in Museum expansion, a classic neighborhood showdown stories to watch in 2016

| 28 Dec 2015 | 03:01

The American Museum of Natural History’s proposed expansion into Theodore Roosevelt Park drew much attention and some consternation from neighbors who see the loss of serene parkland as a hefty price to pay for a 218,000-square-foot science and education center.

In November, 11 months after the project was first announced in December, the museum released a conceptual plan for the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. The design by architect Jeanne Gang includes arched, cave-like exhibition spaces and an expanded entrance at 79th Street and Columbus Avenue. The museum will knock down three of its buildings to make way for the new structure, and much of the addition will reside within the current museum space, linking other areas within the building complex. Less park space than originally expected by both the museum and the project’s detractors will be used, with about 11,600 square feet of parkland needed for the project.

But as the museum’s plan progresses, nearby residents remain active in the fight to preserve a cherished community meeting spot.

Protectors of the park coalesced into an advocacy group that started modestly and grew in just a few months. Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park formed about seven months after the announcement, following a meeting the museum held with some nearby residents in July, during which some neighbors first became aware of the project. Since then, the group has rallied supporters, hosted a public meeting and engaged in an active dialogue with museum officials.

“I think we’ve made some good progress,” said Sig Gissler, president of Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park. “There’s still a lot to do. If you look at the remaining issues there are quite a few.”

Before the release of the design, the lengthy period of speculation about the project may have caused mistrust of those who offered early support, including Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who allocated more than $16 million dollars in City Council funding for construction of the building. During a crowded Town Hall meeting about the project on Oct. 6, she was greeted with boos from the audience. Rosenthal is not alone in her support of the project; to date, the museum has raised more than $100 million dollars for the new building, including $44.3 million in city funding.

Peter Wright, president of Friends of Roosevelt Park, a non-profit group that maintains the park with the museum and the city’s Parks Department, said early lack of transparency was a misstep—his organization did not know about the expansion until after the museum announced the project—but one the museum has corrected through continued communication.

Wright said the advocacy efforts of Defenders were effective, and the museum has worked with local groups and neighbors.

“It’s a rare example of an institution listening to its neighbors, knowing what it has to do and in the opinion of Friends, it’s been a poster child for institutional cooperation,” said Wright.

Museum officials met with community stakeholders throughout the year, including Gissler’s group and nearby block associations. Shortly after revealing the conceptual plan in November, the museum hosted a well-attended public meeting to share the design.

The museum maintains they’ve been open and responsive to community concerns throughout the design phase, and will continue an open dialogue, but granting community wishes can’t come at the expense of the museum’s needs.

“The museum will always be open in sharing information and trying to answer as many questions as possible, but I do want to make clear that the design needs to meet the program that is needed for the museum,” said Dan Slippen, the institution’s vice president of government relations. “Everybody has a different view and we respect everybody’s view, but at the same time the museum has to do what is best for the museum…and what’s best for the museum is best for the city of New York.”

Much still needs to happen before shovels hit the ground, including approvals from city agencies and various public reviews. A city and state environmental review will start in early 2016, which examines transportation, noise, air quality and other issues. A public scoping meeting will allow for comment on what should be included in the review.

Meanwhile, the design of the new center will enter its schematic phase, a roughly six-month process in which architects refine the design elements of the interior and exterior spaces, including what stone will be used on the façade and the content of the exhibition spaces.

An application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission could come in late spring, starting another assessment that also includes a public hearing. Prior to the Landmarks hearing, the museum will present the proposal to Community Board 7.

“Just as the community input through this period in response to the concept has been very important, very instructive, those continuing conversations will continue to advise and enrich the work we are doing,” said Ann Siegel, senior vice president of operations and capital programs at the museum.

Despite an apparent victory for the opponents of the project with the mitigated use of parkland, all fears weren’t assuaged.

In a recent statement, Defenders defined the group’s outstanding concerns, suggesting that the addition is too great and an expanded underground service entrance will compromise tree roots, among other worries about congestion and environmental effects. Nine trees are expected to come down in construction.

“I think two words sum up the project: too much,” said Gissler. “The building is still too massive, the truck driveway expansion is still too large, the tree loss is still too severe and the park redevelopment plan they put forward is still too limited.”

Beyond such immediate concerns, the precedent set by the project also raises questions.

“They haven’t really changed the footprint of the museum since the mid-1930s,” Gissler said, in reference to the construction of the Hayden Planetarium, which was replaced on its site by the Rose Center for Earth and Space in 2000. “It’s not a wild question to be asking: will they be doing this again?”