Cuomo’s Penn Station Plan Is Actually a Taxpayer-Funded Mall

Last Tuesday, on the heels of his worst week as governor, Andrew Cuomo unveiled yet another new plan to renovate the catacomb of misery known as Penn Station. On the surface, Cuomo’s announcement to build a new station using the Farley Post Office building across 8th Avenue looks a lot like his January proposal, but in fact the details have changed significantly. Taxpayers will now be on the hook for at least triple the original $325 million price tag, and in exchange will receive yet another state-funded mall that could end up costing the government billions of dollars in untaxed revenue. The current plan also creates no infrastructure for the upcoming Gateway tunnel project, and does nothing to increase track capacity at Penn Station.

It turns out that Cuomo’s original scheme to charge developers $2.7 billion for the right to turn the post office into a new station entrance and retail mall proved massively unrealistic. The new plan now includes up to $600 million in upfront expenses from developers Skanska, Related, and Vornado to build out retail space in the Farley post office. According to the governor’s office, the three developers have also committed another $600 million to the project — but $370 million of that will be paid “in lieu of taxes” (PILOTs, in planning jargon) for the next thirty years.

That means at least three separate, incredibly profitable companies have now committed to front $370 million that would have been public money eventually, anyway, in exchange for not paying taxes on the eventual, and presumably wildly profitable, retail enterprise.

On top of that, Cuomo has thrown in $570 million in new funding from the Empire State Development, the state-run quasi-public agency that managed the development of the Barclays Center, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the renovation of the Javits Center. The Cuomo administration now tells the Voice that much of that $570 million will come from the sale of the air rights of the Farley Post Office to private developers (the air rights would be transferred to property across the street from Farley). Whether that money will be enough to cover the entire $570 million remains to be seen.

Cuomo was unable to find a taker for the reconstruction of the LIRR concourse in the existing Penn Station, where most of the railroad’s entrances will remain. The MTA, already deep in a financial hole (and raising fares next year), has agreed to pay an estimated $170 million to renovate the existing LIRR concourses in Penn Station, money that will come from its capital plan.

The state, in addition to the Port Authority, and Amtrak, have contributed $425 million to help with construction costs at Farley, although the source of that money hasn’t yet been identified by the government. That means, at a minimum, the state itself is on the hook for over a billion dollars, in addition to whatever the state isn’t able to recoup in air right sales and lost revenue from taxes on the retail space.

The PILOTs in Cuomo’s Penn plan could mean one of two things, either of which would be problematic for the governor’s plans. If it means payments in lieu of property taxes, this would be genuine new revenue, since the Farley building currently pays none; however, it does sit within the Hudson Yards redevelopment area, meaning any property tax PILOTs are already committed to helping pay off the city’s $2 billion extension of the 7 train to 33rd Street. If Cuomo intends to rebate sales taxes, on the other hand (and please stick with us here), then that’s a kickback of money that would otherwise be flowing into state coffers, if not at the Farley mall, then wherever commuters chose to spend their money if it weren’t built. So that’s not really a private contribution. On top of that, siphoning off sales tax revenues would almost certainly require legislative approval, something that not even Cuomo can guarantee.

Several requests to the governor’s office for clarification on this point remained unanswered when we published this article.

The governor making the announcement last week.

James Parrott, Deputy Director and Chief Economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, has studied the use of PILOTs in the city for years, most recently testifying in front of City Council about the need to look at just how much money these tax giveaways are costing the city over the long-term.

“Over the lifetime of these PILOT agreements, the cost to taxpayers will eventually become astounding. That’s billions of dollars of lost tax revenue to the city,” Parrott told the Voice. “This comes at a time when Related [one of the developers of the Farley project] is having great success with the office buildings it’s putting in at Hudson Yards. They’re doing so well in fact that they announced a mammoth piece of art, this multi-million dollar staircase. The New York Times said Related is paying for the staircase. But really, New York City taxpayers are the ones footing the bill, thanks to the reduced property taxes New York City granted them.”

Even with the huge public investment in the space (which might cost in the billions when all is said and done), missing from the plans entirely are arguably the most important infrastructure projects associated with the new Penn Station – the expansion of the existing station to accommodate Amtrak’s proposed and currently unfunded Gateway Tunnel (opening sometime in the 2020’s), which would increase capacity for both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit underneath the Hudson. Cuomo announced he’d be partnering with Amtrak on putting out an RFP for its portion of the new Penn Station, which Amtrak would lease to whomever wins the bid. It appears however, that NJ Transit had no seat at the table when it came to considerations for the Farley project.

“I’m somewhat puzzled by the absence of any benefit to New Jersey,” said Martin Robins, a former NJ Transit executive who currently teaches transportation policy at Rutgers. New Jersey Transit has been plagued by a lack of leadership and a decimated budget. But Robins believes that leaving New Jersey out of the Farley plans was still shortsighted. “I don’t buy that it came down to money, because if it was as important as alleviating platform crowding in the existing Penn Station, it’s something that the citizens of New Jersey are owed. Did this process go forward functionally, or was there some shortcircuit?”

