MUSEUM EXPANSION MEETING BECOMES DEBATE ABOUT TOURISM AND CROWDING; WHY NOT A ‘CLOUD MUSEUM’?

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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.

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A rendering of the project.

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.

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A model of the museum after the proposed construction. The new building is at the bottom of the frame in the middle.

“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.

Emails can be submitted to: owen.wells@parks.nyc.gov. or faxed to 212-360-3453. Click here for the Parks Department’s web page on the project.

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.

NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 20 comments | permalink
    1. Sherman says:

      I’m all in favor of this expansion. Anything that helps to educate and inspire kids about science is OK in my opinion.

      Furthermore, all those annoying tourists these people are complaining about bring revenue and vitality to the neighborhood and help small businesses survive.

      In addition, maybe none of these people noticed but there’s an 843 acre park a block away. If anyone wants green space there’s already plenty of it.

      • Siddhartha says:

        Sherman,

        I agree with your first two points, however not with your third.

        14% of NYC is parkland — not a whole lot for over 8 million people.

        • Debbie D. says:

          Stop! This kind of nuanced position doesnt stand here.

          That said, you are right. There is a need for all three of these things. The museum is a huge value for a number of reasons and this expansion only can help that. Tourists and other visitors do bring in business, and it is good for the neighborhood.

          The parkland is also very important. I’ve let my kid walk around in that very park many times (the sprinkler garden up a flight of stairs on the northwest side is amazing) and this does seem to preserve a lot of it.

          I get the slippery slope arguments, I do. But life is about compromise, and this proposal does that pretty well.

    2. Dr. Cary Goodman says:

      It was indeed ‘telling’ that no public officials attended last night’s first-ever, public hearing. Either they’ve already been reached by the museum’s powerful lobbyists, Manatt, Phelps, Phillips OR they were ashamed to show up having already given the museum tens of millions of tax dollars prior to any public dialogue.

      • Jeremy says:

        Or, they saw no reason to subject themselves to an uncivilized cadre of NIMBYs “jeering” at them, as the article describes their reception for CM Rosenthal. These flailing flipped tortoises have burned their bridges and made their own beds on this point.

        That remaining “Community United” group has left no misperception that they’re looking for discourse. I have no problem with electeds and administrators avoiding that crew. Everyone knows that the neighborhood is overwhelmingly in support of this project, notwithstanding the fact that the article is oddly unclear on the issue.

    3. Paul RL says:

      Sounds like the only thing these folks want to see built is a wall that shuts off the Upper West Side from the rest of the world. Other neighborhoods know what is good for them and would be ecstatic about an expansion from a world-class institution like the AMNH. Hopefully our elected officials are smart enough to recognize this and will ignore the nonsensical arguments coming from these complainers.

    4. A cloud museum! Great idea! Then we can turn the B&M museum into condos!

    5. Cris Fernandez, RN says:

      The only vague comments were by the museum. The presentation by their architect had the audience following a laser pointer which jumped erratically from one talking point to another . The speakers, who were overwhelmingly against the museums proposal included doctors, researcher, scientists, educators, and architects who were specific in their critique of this ill conceived and harmful plan.

    6. Nearby Neighbor says:

      I keep looking at the footprint change: very small.

      The trees will be replaced.

      Busses will always be a part of bringing students to learn at a great teaching museum. Thank goodness they’re coming to learn about science!

      If anything I object to the design…does it really fit in?

      The logic against this project seems…stretched.

      The reaction seems disproportionate to the proposal.

      Seems like the opposition is not really about the museum expanding, but general exhaustion with…more people taking mass transportation to a place of learning?

      I don’t get it.

      Let it proceed.

      • UWSider says:

        I have a hard time believing that this isn’t really about greed and real estate value. The opposition seems to be primarily driven by individuals living on 81st between CPW and Columbus. To me this reeks of the “not in my backyard” agenda.

    7. Jeff Berger says:

      I hate to be the person who always asks this question, but you people say you care about the environment and “climate change” yet you are against bike lanes. You say you are “pro-science” and call yourselves “intellectuals’ and yet you oppose the expansion of a SCIENCE museum.

      If a bunch of “red necks” in Texas opposed the building of a science museum in their city you would be laughing yourselves silly.

      Seriously, can you people please get your story straight?

    8. Michael says:

      As someone who walks through this park a minimum of 8 times per week, I’m fully supportive of this expansion.

