Hearing on Challenge to Museum Expansion Hinges on a Single Letter

A rendering showing the Columbus Avenue entrance to the Gilder Center.

By Carol Tannenhauser

The Museum of Natural History is poised to start constructing the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, a complex that it’s been planning for years. But an opposition group stands in the way, taking its case to New York State Supreme Court on Tuesday.

In oral arguments in the packed hearing room, attorneys for the Museum and New York City squared off against well-known land-use and preservation lawyer Michael Hiller and his team, representing a local group called Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park.

After years of heated town halls and public hearings, votes and demonstrations, yelling about green space, congestion, climate deniers and Ellen Futter’s salary, the argument that dominated this first court hearing came down to the letter “s,” appearing in a lease between the City and the Museum, handwritten in 1876.

“They didn’t have computers back then,” Hiller smiled at Justice Lynn R. Kotler, in courtroom 287, a small, nondescript room at 80 Centre Street. It was crowded with lawyers looking for their clients and conferring. Justice Kotler cleared the room when the matter of the Museum’s proposed Gilder Center came up to make way for the many UWS residents who attended.

Hiller explained that the word “building” appeared in the lease between the City and the Museum 18 times, 17 in the singular, i.e., “building,” and once with an “s,” i.e., “buildings.” Hiller argued that this proved overwhelmingly that the City was only leasing the Museum one building, and, according to the City Charter, the Museum would have to go through an official “ULURP” (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) if it wanted to build another. Hiller said the Museum had done so in the past, but skipped it this time.

The City seemed to argue that the one time the “s” was included was the one time that it mattered.

With no fanfare, the judge thanked the attorneys for their input and said, essentially, she’d get back to them.

When asked to comment, the City emailed WSR, “As the Court reserved decision in this case we have no comment at this time.”

Michael Hiller said, “My position is, every time they want to build another building in the park – like in 1887 — the Museum went back to the state legislature to get permission to build another building. In this case, they didn’t get permission in a public process, but, in a secretive, non-transparent manner.”

Hiller said the judge could take three to six months to make a decision. If the Museum goes beyond preparations and actually begins to demolish, he added, “I’m going to have to ask for a restraining order to prevent further construction.”

NEWS | 29 comments | permalink
    1. Donny says:

      Nonsense like this is why Trump won.

    2. Dr. Cary Goodman says:

      More than four dozen UWSers attended a rally outside the courthouse and/or attended the hearing.

      No one except their paid mouthpieces, came for the museum, not even their deep-pocket, climate denying donors like Gilder or Mercer.

      BTW, the buildings price tag has gone from $325 million to $383 million before anything has been done. Why doesn’t the Rag report on this increase?” We’d have to foot the bill

      • Jay says:

        Just go away. You lost. Spend your time doing more productive things because you are not making your case any better.

      • Bz says:

        WSR… you’re bias is showing…and has been everytime you write about the museum expansion. The first and second graph on this story proves my point.

      • Rob G. says:

        I can’t wait for the joyous sounds of visitors drowning out Cary Goodman’s childish whining as they walk through the new improved park to enter the Gilder Center.

        And I agree with BZ. For such a positive development, especially something that everyone can enjoy, WSR seems intent on focusing only on the small number of negative folks that oppose it.

      • Cato says:

        — “BTW, the buildings price tag has gone from $325 million to $383 million before anything has been done.”

        Sure. They’re probably covering all the legal and other bills you’ve made them run up to deal with your crusade.

      • Sick of This says:

        Why do we need to demonstrate outside of the court house when we already voted against your side by 20 – 1?

    3. Maria Fernandez, R.N. says:

      The museum is perpetrating unethical science.
      Putting up a fossil-fueled building that emits 2 million tons of pollution each year is unethical. Replacing thriving ecosystems with concrete is unethical.
      Using our tax dollars to destroy our public park is unethical.

      Coating everything with the rationale that it is being done for ‘science’ is a sham.

      • Eric says:

        Maria writes … “Putting up a fossil-fueled building that emits 2 million tons of pollution each year is unethical.”

        According to the EPA … “In 2016, about 78 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the United States”. https://www.epa.gov/air-trends/air-quality-national-summary#emissions-trends

        So your claim is that the new science center will emit … ALL BY ITSELF … 2.5% of all the pollution emitted into the atmosphere by the US in 2016? That must be some kinda science you think they will be doing there.

        • az says:

          If you’re really concerned about air pollution and climate change caused by fossil fuels, you should focus more on projects like the CPV Valley Energy Center in Orange County, NY – a fracked gas processing plant that it is estimated will increase CO2 emissions in NYS by 10%. This dirty plant was pushed through by Joseph Percoco, who received bribes from CPV.

    4. A.C. says:

      Usually, I’m pro development, and honestly, on paper it sounds really nice. However, this does seem a little too shady. Just like Extell’s project. Even though what it provides would be beneficial, why are they trying to force feed this project in? That literally undermines everything.

      (Still mad that Extell isn’t changing what goes in, 50 West 66th Street has a great skeleton, but an appalling use of space, but that’s another topic for another day.)

