden to report data regarding employment and job creation to the Independent Budget Office;

Additionally, we recommend that the Council appoint a special master to convene and facilitate discussions between Madison Square Garden, the appropriate City (and if appropriate, state) agencies, the MTA Authority, Amtrak, and New Jersey Transit. Such a master would be tasked to conduct meaningful and ongoing negotiations to ensure that Madison Square Garden is prepared to move by the end of the 3-year special use permit extension and that the reconstruction and expansion of Penn Station becomes a reality benefitting the hundreds of thousands of people who use it every day at the least cost to taxpayers. Taxpayers have subsidized Madison Square Garden, a private for-profit entity, for long enough. Its stranglehold on Penn Station must end.