Last September, residents who frequent Theodore Roosevelt Park rallied against the natural history museum's plans to encroach on a quarter-acre of green space. Photo: Madeleine Thompson
Surrounding the American Museum of Natural History are roughly 10 acres of green space, much of which is fenced off from public access. Theodore Roosevelt Park became a source of considerable controversy when the museum announced that its planned expansion would cut into a half-acre of the park, leading the community to push back until only a quarter-acre would be encroached upon. Now, the Department of Parks and Recreation plans to conduct a study that could lead to opening more of the park’s grassy lawns for public enjoyment.
Opponents of the museum expansion — the Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation — fought hard against the project but were overruled by Community Board 7 and the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s generally enthusiastic support for it. Concerns arose throughout the year-long community discussions about everything from the Gilder Center’s sustainability to its effect on traffic, but the changes to Theodore Roosevelt Park were the first issue to cause a major outcry. Residents of the Upper West Side use the park’s dog run and frequent its shady nooks. Several neighbors have suggested at various points that, in exchange for the loss of some park space to the Gilder Center, more of the park’s fenced-off lawns be made available. At a meeting of the Community Board 7 parks and environment committee, the parks department proposed to do just that.
The effort is part of the agency’s Parks Without Borders initiative that “focuses on making parks more open and welcoming and beautiful by improving entrances, edge and park-adjacent spaces,” according to Sarah Nielson, director of long-range policy and planning. Nielson and her colleague Katerina Athanasiou, who will manage the Theodore Roosevelt Park project, walked community board members through the program on Monday night. Over the course of several months, Nielson said, the parks department will study the ways in which the tree-lined gathering space is used and determine what enhancements, if any, might be possible. “It’s about looking at the neighborhood context and improving the neighborhood,” she said.
After the brief presentation, the committee wondered whether it was a coincidence that the parks department had chosen a park so mired in conflict for the initiative, especially one for which the idea of opening additional areas had already been suggested. “We’ve had a process that’s now a year-and-a-half or two years underway … and we’ve gotten somewhere,” said board member Mark Diller. “To start a project today that takes a blank-slate approach to this park seems to negate an awful lot of careful work that’s been done.” Committee chair Klari Neuwelt echoed his concerns, eliciting promises from Nielson and Athanasiou to consult with the community and consider suggestions that have already been made.
The parks representatives said they would work closely with residents and neighbors during the study, which they estimated would be complete and ready to make recommendations by the end of the year.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org