      But I will say this: Compromise is a beautiful thing. Again, I am going to keep using 80 Flatbush Avenue as a pet project, and primary example in this case, but it’s such a good example. Councilmember Steven Levin told people what he would want to see, gave a height number (610 feet), and he and the developer worked from there, and they got a compromise, a height cut on both buildings, though they didn’t need it on the shorter one. I know this isn’t the same issue, but if Helen Rosenthal took on that same mentality of “I know EXACTLY what I want, but I am open to compromise, and open to discussion, to hopefully find a middle ground.” Maybe neither tower would be taller than the existing buildings there. Again, slightly different discussion for another day.

      Food for thought though.

    5. HobbyBobbyLobbyCorn says:

      Well, wait a minute. I always assumed as the AMNH has said that they basically have free reign over the whole park. If that’s not true and they lied, then I’m sorry, there’s an elected official or two I’d like to talk to about exactly who is getting fired for screwing this up at the beginning of this whole ordeal, and what a bad look it is that they took such a done deal attitude. I guess I just assumed I could believe the powers that be. I guess we’ll see.

    6. global citizen says:

      1. Cancer
      2. Diabetes
      3. Alzheimer’s disease
      4. Poverty
      5. Infant death during delivery
      6. Mental Illness
      7. Homelessness
      8. Autism
      9. Natural Disasters

      The list goes on and on… But I’m sorry, There are so many people in need. So many people hurting. So many people that need comforting. This is misguided.

      At best, the argument against this expansion is a quality of YOUR life issue. There are real problems in this world and there are far more important things than the view out your window.

      Please, for the love of humanity, take all this misguided energy and chose to make someone’s life better, happier, more comforted. You’ll be far happier than you are now.

    7. YesInMyBackYard says:

      Re: “a local group called Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park.”

      That would be “CUPTRP”…try to pronounce THAT!

      Hey, maybe it’s “CupTrip”?…”CoopTrap”??😱😳

      Makes as much sense as does a coalition of self-appointed cranks and NIMBYs having a tantrum and using fancy lawyers (ever notice how ‘LAWYER’ and ‘LIAR’ sound similar?) to deny everyone else our chance to have a wonderful addition to the UWS.

      • David S says:

        Y’know, if you stop trying to create an acronym where none exists or was intended, your problem goes entirely away.

    8. YIMBY says:

      An S doesn’t sound like a very strong argument here. Especially since there are already multiple buildingS on the site. Sorry, but this is weak and sounds like the judge thinks so too.

    9. Sam says:

      No stopping museum

    10. Intrepid Traveler NYC says:

      I think Global Citizen and Yes in My Backyard got it right. A few rich neighbors are throwing their weight around to keep a patch of grass and a dog run across the street or around the block. Have they ever gone to the AMNH on a on-school day when the lines are out the door and halls seriously overcrowded? Get a life NIMBYs and let a great cultural attraction better serve people of the city and the world.

      • A.C. says:

        I want to agree with you, and in essence, I do, I think it should be built, but it seems a little off that they broke their normal protocol when trying to get the buildings up.


        • YIMBY says:

          There was already a compromise on the amount of land used for the building, plus the addition of more public park space moved elsewhere. This happened a year ago, but the NIMBY-sauruses won’t accept anything except…. NOTHING.

      • Ish Kabibble says:

        I was with you up until you started labeling people. Try and make adult arguments, you’ll get much farther.

    11. Genius boy UWS says:

      Tomorrow – Thursday you cannot cross on west 79th St. to the east side of Columbus Avenue due to the construction now underway of our new buildings of our beautiful science buildings the “Richard Gilder Center” to the American museum of natural history….is a coming!!!!
      If you would like to cross the street to the east side of Columbus Avenue (on the museums side) you will have to go to W. 78th St. or my street W. 80th St. to cross the street… sorry for the inconvenience people who live on W. 79th St. Especially to the laughingstock of the upper West side “Community United.” — Laugh out loud

    12. This case will decide whether Theodore Roosevelt Park remains a park or merely a complex of museum buildings. The AMNH contends that an 1876 statute set aside the entire park — sidewalk to sidewalk and corner to corner — for buildings. We disagree, and believe that the evidence overwhelmingly establishes that the park was intended to be, … well a park. And it’s about more than an “S.” It’s about whether it was legal for the City to exempt the Museum from complying with the land-use procedure that’s been followed in every other similar case — except this one. Instead, the City and Museum pursued a process that was not transparent and took action against the wishes of the community, all at the behest of the Museum and its powerful army of lobbyists.

      We are glad that the Court took the time to study the case and consider it seriously. For the haters below, you need to do the same before you condemn this case to irrelevance. I believe in this case and in the more than 15,000 people who have, to date, offered their support for the cause. And I have every intention of seeing it through.

      • Bob Lamm says:

        Dear Mr. Hiller: Your alleged 15,000 supporters together produced exactly 805 votes for Cary Goodman in the 2017 Democratic primary for City Council in our district. (Helen Rosenthal, who supported the Museum’s plan, got 13,060 votes.) Perhaps you’d get more support if you weren’t so quick to call people “haters.”

    13. Thomas says:

      Can’t wait for this expansion to open!

      • Genius boy UWS says:

        Either can I !!! 3 to 4 years away… this will be our first science museum here in Manhattan “ever” besides the one in queens. What a wonderful project for all of us to learn by.

    14. gs says:

      Donny…Not that it was the point of the article (which is also nonsense), but President Trump won because Obama (the great divider) sucked and 63 million Americans didn’t want a third term.

      Back to the article…the improvement is much needed and should be welcomed by the neighborhood.