The American Museum of Natural History’s proposed Gilder Center expansion would occupy a quarter-acre of what is now Theodore Roosevelt Park. Rendering: AMNH
BY MICHAEL GAROFALO
The city is nearing completion of its environmental review process for the American Museum of Natural History’s controversial 200,000-square-foot expansion project, a portion of which would occupy what is now public parkland.
The Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, which museum officials hope to finish by 2020, would include new exhibition and learning spaces to the museum, improve visitor circulation routes within the complex, and create a new entrance facing Columbus Avenue. The expansion would occupy approximately a quarter-acre of what is now Theodore Roosevelt Park and would require the removal of seven canopy trees and three existing buildings.
The Parks Department, the lead agency responsible for the city’s environmental review of the project, issued the final environmental impact statement for the proposed expansion on Nov. 15. The Parks Department and other involved city agencies must allow at least 10 calendar days from the document’s release before issuing formal findings on the project’s potential impact and then making determinations on whether to grant approval for the project. The final impact statement includes over 150 responses to public comments on a draft of the document released in May. The museum’s plan has faced consistent opposition from some community groups and neighbors, whose comments cited a wide assortment of concerns with the project, including the loss of public parkland, the use of public funds (roughly $90 million in government funding has been appropriated for the $340 million project, according to the impact statement), increased pedestrian and vehicle traffic, noise and disruption during construction, and the potential release of toxins from the soil during construction.
But environmental impact statement deflects many of those concerns. In part, it reads that the project as proposed “would have no known risks with respect to hazardous materials that cannot be controlled through the use of well-established measures.” It also identifies a number of steps intended to offset adverse impacts that could occur as a result of the expansion — including traffic mitigation measures such as signal retiming and a plan to enlarge the publicly accessible portion of nearby Margaret Mead Green. But some residents still harbor concerns.
Changes made since the draft statement include plans for additional measures to reduce construction noise and a new commitment by the museum to commit $100,000 per year for at least 10 years for the management and maintenance of Theodore Roosevelt Park.
“Dedicating more money to the park doesn’t change the adverse impact on the community in the present as well as in all the years to come,” said Laura Messersmith, co-president of Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park, one of the groups opposing the expansion.
“It doesn’t change the central issue for us, which is that the museum has put its financial needs above the needs of the community,” she said.
Messersmith said that the group is currently reviewing the final document and will confer with its lawyer, Michael Hiller, regarding its next steps. “We will be taking decisive action to halt this project in its tracks in any way that we can, and we feel that we have a very strong case,” she said.