MONTREAL — According to The Barenaked Ladies, everything old is new today, and there’s no greater example of that than Madison Square Garden.
The self-proclaimed world’s most famous arena is the oldest building in the National Hockey League, but it can also claim to be the newest after a $1-billion facelift.
But the question as the Canadiens and New York Rangers officially opened the building Monday was whether the Garden is destined to become the most expensive teardown in real-estate history.
The problem is that the arena sits on land controlled by the City of New York, which is committed to expanding Penn Station as a major transportation hub, and that would require tearing down the Garden. When the operating permit for the arena was renegotiated this year, the city council limited the term of the agreement to 10 years.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the near-unanimous vote to limit the permit was “the first step in finding a new home for Madison Square Garden and building a new Penn Station that is as great as New York and suitable for the 21st Century.”
For its part, the Madison Square Garden Company responded by saying it would be ”incongruous to think that MSG would be considering moving.”
“Some lawyers are going to get rich on this deal,” an observer close to the scene said. “The agreement expires in 10 years, but it will take another 20 years to work its way through the courts.”
The irony in this battle is that the above-ground portion of Penn Station was razed in the 1960s to make room for the Garden. There was a major controversy at the time, with preservationists decrying the demolition of a grand hall that had been designed in the early 1900s by the firm of McKim, Mead and White. The Garden was regarded as one of the finest examples of Beaux Arts design with its inspiration drawn from the Roman baths and St. Peter’s Basilica.
This isn’t the first time the folks at MSG and the city have battled.
In 1972, Garden chairman Irving Felt threatened to move the Rangers and basketball’s New York Knicks to the Meadowlands in New Jersey. That threat was fuelled by a battle over the arena’s tax bill, an issue that has also surfaced with the Bell Centre in Montreal. There was another battle over taxes in 1980.
The Garden spent $200 million for a renovation project in 1991, catching up to newer buildings with the addition of 89 luxury suites.
Planning for the latest renovation started after Cablevision and the city battled over the city’s failed plans to build the West Side Stadium close to the Garden. At one point, Cablevision (MSG’s parent company) announced plans to tear down the arena and replace it with a highrise office complex. That plan called for the Garden to move across Eighth Avenue to the site of the city’s main post office.
So, what did MSG get for its billion dollars?
The seats are more comfortable, the scoreboard is bigger — although it wasn’t fully functional for the first game — and there is the overhyped Chase Bridge, which is suspended from the roof. The bridge contains luxury suites as well as facilities for the print and electronic media. The major complaint is that the passageway through the bridge area is far too narrow and is congested between periods and at the end of an event. The suites feature an open concept that offers little privacy.
The concessions offer a wider variety of food, and there’s more room in the corridors below the stands. But there are still lengthy lines to be served and for the washrooms. A press release noted that the dressing rooms had been upgraded, but the visitor’s room appeared unchanged.
There are fewer seats. The capacity for hockey games has dropped from 18,200 to 18,006, but there are more premium seats and the average ticket price is higher, which gives Cablevision a chance to recoup some of its investment.
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