Meanwhile, the Municipal Art Society and Regional Plan Association continue to push for the state and city to evict Madison Square Garden from its spot atop the platform to make way for that new Penn station. In a joint statement, the two organizations implored the governor and stakeholders to refocus efforts on the construction of Gateway, and look into longer-term solutions for Penn, that would “focus on critical track and platform improvements,” instead of the changes Cuomo has proposed, which mostly focus on creating more space for people to breathe and move (and buy things).

“[Gateway] is the single most important infrastructure investment in the nation, and needs to move ahead immediately. As part of the Gateway project, Amtrak and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey must examine operations at Penn Station and study alternatives — such as through-running trains from New Jersey to Long Island and Connecticut and integrating routes, scheduling and frequency — that could improve efficiency at the station and provide greater regional connectivity,” the statement urged.

Booting the Garden once its ground lease expires in 2023 would enable the construction of a new station atop the actual Penn platforms — perhaps something along the lines of the hollowed-out World’s Most Famous Arena that the Times commissioned ex-Bloomberg planning official Vishaan Chakrabarti to sketch out. But even if that could be accomplished, it would come with an unknowable price tag.

Cuomo’s current plan leaves MSG completely intact. His plan from January called for, at the very least, the removal of the Theater at Madison Square Garden to make way for a roomier Penn Station. Cuomo’s former top aide and close friend, Joseph Percoco, who was indicted last month for taking bribes from upstate businesses, is currently employed at Madison Square Garden, a job he took after leaving the Cuomo administration in 2015. Cablevision, Madison Square Garden’s parent company, has donated more than a quarter of a million dollars to Cuomo’s campaign since 2014.

“Joseph Percoco left the governor’s office well before the Governor made any decisions regarding Penn Station – he had nothing to do with the process whatsoever,” a spokesperson for Cuomo told the Voice.

The LIRR concourse in Cuomo's Penn Station.

Asked yesterday about criticism by the MAS and RPA about the decision to leave Madison Square Garden intact, Cuomo replied, “It’s called Madison Square Garden, and it’s private and they own it and they want to leave it there.”

David Fernández, a public finance attorney for Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney PC who has worked on financing for the new World Trade Center complex, as well as bond issues for the new Yankees and Mets stadiums, has been following the project closely. Fernández said he’s not surprised that Cuomo chose to scale back his ambitions.

“It’s a wonderful economic development project,” he said of converting the Farley building to a grand entrance hall lined with shops, but “what this does not fix is the actual program below ground.”

Without new tunnels to bring in more trains, as well as expanded platforms to handle the flood of commuters that is currently bursting Penn Station at the seams, he said, “you could have the Taj Mahal on top of it, and it’s not going to fix the problem.”

For commuters more interested in getting home on time than how high the ceilings are, meanwhile, Cuomo’s Penn redo, whenever it’s eventually completed, is likely to be a disappointment. “At the end of the day, I don’t care if I can sit in a pretty bar and wait while my train’s been cancelled,” Fernández told the Voice. “All the things that are currently giving the commuters daily headaches down there is not being addressed by this – and that’s a problem.”


Governor Cuomo: No Scandal Here, Just a Brand-New Penn Station

Last week was a very bad week to be Governor Andrew Cuomo. He watched as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara arrested his best friend and former top aide Joseph Percoco on brazen corruption charges, and saw Attorney General Eric Schneiderman throw even more charges at Cuomo’s nanotechnology guru, SUNY-Polytechnic president Alain Kaloyeros.

Where others might lay low, or allow the presidential debates to continue to overshadow a devastating turn of events, Cuomo decided it was time to announce something big. Something huge. Something that could make New Yorkers proud. It was time to announce another new Penn Station, a plan even newer than the last new plan (which was only eight months old).

At a luncheon this afternoon at the Association for a Better New York in Manhattan, Cuomo continued his newfound interest in regional transit, which has played out like a great, long-winded, and almost completely improvised attempt to solve all that ails New York City infrastructure without actually changing anything about it. Penn Station, the great labyrinth of NYC, where transit dreams come to die (Cuomo referred to it as a “catacombs”), would be reborn inside the Farley Post Office, across Eighth Avenue. Amtrak, which owns the tracks underneath the building and has been building its own new concourse inside it for years, will now share the space with the Long Island Rail Road, relieving a huge amount of congestion inside the existing Penn Station. The rest of the post office would then be converted into 112,000 square feet of retail space, which, when complete, would offer more retail than all of Grand Central.

Funny how NYC transit infrastructure keeps becoming retail, right?

Anyway, over on the other side of Eighth Avenue, where there would still be entries to many of the LIRR tracks, as well as the seventh and eighth avenue subway lines, Cuomo announced a widening of the cramped concourse complete with a ceiling made out of LEDs to simulate the open sky (or, more likely, advertisements). Both subway stations, for the A/C/E and the 1/2/3 would be completely redone as well. The total cost of the Farley and Penn Station rebuild will be $1.5 billion, an amount which Cuomo announced had already been accounted for by Amtrak, the state, the Feds, and the developer, and it will be ready for the public by 2020.

