A New Day, A New Museum Opponent


As AMNH moves forward, opposition groups proliferate
By Gabrielle Alfiero

As the American Museum of Natural History moves ahead with a contested expansion plan, another group opposing the museum’s project has sprouted.

Last summer, Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park sprang into action after residents learned that the proposed expansion on the Columbus Avenue side of the museum campus meant cutting into a section of Theodore Roosevelt Park, which surrounds the institution.

After the museum’s initial design for the project revealed that 80 percent of the new structure would sit within current museum space and 11,600 square feet of park area would be consumed by the new building, Defenders shifted its main focus to park redesign and minimizing the impact of construction on the public space, rather than fighting the project.

Dissatisfied with the new tack, three board members of Defenders left the organization and formed Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park, which aims to prevent any development into the park, no matter how minimal.

Now, a third group, dubbed Alliance to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park, adds its voice to the fight. Though consisting presently of just four members, each initially involved with Community United, Alliance to Protect has organized quickly and will host a town hall meeting on March 30, sponsored by the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, at the West Side Institutional Synagogue on W. 76th Street. Attorney Michael Hiller, who previously challenged development at the New York Public Library, will speak at the event, the group said.

“All three groups have a certain opposition to the current plan, and I also think all three groups would like a revision to the current plan,” said Seth Kaufman of Alliance to Protect. “Our position is any encroachment or construction into Theodore Roosevelt Park is unacceptable.”

Kaufman also questions Defenders’ inclusion in a working group chaired by the museum to discuss the design of the park area affected by construction. Elected officials, Community Board 7 and other community groups are also involved in the conversations. Kaufman doesn’t think the groups involved “have taken the temperature of the community.”

“Our approach is to have the expertise and oppose things through the normal public process without any conflict of being in the middle of friendly discussions with the museum,” said Martha Dwyer, also of Alliance to Protect and a one-time board member of Defenders.

Dwyer and Kaufman said their group wants to acquire legal counsel and consult with experts about the environmental effects of the project.

“We’re exploring every avenue and trying to garner every resource to make our points during this approval process and to collect everything we might need for litigation,” said Kaufman.

Peter Wright, president of the non-profit group that manages the park with the city’s Parks Department and the museum, supports the expansion and lauds the museum’s responsiveness to neighborhood concerns. He said the objectives of these offshoot groups aren’t realistic.

“No one would think to muzzle them, but all this petition-gathering and whatever they’re doing, we’re beyond that,” said Wright. “They can protest up until the time the bulldozers come in. Their approach is not practical at this point.”

Members of both Community United and Alliance to Protect were vocal at a meeting of Community Board 7’s parks and environment committee on Monday night, when the committee briefly addressed the project’s environmental impact statement and the landscape design. Kaufman asked whether the board’s participation with the landscape working group was a conflict of interest, and Community United president Claudia DiSalvo asked when the community board found out that public funds were allotted for the project. But committee members shut down a heated exchange with Cary Goodman, vice president of Community United, which grew contentious as he questioned the board’s role on the working group. After 30 minutes of comments, the board moved on and those who came for the discussion about the park departed.

In addition to attending board meetings, Community United members are busy with community outreach and adding signatures to their petition. Most recently, the organization scrutinized the museum’s environmental assessment statement submitted to the Parks Department, raising concerns about the project’s potential environmental hazards.

“Our organization and our community want answers,” said DiSalvo about the environmental issues.

The project requires approvals from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Parks Department, which involve public reviews starting with a scoping session to be held at the museum on April 6, allowing for public comments on environmental concerns.

“The overall process is designed to provide a thorough review of potential environmental effects. Potential environmental effects across a wide variety of technical areas will be studied during this process and presented in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS),” said Alyssa Cobb Konon, assistant commissioner for parklands and planning for NYC Parks.

Sig Gissler, who started Defenders, said that these other organizations have “good intentions,” but their demands don’t seem plausible. He also suggested that the new groups represent a small number of people, while Defenders still has wide support from many happy with the group’s approach. According to the organization’s website, Defenders has amassed around 3,000 supporters. Community United has about 250 signatures to an online petition that launched earlier this year, though DiSalvo said that number doesn’t accurately represent its support. Combined with physical signatures, actual support reaches closer to 2,000 people, she said.

“We’re the original group, we’re the one with the large following, we’re the one with the seat at the table, and we’re the ones trying to make things happen and I think that’s an important distinction to keep in mind,” said Gissler.