CB 8 to Met Museum: Plants Yes, Picnics No

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art acts not only as a home for a plethora of works of art showcasing the human condition, its outdoor plaza serves as one of Manhattan's favorite hangout places.

Backed with funding by industrialist David Koch, The Met plans to redesign its outdoor plaza so it can accommodate the crowds of people who visit the museum and who use the steps as a place to meet friends or hang out.

Some neighbors believe it would be better to leave the plaza in its current state. Last Wednesday, Community Board 8 split down the middle in terms of agreeing on what should be built and what should be left for the birds, approving the lighting plans, the fountains, the plantings and kiosks for ticket sales and food vending (with a caveat that the Met not apply for a liquor license), but disapproving the tables and chairs.

Each of the advisory votes was close, and board members vehemently disagreed on some of the elements.

"I felt like the design of the fountains looked like something that belongs in a playground," said Rita Popper. Others decried the plaza as a "picnic destination" that would draw crowds without necessarily alleviating the masses on the steps of the museum. But others spoke up in defense of the plan.

"I think we have to be approving of [The Met's] desire to do this," said board member Lori Ann Bores, praising the museum for spending money on the arts in a cash-strapped economy when the city is cutting back funding. "I don't think we're qualified to sit here and pick it apart."

Howard Holzer, a senior vice president at The Met, said a few days later, "It was mandated that we reconstruct the plaza so that it resembles the historical look of The Met."

The last reconstruction of the plaza, in 1967, was done to accommodate automobile traffic, but now the outdoor plaza is beginning to show its age and the amount of foot traffic has increased.

Because of its location across from Central Park and The Met's notoriety, the steps have become a popular place to relax, which causes an issue for patrons of the museum since they have to navigate through droves of people to get to the museum. The proposed renovation of the plaza is aimed at reducing the bottlenecks that occur due to the masses who hang out on the steps.

The idea to fix this problem takes its inspiration from outdoor plazas such as the one at Madison Square Park, where sections of the street have been furnished with lightweight, movable chairs and picnic tables.

The Met plans to add 400 chairs and 100 tables to dispel the crowd from the stairs.

While fixing crowding issues is one aspect of the project, the plans also call for replacing the existing fountains and trees that currently populate the area.

The fountains, which have been occupying the plaza since the 1970s, have become eyesores at best, leaking water and blocking entrances at 81st and 83rd streets. The new design will call for removing the current fountains and replacing each of them with two smaller fountains that will allow for easier access to these almost unknown entrances.

The redesigned fountains will be programmed so that in the summer they will have a variety of water patterns. For the winter months, the fountains will become reflecting pools, which will use steam power to keep the water from freezing over.

Currently, the plaza is home to 44 trees that are hanging onto life by a thread. The designers of the plaza plan to create two allees of little-leafed Linden trees. These trees will act as more than replacements of the old trees, they will serve to provide a shaded harbor from the heat in the summer months. The trees will also act to reduce the amount of noise pollution from the streets.

Coupled with the trees, the shrubs and flowers that will be planted will act as a throwback to the Met's original outdoor design and new granite sidewalks.

With reporting by Megan Bungeroth.

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