“New York’s tomorrow depends on what we do today, and the new Moynihan Train Hall will be a world-class twenty-first century transportation hub,” Cuomo said. “With more than twice the passengers of all JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports combined, the current Penn Station is overcrowded, decrepit, and claustrophobic. The Moynihan Train Hall will have more space than Grand Central’s main concourse, housing both Amtrak and LIRR ticketing and waiting areas, along with state-of-the-art security features, a modern, digital passenger experience, and a host of dining and retail options. This is not a plan — this is what’s going to happen. People are going to walk through this station and recognize that this is New York.”

Little fluffy (LED) clouds
Little fluffy (LED) clouds

Excited from the announcement of this huge new mall (featuring some transit improvements), Cuomo launched into a thirty-minute explanation of his regional transit fever-dreams, which include the following:

  • The much-maligned LaGuardia AirTrain that would run from Willets Point
  • An investment in regional airports in Long Island
  • A third track for the Long Island Rail Road
  • Passing mentions of the Gateway Tunnel, currently being developed to replace the decrepit cross-Hudson tunnels
  • A new Tappan Zee bridge with murky funding commitments
  • The ongoing rebuilding of LaGuardia Airport; he even floated the idea of the city selling Rikers to the Port Authority for more runway space.

Perhaps most troubling for New York City residents would be Cuomo’s enthusiasm for the new Metro-North stations in the eastern Bronx, set to open sometime in the 2020s. Cuomo stressed that the area was “going to explode with development,” something that will almost certainly mean massive displacement for the communities that currently live there.

Multiple times during the presentation, Cuomo reiterated his belief that the government is not good at building things. But blinded by the righteous fire of being a governor who does build things, Cuomo ended with a long, strange soliloquy on the very nature of what it means to be New York, and to be a governor who builds things.

“I was speaking with a great New Yorker earlier today, and they asked me ‘Will you actually be able to do these things?’ The cynicism was shocking to me,” the governor told the audience.

“We believe that’s now the norm. That is not the norm. That is not the norm. That’s why you have to go back and remember who we are and what made New York, New York. New York is not about the timid and it’s not about the slow and it’s not about the weak, and it’s not about the incompetent. We have the exact opposite. We were the bold, the energetic, the outrageous. Everything was confident, of course we can do it.”


Hot Sauce Expo and Jewish Comfort Food on This Weekend’s To-Do List

Need a warm-up to get you through to April? Try a few events featuring hot sauce or warm matzo ball soup this weekend.

Hot Sauce Expo, Penn Plaza Pavilion, 401 Seventh Avenue, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.

Hot sauce fiends should head out to this two-day affair featuring eating competitions, craft beer, and plenty of gifts. A few of the top events on the calendar include a bloody mary mix competition and a Guinness Book of World Records challenge to see who can eat the most reaper peppers — which are extremely hot. Ticket packages start at $10.

Harlem Food Truck Rally, Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 117th and 118th Street, Saturday, 11 a.m.

Tired of tracking down that elusive food truck you’ve been hearing so much about? Head up to Harlem for a rally that will feature mobile mongers like Luke’s Lobster, Colombian street food specialist Palenque, Mr. Nice Guy, and Lebanese truck Toum. An arts and crafts station will be available for families, and trucks will be parked until 5 p.m.

Coffee Fest, La Boulangerie Lopez, 647 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, Sunday, 2 p.m.

This popular Mexican American brunch spot is celebrating coffee with a free afternoon tasting. Beans from Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Mexico will be on display with the staff ready to discuss the unique notes of each sample. Look for pours of seven to 10 varieties; the event is scheduled to run until 5 p.m.

Jewish Comfort Food, Bowery Culinary Center – Whole Foods, 95 East Houston Street, Sunday, 2 p.m.

With Passover quickly approaching, it’s essential to have a warm matzo ball soup recipe on hand. Learn how to make the traditional Kosher soup along with a potato kugel and a healthier version of schmaltz. Class registration is $45 and can be purchased through the Bowery Culinary Center website.



A Full Roster of Super Bowl Events

The Super Bowl’s debut in the Big Apple has the city’s restaurant industry abuzz with offers. From fan friendly events to bars that have more TVs than Best Buy, there are plenty of reasons to skip the home made onion dip and head out into the wild blue yonder for the game. But before you do, here’s a useful guide for the best places to explore this coming week.

Astoria/Long Island City, Queens, Sunday
The Strand Smokehouse, 25-27 Broadway, Queens

A good party involves plenty of beer and professional cooking. This barbecue and craft beer roadhouse has taken care of that, plus it’s offering buy backs via a pre-paid card system: 50 percent added value for any card purchased (cards range from $50 to $200; purchase a $50 credit, for instance, and receive $75 worth of food and drink). Stuff your face on a menu full of turkey legs, ribs, and pulled pork; wine on tap, spicy cocktails, and beers with funny names round out the drinks list. The game will be broadcast on a large screen projector, so an early arrival is suggested to ensure you catch all of the action — or at least the Full House reunion commercial.