      1) The only accessible part of this park for the last 10 years has been on the paths. The lawn is not usable. If you look at what they are doing, very few trees are being removed, all of which will be reportedly replaced. What is being torn up is essentially dead (stoned) space.

      2) I’d much prefer building science and education facilities in NYC that actually add something to humanity than another bank or coffee shop. My only issues is the design of the structure – personally I find it ugly.

      3) The land is owned by the AMNH and supported by the NYC Parks department. The original lease says the museum can do whatever they want with the property. In my opinion the museum has been fully respectful of the community.

      4) Didn’t this group initially oppose the dog park? – extend arm, drop mic.

    9. Cliff says:

      I am a science educator, and if the Gilder Center were really a genuine attempt to enhance science education I would vote for it with both hands and both feet. What it really is, however, is a big-money financial boondoggle disguised as a science education center. The hedge-fund crowd knows how to sell their projects to the unsuspecting public. As for the “public hearing” on Wednesday evening, call me cynical but it looked to me like a slick exercise in sham democracy. If a vote had been taken in that auditorium I would estimate that the expansion project would have lost by about 350 to 50. But so what? I would love to be proved wrong about this, but I suspect that the decision has already been made, behind closed doors, to go full steam ahead with this misbegotten “science center.”

      • Nearby Neighbor says:

        Serious question: What is the sham?

        You say this is not about science education. The proposal (cutaway view) shows the following new learning spaces from top left to bottom right: “Insect Halls, Theater, Science Labs, Library, Education, Education, Education, Collections” … and naturally there are mechanical, building services and visitor amenities areas as well.

        That’s not about science education? Seems like it is. How am I being fooled?

        Sure, buildings are expensive to build and people will make money building them, but “big-money financial boondoggle?” I’m not clear on who is the victim here in your mind and I’d like to understand this perspective.

      • Brandon says:

        Cliff, what makes you think this won’t be used for science education as they say? My children take classes and camps at AMNH frequently. They go on class trips a few times a year. We go as a family to family friendly educational and fun events. All of these programs are full every time. I was hopeful that the new center would make it possible for AMNH to have even more educational opportunities for kids even if mine have aged out or moved out by then. Why do you say this isn’t so?

    10. NYWoman says:

      Save the Titanosaur! Humans learn by interacting with their environment and sharing wonder with other humans. Children especially must have a tactile, multi sensory invitation to life and learning. The addition is brilliant not only in design, but the sight, sound and open space feel. Share with me the difference of gazing up at the 4th floor’s largest dinosaur – vs. “digital”. (I’m dropping the microphone here-snap!)

    11. Spence says:

      The folks who support the Museum plan should show up at the public hearings instead of insulting people with whom they disagree in the comments section.

    12. Robert Goodman says:

      This is one of the more hilarious NIMBY controversies I have ever encountered. Museums are our neighborhood. The AMNH was for me an extension of the Bronx since I could take the IND local from 170th street and walk directly into the museum from the 81st street subway stop. When I was very young and would make the trip on my own I’m not sure I ever knew Central Park was there. I was transported around the globe inside the museum itself.

      An educational center is not going to burden the neighborhood in traffic significantly more than the school buses that already do.
      Tourists will flock to an educational center?
      I think not.

      A quarter acre of lost parkland is not going to do more damage to the quality of life on the upper west side than an educational center is going to good to the larger community.

      Add together TR Park, Central Park, Riverside Park, the many vest pocket parks, community gardens and mini parks in the area the percent of parkland sacrificed to this project is utterly trivial.

      As a proportion of the city landscape 14% parkland doesn’t seem small. The problem is not sheer amount but its distribution. So I suggest that because the UWS is rather lavishly endowed with parkland we should sponsor a quarter acre park in one of those park deprived neighborhoods. I think Chelsea needs a park.

    13. Bob Lamm says:

      I live on the corner of 79th and Amsterdam. I’d like to address the issue here that most directly affects me. It’s been suggested by some opponents of the expansion that the museum will be pushing to have more people enter on a new or expanded Columbus Avenue entrance. And that as a result hordes of people are going to be taking the #1 train to 79th and Broadway and then walking across 79th Street to get to Columbus Avenue. I seriously doubt that this change is going to bring a huge expansion in this foot traffic. In any case, I welcome the tourists and school children walking by our building.