New Opponents in Museum Fight

| 09 Feb 2016 | 11:21

Challengers of a plan to expand the American Museum of Natural History into a portion of Theodore Roosevelt Park, which surrounds the museum, aren’t just at odds with the institution. As the fight to preserve the public park continues, new voices of dissent have emerged and opponents of the museum’s plans now disagree with one another.

While Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park emerged in July as the opposition to the museum’s planned 218,000-square-foot building, the group now has company as other locals organize. The new Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park formed after three members of the Defenders board resigned due to disagreements about the group’s direction.

Unlike Defenders, which recently noted in an email to supporters that it’s now working on influencing the park’s redesign, the new faction, Community United, will continue fighting the project entirely and work to preserve the whole park.

“We felt [Defenders] was not being true to the original mission, which was to oppose all building in the park,” said Community United’s Bob Weingarten, a former board member of Defenders.

Weingarten did not specify the size of the new group but he expects Community to have a website and an online petition online this week, and anticipates the group will soon host a town hall meeting. The organization, he said, has also plucked some of Defenders’ former volunteers and hopes to recruit new members.

Community’s mission is to oppose any encroachment into the park, Weingarten said.

“This is more than a problem of one park,” he said. “Urban parks are precious and have to be preserved.”

Adrian Smith, a landscape architect and the new president of Defenders, said that, while his organization’s mission has evolved, the group still wants to preserve the park.

After the museum’s November release of a conceptual design for its planned Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, Defenders refocused its efforts to influence the landscape design of the section of parkland affected by the building project. The construction plan includes the demolishing of three buildings, with 80 percent of the new wing going in space the museum presently occupies.

“We thought that was a good example of how the museum listened to us,” Smith said. “We want to make sure the museum continues to listen to us.”

The group still has concerns, including the excavation of a belowground service driveway that could require the removal of trees. Smith thinks that a redesign of the drive could further minimize tree loss.

“Our primary goal was to save the park, so we haven’t really changed that goal and that’s why we’re still trying to help influence the design,” said Smith, who hopes that the organization can work with block associations and other neighborhood stakeholders on a committee that could play a role in the landscape design. “I think the museum has enough support in the community at large, so they wouldn’t have to listen to someone out there who’s screaming and shouting all the time. We didn’t want to be left out of the conversation.”

The new Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park is not the only opponent distinguishing itself from Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park. Neighborhood resident Cary Goodman has made visible efforts to protest the project.

Goodman also opposes any construction project that jeopardizes the park, and wants more public dialogue. At a Community Board 7 meeting on Feb. 2, he voiced his displeasure with Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal’s support for the expansion and in January he and other community members protested outside her office. Goodman calls his efforts a “campaign” against the museum’s use of public park space, and also plans to demonstrate outside the institution to highlight museum president Ellen Futter’s absence from public conversations. (Futter did not sit on the panel at a Nov. 12 information session about the design that the museum hosted.)

“We’re trying to encourage the museum to be more forthright and speak with opponents of the plan,” Goodman said. “I’d like to see them justify this plan in a way they haven’t done yet.”

Smith said the aim of his group isn’t unlike those of the projects’ other opponents.

“We share a goal,” Smith said. “Everybody wants to protect the park, and we just have different approaches as to how we want to do it.”