Central Park
Tailgate Around the 5 Boroughs, Whiskey Park, 100 Central Park South, Sunday

Five delis — including Zito’s from Brooklyn and Tino’s Deli on Arthur Avenue — will compete in a battle for best sandwich in the boroughs. Guests can choose from three heroes with a side salad for $15, and bartenders will mix up cocktails like the Pigksin, a bacon-infused bourbon with maple syrup and orange bitters. The sports friendly lounge also has a pool table and eight big screen TVs.

East Village
Bar None, 98 Third Avenue, Sunday

Darts, cheap brews, and super friendly bartenders make this East Village party pad a go-to for Saints and Vikings fans during season. But since those teams aren’t in it anymore, everyone is welcome to take advantage of the bar’s generous drink specials. Cheap Bud and Bud Light are a mainstay here. Add in plenty of cheap grub like This Little Piggy Had Roast Beef nearby.

Gowanus/Park Slope
The Bell House, 149 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn

This indie venue is mostly known for its live musical and comedy shows like Point Break Live, but come Sunday, all eyes will be on the television. This free event is breaking out the beer cheese to go with $4 Sixpoint Brews starting at 5:30 p.m. Look for complimentary chili and wings at halftime.

Hell’s Kitchen
Friday Night Lights, Hudson Hotel, 356 West 58th Street, Friday

Sometimes big events aren’t just about the game — they’re about the cool people that come out to make appearances. Hosted by Rick Ross along with DJ Khaled and featuring NFL legends Warren Sapp and NY Giant Hakeem Nicks, this Friday night party celebrates Def Jam’s 30th anniversary with an evening of dance moves fitting enough for the end zone. MICK will be on hand to pump up the crowd Richard Sherman style, while Miller Lite will dole out its latest beer offerings. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased on the party’s website.

Madison Square Garden/Chelsea
The 50 Yard Lounge, One Penn Plaza, Wednesday through Sunday

The Super Bowl is bringing some unique events to the city, and it’s also transforming a commuter’s nightmare into an armchair quarterback’s paradise. From January 29 through Sunday, February 2, a collection of NFL greats like Cris Carter and Joe Theismann will join celebrity chefs like New York’s own Marc Forgione, Michael White, and Alex Guarnaschelli for tasting events like a burger bowl. There will also be a “Jets House” fan center as well as live musical performances throughout the experience. A full line up of chefs, football personalities, and ticket information can be found on the 50 Yard Lounge’s web site.

Stella 34, 151 West 34th Street, Sunday

If you find yourself at Macy’s on Super Bowl Sunday after an all day shopping affair (perhaps you’re being forced to compromise with your better half?) head immediately to Stella 34 Trattoria and relax with some rice balls. The restaurant overlooks the Empire State Building and “Super Bowl Boulevard”, while the Italian feast for $80 provides you unlimited food and drink. Snack on pizzas, calamari, and Super Bowl team themed sandwiches all night long. Craft beer, cocktails, and plenty of vino are also available in the package, which can be reserved through the restaurant’s website.

Midtown East
The Stag’s Head, 252 East 51st Street, Wednesday and Sunday

Starting the party early is completely fine during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Head over to this craft beer cave where you’ll find a Seattle-Denver brewery showdown featuring ex-Buttermilk Channel chef Bruce Dillon grilling up Jersey Italian hot dogs. Additional tailgate treats like disco fries and mini franks in a blanket are also on the menu; they’re complimentary from 6 to 8 p.m. Representatives from both breweries will be on hand to guide tastings, flights, and discuss each beer. On Sunday, the bar will offer $2 Checker Cab Blonde mugs and half price wings as well. Reservations can be made in advance by contacting the bar directly.

Murray Hill/Kips Bay
Bottomzup Bar & Grill, 344 Third Avenue, Sunday

Let’s face it, if you’re under 25, enjoy polo shirts, and are out on Super Bowl weekend, you’re probably stumbling around this neighborhood — and not for the chicken curry. Instead of bar hopping, we suggest heading straight over to this tech savvy bar to charge up your iPhone, grab a portable radio, and watch the game on one of 45 flat screen TVs. The kitchen here specializes in regional tailgate foods like Juicy Lucy sliders and buffalo chicken empanadas, and it will be adding food and drink specials to represent Denver and Seattle. Additionally, the venue will host a raffle with prizes given out at the end of each quarter — you have the chance to win a flatscreen HDTV.

Tribeca/West Village

Celebrity Beach Bowl, Hudson River Park, Pier 40, Saturday, 10 a.m.

A little sand goes along way, especially when it’s February. Bringing together a trifecta of awesomeness — Hall of Famer Joe Montana, comedian Tracy Morgan, and model Chrissy Teigen — this free event is the epitome of an tailgater’s dream come true. The festivities include a concert by Paramore as well as a celebrity filled flag football game, with Food Network’s Andrew Zimmern hosting the halftime show.


