James Dolan Keeps Flirting With Destruction
The NYC Council looms
James Dolan has led a coddled life. The billionaire owner of Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theatre, the New York Knicks, and the New York Rangers behaves like a man who has nothing to fear. If you were the power-mad scion of a cable dynasty, always able to extract concessions from the political elite, wouldn’t you feel the same way? Dolan, as you may know, has been wielding facial recognition technology to wantonly ban the attorneys who work at firms engaging in litigation against him—as well as anyone who happens to offend to him. It’s the kind of brazen behavior even other megalomaniacal billionaires haven’t bothered to engage in—but unlike Dolan, they’ve never been so certain they can keep pushing, pushing, and pushing. Dolan is daring the Democrats of New York to come against him.
Will they? That’s to be determined. But what separates Dolan from the owners of the other New York sports teams and their cherished properties is his unique reliance on city and state government. In this context, it makes his behavior all the more baffling. Madison Square Garden has not paid property taxes in 40 years, thanks to an arrangement made in the shadow of the 1970s fiscal crisis. It sits atop Penn Station, the dismal commuting hub, which New York politicians have wanted to restore to its former glory. To do this, there’s long been talk of moving Madison Square Garden from Midtown to the West Side of Manhattan. Dolan has predictably resisted and political will for the project has ebbed and flowed over the twenty-first century.
State legislators and the governor determine whether the Madison Square Garden tax break can persist; the Democrats who run the legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul could take it away tomorrow. The state government also has say over the arena’s liquor license. The city government, however, controls Madison Square Garden’s special permit, which it needs to host sporting events and shows. City law mandates that arenas with more than 2,500 seats obtain an operating permit, though the oddities of land-use have exempted many city venues from those requirements, including Yankee Stadium and the Barclays Center. Madison Square Garden, to Dolan’s chagrin, is not exempt. A decade ago, city lawmakers denied his request for a permanent permit and instead offered a 10-year extension, far shorter than the previous 50-year permit. The idea was that Dolan would use the decade to find a new home for the arena and allow a new Penn Station to rise from the ground.
That never happened. And now there’s no guarantee, for Dolan, the renewal of the special permit in 2023 will be painless.