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An alternative for Penn Station: repurposing Madison Square Garden

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Architect Vishaan Chakrabarti put forth a compelling argument for keeping MSG’s current building

In the wake of this week’s announcement that a new Penn Station is coming by 2020 (in theory, anyway), several alternative proposals for the maligned train terminal have emerged.

A stunning example was put forth this morning by the New York Times and Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), the firm founded by former SHoP Architects principal Vishaan Chakrabarti. Times archicritic Michael Kimmelman explained the reasoning for the collaboration thusly: "Can we go further than what the governor is doing? What would it take to truly transform Penn Station?"

As he points out, Governor Cuomo’s plan for the new Penn is fine, but it overlooks one major problem: Madison Square Garden. For years, plans to revamp Penn Station have also involved moving MSG, which sits atop the current train terminal. In 2013, the New York City Council extended the arena’s lease for only 10 years, with the idea being that it will eventually be torn down and the stadium moved (possibly to a site on Tenth Avenue) to accommodate work on a new train terminal.

But there are a few complicating factors, not least of which is money. A study conducted earlier this year theorized that moving MSG could cost as much as $5 billion (when you take into account things like demolition costs, purchasing a new plot of land for the arena, and more), and really, no one wants another bloated, over-budget transit project happening in the city. Plus, as the Gateway tunnel project moves forward, a new Penn Station is now more urgently needed.

But Chakrabarti’s proposal tackles the MSG problem head on: he proposes moving the arena, but repurposing its current building as an airy component of the larger Penn Station complex. The design that Chakrabarti proposes was informed by—no surprises here—McKim, Mead and White’s old Penn Station, which was demolished in 1963. That station’s grand stairways, high ceilings, and open floorplan would be replicated, with and the circular structure that currently holds MSG would transform into "a blastproof glass facade that would allow in light and views while enabling passive heating and cooling."

Renderings created by PAU for the Times show how this could be accomplished, and Chakrabarti elaborates:

Once the Garden is in its new home, its structure and foundations would be "recycled": We would take off its unsightly concrete cladding, demolish the interior, rebuild the mezzanines and vertical circulation to the platforms below, and remove many of the support columns on the train platforms that passengers have to dodge today.

And then there’s this, which is a pretty nifty idea (one that, as Kimmelman notes, echoes the 1964 World’s Fair Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park):

The familiar cylindrical form of the Garden could be transformed into a monumental yet transparent pavilion. We propose that the ceiling, which is the roof of the existing arena, feature a map of New York to orient travelers, a contemporary update of the stars on the ceiling of Grand Central.

Under Chakrabarti’s plan, this new facility would connect to the proposed Moynihan Train Hall, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, creating a "grand civic space" that could complement Governor Cuomo’s plans. The projected cost: $3 billion, which includes both the cost of revamping the old MSG structure, as well as that of building a new arena nearby.

There are sure to be critics of Chakrabarti’s plan—and of course, it’s merely a thought experiment, not something that will necessarily be put into practice—but it’s certainly an interesting proposal. (Do you agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments!)

"Penn Station should be transformed into a world-class transit hub with enhanced rail capacity and enduring public architecture, a place that rejuvenates its surroundings," Chakrabarti writes. "It won’t be easy. But the alternative, decades more of gloom in an increasingly congested, unsafe subterranean maze, is not worthy of our city." That, at least, is something we can all agree on.

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SOM’s concept for Moynihan Train Hall