Where to Eat Near the Grand Central and Penn Station in Today’s Village Voice

“A good meal isn’t hard to come by in this town, but what does our metropolis provide for hungry travelers as they stagger to and from their destinations?” asks Zachary Feldman. Many of this city’s travelers, he notes, use Penn Station or Grand Central as their hub, both places with good edible options if you know where to look.

Says Feldman:

Flowing through these massive infrastructural arteries, it’s easy to be devoured by the rat race we all participate in as full- and part-time residents of this city. But two of our busiest transportation hubs even the score, giving us a chance to do the devouring while making it a pleasure to do so.

Find out exactly where in his story on the best dining options near Penn Station and Grand Central, which appears in today’s Village Voice.


New York’s Train-Station Food Options Make Waiting Worth It

Pulsing and frenetic, New York wouldn’t feel nearly as crowded without its millions of daily commuters who fill the streets and buildings with their hopes, dreams, and empty stomachs. A good meal isn’t hard to come by in this town, but what does our metropolis provide for hungry travelers as they stagger to and from their destinations? As is so often the case in this city, it depends on location. It would be unfair to pit the dining options at New York’s largest train stations against each other. The transients buzzing about Grand Central Station simply have it better than their Penn Station counterparts. Explore a block or two farther, however, and the fast-food shadow that haunts Penn Station shrinks just a bit.

Since day one, Grand Central has had a voice in the city’s culinary conversation thanks to the hallowed Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant, and over the course of its 100 years, the monumental building has mutated to reflect various trends and tastes, metastasizing into the gastronomic Magic Kingdom we now know and love (looking at you, forthcoming Shake Shack). Set to undergo renovations next year, the Oyster Bar remains an iconic dining experience. The sheer volume of business reflects the ebb and flow of the terminal’s lifeblood; watching the pan-roast cooks work their steam-powered cauldrons is as entrancing a show as any modern chef’s counter. The resulting oyster pan roast is remarkable: Rich with cream and tinged with a briny funk, it’s a dish with staying power. Raw-bar options are top-notch, and while you can get an array of sea creatures with ocean-size price tags, the Maatjes herring and smoked Idaho brook trout with horseradish cream come in appetizer portions under $10. Paired with a nip of barrel-aged Bols Genever gin, the herring sings. Missed your train? Kill some time in the private saloon room, tucked away in the back of the restaurant.

If you’re looking for the formality of fine dining in a train station but refuse to go below the earth’s crust thanks to too many viewings of The Descent, Michael Jordan’s The Steak House N.Y.C. serves up perfectly acceptable cuts of beef near the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance, and for a quick bite, the architectural stack of warm garlic bread planks rising from a pool of Gorgonzola fondue is a sure bet. The bulk of the building’s dining options are in the subterranean food court, however, where you’ll find tubs of gelato at Ciao Bella and warming trays of Indian and Chinese food. The offerings at Masa’s sushi may not match the exalted status of that other restaurant with the same name (no relation), but their inarizushi are exemplary nonetheless. The fried tofu skin that forms a pouch around seasoned rice retains a pleasant sponginess from soaking in a mirin-sweetened soy sauce. Luckily, you’ll encounter no cronut-size lines at Grand Central’s outpost of Magnolia Bakery, allowing for quick pickup of the chain’s stellar banana pudding. Although it’s nothing fancy (Nilla Wafers and all), the balance of airy pudding, softened wafer, and fudgy banana is worth the trip.

Across town, times might seem overbearingly grim for the discerning traveler, but poke around the two main levels and the tastier side of Penn Station eventually reveals itself. A lone health-conscious outpost in the corporate wilderness on the LIRR level, Chickpea dishes out baked falafel, shawarma, and the mash-up “shawafel” with zippy pickles and flavored hummus. For those less concerned with organic produce or their cardiovascular health, it’s hard to beat the guilty pleasure of an Auntie Anne’s pretzel dog (available on both levels), though curried goat and jerk chicken from Island Dine, a lesser-known chain from the company that owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut (all represented on the LIRR level), taste like they were made in Flatbush, not some industrial kitchen. A fridge full of Caribbean soft drinks completes the experience. If you have the time to spare, a slice from NY Pizza Suprema—southwest from the entrance on 31st Street and Eighth Avenue—is a standard-bearer for the area and possibly the city (as far as New York–style slices are concerned), with a sturdy crust that barely cracks when folded and a light sheen of oil slicked across the surface. Farther down on 30th Street, Mooncake Foods brings downtown charm to a neighborhood in desperate need of it, with dishes such as miso-glazed salmon and hanger steak covered in addictive ginger-cilantro chimichurri for under $10. That same steak provides ample heft in a sandwich with roasted red peppers and garlic dill mayonnaise.

Flowing through these massive infrastructural arteries, it’s easy to be devoured by the rat race we all participate in as full- and part-time residents of this city. But two of our busiest transportation hubs even the score, giving us a chance to do the devouring while making it a pleasure to do so.


