By Ernie Fritz
Tourism, overcrowding and climate change were among the hot topics discussed at a contentious meeting Wednesday to gauge the environmental impact of the American Museum of Natural History’s plan to construct a new educational building.
The new building will expand into city-owned Theodore Roosevelt Park, which surrounds the museum between 77th and 81st street.
More than 50 people spoke, mostly in opposition, and for the most part in vague, but heartfelt terms about the negative impact that such a new building would bring to the neighborhood. Perhaps tellingly, no public officials spoke at the hearing; Council Member Helen Rosenthal arrived late but did not speak. At one point she was briefly jeered by opponents when her name was mentioned; Rosenthal helped direct funds to the museum to pay for the expansion. Project supporters included the Columbus Ave B.I.D. and the group that oversees the park directly, The Friends of Roosevelt Park.
The meeting, which will determine the scope of an environmental study of the plan, was the first of many in the museum’s process to gain approval for the expansion. The museum is obligated to develop a draft environment impact statement (DEIS) for the site, and allowed for the public to comment — for three minutes each — on the merits of the draft scope of work for the project.
“This looks to me like nothing more than a huge event space,” said one of the commenters. “It will be Guggenheim West” said Gary Myer, comparing the new design, facetiously, to one new “gigantic gift shop”, while Claudia De Salvo, mentioning climate change, called on the museum to think differently and perhaps instead set up a virtual “cloud museum.”
A lot of the other comments centered around the idea that perhaps the museum should look to either move some of their storage or administrative offices off-site, or that the new construction might be better placed in one of the other boroughs.
The current plan for expansion calls for the construction of a new five-story building called the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, on the West side of the Museum complex facing Columbus Avenue, and requires the museum to appropriate approximately a quarter acre of open space in the park and alter another three-quarters of an acre for improvements and connections to the building.
According to documents submitted by the museum, “the proposed project would affect approximately ten trees, including nine canopy trees that would be removed.” As an offset, the museum anticipates planting eight new canopy trees …in the vicinity of the developed area.”
While the removal of nine trees was a primary focus of the Park Department agenda, the heart of the issue for many was the changing dynamic of New York City and the Upper West Side in particular. Speakers talked about how they feel like the city is being overrun by tourists and — on weekdays — a phalanx of yellow school buses filled with schoolchildren.
“Ours is a community that has reached a breaking point on development,” said Marne Muller, one of the speakers. Albert Kahn gave a long speech about how, while we all love and appreciate the tourists that visit New York and Central Park each year, “This little park is ours.” The speech clearly touched a real nerve with the audience.
The fear of many of the speakers was that this new, West-facing entry would become the new de-facto main entrance of the museum and would draw a larger bus and pedestrian load along West 79th street from the 1 train, further choking an already busy crosstown street.
Opponents, furthermore, contend that under no circumstance should any parks department property be given to a public institution, whether they be well-meaning or not, and that this sets a “very troubling precedent” for the integrity of public land. The museum and its proponents counter that the new facility is necessary to accommodate growth in science and educational programming and, among other things, provide a new entrance on the Columbus side of the museum. That could improve circulation to the hodge-podge of over 10 buildings that currently make up the museum.
West Walker, the lead designer from Studio Gang Architects, the firm designing the new building, spoke of the challenges of connecting the structures to improve circulation while reminding the audience that “this will not affect the dog run.”
The public comment period is still open, but only to written comments which can be submitted either by e-mail, fax or snail-mail until April 20th.
After that, all comments will be addressed and, where relevant, become part of the Draft Environment Impact Statement (DEIS) which should be ready to be presented to the public later this summer.
If approved, the Gilder Center is expected to open in 2021.