Blame Jim Dolan for the wretched Knicks. Blame him for blocking the city’s shot at the 2012 Olympics. Blame him for your soaring cable bill. But don’t blame Dolan for killing the grand Moynihan Station project.
Yes, the decision by Dolan, chairman of Madison Square Garden, to renovate the current home of his Knicks and Rangers deals a major blow to the idea of moving MSG to Ninth Avenue, which would allow an overhaul of the hideous Penn Station and the creation of an airy, modern transportation hub that would incorporate the old Farley Post Office. But there are many villains in this tale, and, for a change, Dolan ranks only in the middle. Start with the foot-dragging Pataki administration, whose focus on the project fluctuated wildly. Throw in Mike Bloomberg, whose public excoriations of Dolan for standing in the way of the West Side Jets stadium and the Olympics certainly didn’t encourage Dolan to play nice on Moynihan Station. Even Eliot Spitzer and Ashley Dupre are at fault; it took Spitzer until several months ago to get personally involved in discussions. That progress came to a screeching halt due to Spitzer’s other personal involvements.
But the real culprits here are the private developers Steve Roth and Steve Ross. They were picked to develop Moynihan Station three years ago — and promptly bogged down the scheme by vastly inflating it to a $14 billion behemoth involving dozens of midtown blocks. Roth and Ross were the ones who pushed to move the Garden, primarily because Roth’s Vornado company owns huge tracts of property in the area — property whose value would skyrocket with a rearranged, rejuvenated neighborhood. “We are about making money here on a grand scale,” he told an investors’ conference in 2006. Yet Roth and Ross consistently refused to increase their financial contribution to the deal, instead demanding hundreds of millions in federal, state, and city aid to make up the gap. Roth is renowned for holding out as long as possible to cut the most advantageous terms for himself — and it’s certainly his right and a large factor in his decades of success. But it’s wrong to assail Dolan as the only self-interested actor here.
Roth and Ross also made a political blunder: By making MSG the key to the new, giant deal, they handed crucial power to Dolan. Yet MSG showed willingness to compromise on the design of the new Garden. What it couldn’t do is wait forever. MSG is the only major private stakeholder in the discussions that has a going business on the site, and Dolan watched as every other big pro franchise in the city got a new stadium, or the promise of one. Maybe he’s shortsighted, choosing to rehab a 40-year-old structure instead of trusting that he’ll get a brand-new playground eventually. Maybe the announcement is a negotiating ploy. Yet Dolan has been clear and consistent: He warned all along that he couldn’t wait past this spring to make a decision. Roth and Ross, however, wouldn’t budge on the money, and now the credit crisis has made the gap nearly impossible to bridge. The silver lining? Maybe everyone will go back to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s original, much simpler vision: Turn the old post office into a beautiful train station, and leave MSG out of it. Jim Dolan has enough trouble just figuring out what to do with Isiah Thomas. —Chris Smith