Former Exec VP Joe Lhota Has Deep Ties to Madison Square Garden’s 30-Year Tax Break

In between his roles as Giuliani’s “Rat Czar” and the MTA’s chairman, mayoral candidate and Republican frontrunner Joe Lhota spent his days at 4 Pennsylvania Plaza. For five years, he was an executive vice president of Cablevision; then, in 2010, he was named the chief administrative officer at Madison Square Garden Co., the “mega-corporation” that runs the world’s most famous sports arena, as well as Radio City, the Beacon Theater, the Knicks and the Rangers. There, he was responsible for securing the best gift of all from Albany: a free tax ride for the corporation worth millions.

In 1982, at the end of Ed Koch’s first mayoral term, the Knicks and the Rangers, two teams who call MSG home, threatened to leave the city. The city’s fiscal insolvency of the ’70s was only just dissipating and the economic boom of the late ’80s had yet to take hold; as a result, the sports organizations, which bring millions of dollars in revenue to the city every year, felt threatened by the uncertain times and wanted an escape plan.

To retain them, Koch and the New York State Legislature granted the Corporation a tax abatement; by doing so, it would not have to pay any property taxes whatsoever. Thirty years later, this break has cost the city nearly $300 million; in the coming fiscal year, MSG Corp. will get away with not paying $16 million to the taxman.

But this is common procedure in New York. The Yankees, Mets and, now, the Brooklyn Nets have always been given profit incentives, courtesy of the taxpayer. As the New York Times reported, “Among them, the three teams are receiving more than $1.4 billion in subsidies over the next 40 years, including $230 million in property tax abatement.”

The only difference with MSG Corp.’s break is that it’s 20 years past due. Even Koch, in a 2008 interview, was confused as to why it’s lasted 31 years: “My original intent was for the abatement to last 10 years. It should have never stretched for an eternity.” By then, it was assumed the Knicks and Rangers would’ve stayed.

“The MSG tax break is really a distinct case,” Maria Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission told me. “It was codified in state law in 1982 without any sunset or renewal provisions.The tax break is perpetual so long as the Rangers and Knicks play there, but it is conditional on the arena having a permit from the city.” Madison Square Garden’s permit was extended for another 15 years a few months ago.

Because of this, almost everyone in the New York City political sphere is against this weird intersection of archaic management and corporate welfare. Mayor Bloomberg has demanded that “they should pay taxes just like everyone else,” with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn arguing that MSG’s “time is out.” Both the mayor and the council have called for a 10-year sunset period so the Dolan family can eventually move out of 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, making way for an extremely and absolutely needed renovation of Penn Station–a terminal built for 200,000 commuters and now used by 650,000 every day.

In 2008, the City Council, in a 40-3 vote, passed a resolution calling for an end to the abatement. And, this month, Council Members Margaret Chin and Brad Lander have rallied in support of a bill upstate sponsored by David Weprin, the former Council Finance Committee chair who initiated the vote in 2008. But attempts in the past have failed due to one thing: they have to get Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s approval.

Now, this is where Joe Lhota comes in.

This little piece of property hasn't paid any property taxes since 1982.
This little piece of property hasn’t paid any property taxes since 1982.

“I am enthusiastic about joining the exceptional management team at MSG, and look forward to successfully executing the company’s strategic plan. MSG is one of the world’s leading sports, entertainment and media companies, and I look forward to helping ensure the company’s continued growth and success,” Lhota said on the day of his new job announcement.

In 2010, Lhota was put in charge of, among other things, government relations for the Corporation. That makes sense, given his public past: as deputy mayor under Giuliani, he was the city government’s liaison to Albany and Washington. With his refurbished role in the private sector, he would be taking his contacts from his time in the Giuliani administration and using them for MSG Corp.’s benefit; the most important of whom, in this case, was Silver.

“The position puts him in frequent contact with elected officials such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Rangers fan who is often spotted at games,” Andrew Grossman of the WSJ reported back in 2010. And the Dolan family, the powerful clan who bought the Corporation in 1992, doesn’t have a more supportive friend in Albany than Silver.

His campaigns for the Assembly have received enormous donations from midtown corporate leaders and the money-politics connection is evident. Silver was an integral part of shutting down Bloomberg’s West Side stadium proposal–a plan that Cablevision and the Dolans both opposed. Silver’s former chief of staff, Patricia Lynch, played the role of lobbyist for Cablevision, advocating (and eventually succeeding in) a continuation of the exemption.

The ties continue to this day. When asked about Weprin’s pending legislation, Silver told the NYDN last month, “This was a commitment that was made to encourage development, and it would be troubling to remove it.” Translation: bye-bye, bill.

In contact with Silver, Lhota was the middleman between MSG Corp. and Albany; a future mayoral candidate responsible for ensuring his employer millions of dollars that could’ve been spent on anything from elementary schools to mental health clinics all over the city. It’s an example of a revolving door ripped right out of a political textbook: leave public life, ensure private profit.

And, now that he’s making an attempt to return to the former, he’s well-endowed. According to campaign finance papers, the Dolan family has donated upward of $10,000 to the Lhota campaign already, guaranteeing their interests will be met should Lhota go on to win in November.

