Anger Builds Over Museum Expansion

The crowd filing in for the community meeting on the American Museum of Natural History's expansion plans. Photo by Gabrielle Alfiero
Community groups complain of scarce information, despite city funding
By Gabrielle Alfiero

As development efforts continue on the American Museum of Natural History’s new education and research center, slated to take over a parcel of Theodore Roosevelt Park, frustration is building among some community members who remain in the dark about the project.

At a crowded Town Hall meeting on Oct. 6, residents sounded off about the loss of parkland and community meeting areas in a bustling section of the park at W. 79th Street and Columbus Avenue, the proposed site of the addition. Underlying these tangible concerns is a mounting distrust of the museum, which hasn’t shared architectural plans for the building. Adding to the anxiety is Councilmember Helen Rosenthal’s endorsement of the project -- underlined by her role in allocating more than $16 million in City Council funding for the new building.

“We have heard nothing,” said Jan Nierenberg, a longtime resident of W. 77th Street, following last week’s meeting. She pointed out that this summer, the museum called a last-minute meeting with residents just before the July 4th weekend, a move that didn’t inspire confidence in the institution’s communication efforts. “People are suspicious that it’s a done deal.”

Since the museum is a landmark located on a public park, the project is subject to approvals from city agencies, including the New York City Parks Department and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Non-profit group Friends of Roosevelt Park manages the parkland along with the museum and the Parks Department, and has yet to take a formal stance on the addition. Peter Wright, who heads the group, thinks that by sharing details about the building, the museum could help ease tensions with neighborhood residents.

“Because you have a park here, you need to open up the black box and just share a little more of why you came up with this footprint,” said Wright, a resident of W. 77th Street. “The museum should consider engaging a little more detail with us and with the community [about] how it came up with that total square footage and expanse. It’s not clear how much it will expand out. That’s the question.”

Wright said the museum has historically been responsive to the neighborhood and believes the museum will engage with community members whom it is has unwittingly alienated. But it already has an uphill climb: among other things, residents seem irked that the museum has used a piece of 1876 legislation as evidence of its ability to expand into the park. “The idea that this is just undeveloped real estate to them, that’s the image they’ve projected. They didn’t mean to, but they did,” Wright said.

The crowd at Fourth Universalist Society on Central Park West and W. 76th Street last week was critical of Rosenthal, whose fiscal support some see as a betrayal of her constituents.

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Rosenthal explained that the museum first approached the city administration and the council before she took office in January 2014, resulting in a $15 million commitment for the new building.

In the current fiscal year budget, the city council allocated an additional $16.75 million for the museum addition, an item that received support from the city council’s Manhattan Delegation. Rosenthal also allocated $50,000 for the new building from her 2016 discretionary fund capital budget of $5 million. So far, the museum has raised more than $100 million for the project, which includes $44.3 million from the city, museum officials said.

“There’s a statement from the city that we believe that New Yorkers should continue to be fluent in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and to in fact enhance the education for our city’s school kids so that people who attend the museum can be current and learn as much as possible,” said Rosenthal. “And with that pride and desire to continue to be a leader, the city has agreed to the funding.”

Rosenthal sat in the front row at the Oct. 6 meeting. When a resident asked about her support for the project, which she noted in a July newsletter to her followers, Rosenthal assured the crowd that the museum was listening to their concerns and that the review process, which includes a presentation to Community Board 7, was in its earliest phase. The crowd interrupted with a chorus of boos.

Despite the fervent outcry at the meeting, Rosenthal remains optimistic that the museum will present a responsible plan for a building that works with its surroundings and is considerate of community needs, with the potential to even improve upon some of the gated-off sections of the park. She expects that the project design will change as it goes through public reviews.

“If we end up with people’s worst fears, for example double the number of buses, and they’ll have nowhere to park and they’re just going to be jamming up our streets with exhaust spewing everywhere, I’m not going to approve that project,” she said. “That’s horrendous. I think the museum is smarter than that, and won’t be coming back with that project. They’re certainly going to lose my support for any city funds if that were to happen.”

Museum officials have met with more than 90 community groups, residents, and government officials, said Roberto Lebron, senior director of communications at the museum, and will schedule public briefings to share the “conceptual design” with community members ahead of an environmental review and before a formal application lands with LPC. While museum representatives attended the Oct. 6 meeting, they did not address the crowd.

“Many of the issues raised on Tuesday night have been discussed at meetings that the museum has been holding with neighborhood groups, community residents, and local elected officials. The project team has been and will continue to consider them as they work on the conceptual design,” said Lebron in a statement.

Anne Snee, co-chair of the Park W. 77th Street Block Association, met with museum representatives at her apartment on Sept. 30, at the institution’s request. She asked about repurposing existing space within the museum, and requested a tour.

“I think there’s a lot of space in that building that can be reused,” said Snee, a real estate broker, after the two-hour Town Hall meeting. She recognized that Richard Gilder, who donated $50 million for the project, would most likely rather the museum erect a building in his name than build a department within the current envelope. At her Sept. 30 meeting with the museum, Snee and fellow residents shared concerns about traffic congestion from buses, which already populate the nearby streets, and suggested the museum explore excavation below ground before building up.

“We’re gorgeous,” said Snee. “We won’t stay gorgeous if people start encroaching on our greenery.”