The city approved the Museum of Natural History’s plans to expand its campus, adding a new educational center and rerouting many of the interior passageways to make it easier for museum-goers to get around. But the ink had barely dried on the approval when an opposition group announced plans to sue over the project.
“Community United has been on a collision course with the Museum for more than two years as we sought to protect our neighborhood from a toxic and reckless plan that endangers the entire the Upper West Side community,” wrote Laura Messersmith, the co-president of Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park, in a statement to West Side Rag. “We are now at the zero hour and CU, represented by attorney Michael Hiller, will see the AMNH in court.”
The group argues that the project would create environmental hazards. The city environmental study, however, said that the site conditions “are similar in type and extent of contaminants to many urban areas, including throughout Manhattan. The proposed project would have no known risks with respect to hazardous materials that cannot be controlled through the use of measures commonly used at construction sites throughout New York City.”
The museum also responded to the group’s charge:
“Community United’s press release is unfounded and contrary to the comprehensive environmental review undertaken over the course of several years. As set forth in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the project will not pose any public health risks with respect to hazardous materials. Materials of similar type and extent are commonly found at construction sites throughout New York City and can be controlled through the use of well-accepted remedial measures, which were reviewed and approved by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
To date, the Museum has not been served with a lawsuit. If and when a suit is filed, the Museum will respond at the appropriate time in the appropriate forum.”
The new center would encroach on the surrounding park, taking about one-quarter acre as seen in the before-and-after image below.
The city’s approval marks the culmination of a public review process that has lasted three years and involved “approximately 230 meetings and briefings with neighborhood residents, government officials, community organizations, and advocacy organizations,” according to the museum. It follows the 2016 approval by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission of the architectural and landscape designs for the project.
The Gilder Center, as it is known — a 245,000-square-foot, five-story, modern, stone-and-glass project, which will face Columbus Avenue and 79th Street and consume about a quarter of an acre of Theodore Roosevelt Park, the NYC park in which the museum is located — has been a flashpoint in the neighborhood since it was announced in 2015, spawning a series of anti-Gilder- Center groups and becoming a central issue in the recent City Council election.
Protestors decried everything from the loss of parkland and trees, to the design of the building, to the congestion it would create, to its negative contribution to climate change. The museum and its supporters extolled the educational value it would add, including increased access to collections and scientists at work, as well as the improved flow of visitors its 30 new connections between existing buildings would allow. Protestors called it a vanity project, designed for fund-raising galas. The museum described it as a place of wonder and discovery that would educate and inspire generations of young people, and help create a more “science-literate” citizenry, at a time when that is critically important.
The museum is in the process of obtaining building permit approvals; the application was originally filed months ago. If the suit goes forward, it could potentially interfere with the museum’s plans to open the museum to the public in 2020, at the conclusion of its 150th anniversary celebration.