If that’s the case, Koch’s “eternity” for the $300 million exemption will most certainly become a reality.

UPDATE: The Madison Square Corp. has issued the following statement to the Voice:

The Madison Square Garden Arena acts as a vital driver of the city’s economy, supporting thousands of jobs, and hosting 400 annual events that attract 4 million people to the heart of New York City each year. In addition, MSG is the only venue in the city that has used its own money, nearly $1 billion, to transform The Garden into a state-of-the-art facility for the 21st century to help ensure it attracts even more premiere events to New York. All other teams, including the Yankees, Nets and Mets, have received, and continue to receive, significant public subsidies, including property tax exemptions, that are estimated to total more than $2.3 billion.

The Voice has reached out to the Lhota campaign. We’re waiting to hear back.


How to Handle Penn Station Without Popping a Xanax

There’s an advertisement on the subways that you might have seen. It describes a project in the works – the largest public works extravaganza in the country – known as East Side Access: a portal from Grand Central Terminal that will outsource time and trains from Penn Station. As the sign says, “Commuting will be 40 minutes shorter. For 80,000 commuters. That’s a lot of minutes.”

Unfortunately, that architectural endeavor will not be done for some time and, if the 2nd Avenue Subway is any indication (shout-out to the Sandhogs!), that some time could mean years. So we’re stuck with Penn Station for the time being.

Crammed in between Madison Square Garden and an underlining subway hub, the intersection of the LIRR, Path, Amtrak and Acela is a transportation nightmare for anyone trying to get somewhere fast, especially around peak hours, when tolls almost double for whatever the reason. Tourists gawk at the food options; commuters stare faceless at the Big Board; and the stampede that follows a train track appearance is something out of Jumanji.

Ever since I jumped ship from Long Island to Manhattan, I have become a master commuter and Penn Station aficionado. Babylon, Hempstead, Port Washington, parts of Jersey, the 1, 2, 3, A, C and E lines – you name it, I’ve ridden it out of Penn. Nonetheless, my experiences are still filled with fear, anxiety and a pace that would make Jesse Jackson look like your grandma. We all have that friend in Jersey or Long Island that insists we come visit them. With that being said, that means you have to suck it up and deal with it.

But don’t be scared. We here at the Voice have compiled a list of tips to get you in and out of Penn Station safe, sound and emotionally stable.

1. Stick to the Walls

Whether you’re arriving by subway or on foot, the crowds that swarm Penn will limit any attempt you make at gunning it for the train doors. In other words, you cannot run. But that doesn’t mean you’re limited to a snail speed behind the newest New Yorker. Most people in Penn gravitate in the center of the wide halls so your main highway will be blocked. Here’s a tip to avoid the center: cling to the sides like Spiderman. Keep your head down and move quickly in a horizontal line up the left and right sides of the big crowd.

2. Know Where You’re Going

This point cannot be expressed enough. Before you take the escalator or stairs down into Penn, have a mental game plan. For example, say you’re taking a trip out to Ronkonkoma. Check online beforehand to know the line you’re taking (luckily, it’s called the Ronkonkoma line, in this case) and dart towards the ticket machine. Enter your destination in fast and grab your ticket. Making the phone call to a friend will be the bane of your commuting existence. If you came to Penn with a pre-paid ticket, show up 5 minutes before your train takes off. You shouldn’t spend any more time than you need to there.

3. Listen to Extreme Sides of Music

Now, this is important: you may need an iPod with noise-canceling headphones or whatever mp3 device they’re selling these days. It will help you tune out sounds and force concentration on your end goal: surviving the rush. Before you head in, put on either a lullaby or an adrenaline-pumper. I prefer Sigur Ros for necessary numbness and Rage Against the Machine for a commute of action scene proportions. Warning: the latter will make you have offsetting facial gestures. But who cares; you’ll never see these people ever again.

4. Don’t Come Hungry

There is a smorgasbord of eatery options available at your fingertips. For that reason, stay away from stopping at any of them. Stop yourself from scarfing down a Moe’s burrito or chugging a large coffee from Au Bon Pain (You’ll never catch your train if you’re ordering a cappuccino during rush hour); you’ll need both of your hands free for this adventure. If you’re hungry, grab some street peanuts or something beforehand. And don’t forget that the New York minute rule still applies underground: if you don’t order in five seconds flat, you’ll be tossed off the line by a Soup-Nazi-esque figure.

5. When All Else Fails, People-Watch

Luckily, there is a wonderful abundance of the most interesting characters in Penn Station – a plethora, if you will, of Americana caricatures. If you have time to kill or missed your train, have no fear. Sit back and stare. My favorite landscapes to view from a distance is the Big Board crowd, the dumb-founded tourists who are so confused that this place actually exists, the musical acts looking to get their big breaks and, if there’s a Yankees, Rangers or Mets game, the drunks will be numerous. Enjoy the human race.


Dark Days: A Decade Later, Back Down Into the Subway Tunnels

Returning briefly to theaters (or a theater, anyway) prior to a deluxe anniversary DVD release later this month, Marc Singer’s feted 2000 doc about a Manhattan subterranean community has lost none of its power since its debut. Singer, a Londoner, famously spent several months in an unused access tunnel beneath Penn Station chronicling the lives of the homeless men and women living there. Most were current or former crack addicts in varying states of personal decay, but Dark Days is anything but a scolding cautionary tale. What shines through amid the murk, filth, turf squabbles, and tearful reflections of disastrous choices is the persistence of human intergrity—even the most shambolic of the undergrounders exhibits a moving dedication to companionship and autonomy. (On the inhuman side, Amtrak evicts them all late in the shoot, leading to a counterintuitively happy ending.) Oscilloscope’s upcoming multi-disc set offers loads of extras, including a featurette that catches up with the erstwhile tunnel dwellers 10 years on. The film stands on its own, of course, and Singer’s uniquely tactile 16mm black-and-white photography is worth experiencing projected. But without a clue as to what has happened to the movie’s subjects in the intervening decade, this fleeting theatrical resurrection feels a bit like a marketing tease, though a highly palatable one.


Choptank’s Maryland

The sweet, briny taste of Faidley’s bulging crabcake was still fresh on my tongue as we hopped off the train at Penn Station and zoomed downtown to check out Choptank. Located in Baltimore’s historic Lexington Market, Faidley’s is famous for fabricating that city’s best and biggest crabcakes. Choptank, located in the West Village, seeks to give those crabcakes a run for their money, on a menu that focuses primarily on the cuisine of Maryland. One rarely has the opportunity to make a direct comparison between an authentic product and its upstart imitator, so I’d spent a weekend in Baltimore re-familiarizing myself with the local chow before diving into Choptank.

Named after a river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay, the restaurant occupies a double storefront that was once Anita Lo’s Bar Q, a place intended as a small-plate Asian-fusion gastropub—which may have been one concept too many. Without moving much around, the U-shaped space has been renovated so that it seems much larger. The sight lines have been opened up, and nautical prints hung on walls painted deep green and yellowing ivory. “This looks like an old men’s club,” my date murmured as we studied the menu, sitting on high stools at a raised table that our waitress had to stand on tiptoe to reach. And then we set about ordering things we’d just eaten in Baltimore.

First a complimentary basket filled with homemade potato chips hit the table, served with an agreeably gloppy crab dip. The chips were dark brown and liberally sprinkled with Old Bay Seasoning, the spice mixture that tastes mainly of celery seed, mustard, and salt. It was invented in Baltimore by German-Jewish immigrant Gustav Brunn in 1940 to make steamed crabs taste saltier, so that local bars could sell more beer. Choptank’s chips are habit-forming, and I wish I had a handful right now.

Next arrived a bowl of crab chowder ($12), another Baltimore standard. The version I’d tasted the night before at Mama’s on the Half Shell—an ancient pub located across the Patapsco River from the Port of Baltimore, featured in the hit show The Wire—was a chunky and ferociously spicy tomato broth with a handful of crabmeat flung into the center. Choptank’s rendition turned out to be cream-based, bacon-heavy, and configured along the lines of New England clam chowder. It was good nonetheless. And so was a hank of Ostrowski’s Polish sausage, which is more fine-grained than Greenpoint examples. Made in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point neighborhood, this kielbasy is considered the best in Baltimore. At Choptank, the sausage is served with grainy mustard and a heap of warm, mild sauerkraut.

Other apps include a raw oyster service featuring two or three choices, one of which is usually pulled from the Chesapeake Bay, and a delightful pail of steamed littleneck clams ($15) with a couple of garlicky toasts placed on top. You can also have Jonah crab claws and a Virginia ham plate, offered with a pair of tiny baking-powder biscuits. The only starters we disliked were a rock-shrimp taco, which seemed like it had been carelessly invented as something to keep the rock shrimp busy, and an ill-conceived octopus-and-potato salad that included too little of the cephalopod to justify the $12 tab.

We sat forward in our seats expectantly as the mains began to arrive. There was a splendid plate of fried chicken ($20), another specialty of the Lexington Market, which came sided with collard greens and black-pepper honey. The arctic char was cooked nicely rare in the middle, but the overabundance of lardons in the underlying lentils made everything on the plate taste too much like bacon. We liked the oyster po boy ($15), though the accompanying “tobacco onions”—so named because they looked, rather than tasted, like shredded tobacco—were one fried thing too many to be hit with.

But then the crabcake ($24) hove into view, and we nearly burst into laughter; not because the crabcake was too small (indeed, it was 80 percent the size of Faidley’s, which is still gigantic), but because of the seemingly random objects set around it on the plate. The thought that a line cook had so carefully arranged a teetering pile of four saltines, a single pickled yellow pepper, and a wedge of iceberg lettuce struck us as comical. Nevertheless, the generosity of the crabcake and its clean, fresh flavor were remarkable.

If only it were saltier, I thought, as I picked the thing apart and savored the sweet, chewy flakes of crabmeat. Then I’d have the perfect excuse to order another beer.