Next step for the Gilder Center


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  • A recent study found few environmental faults with plans for the American Museum of Natural History’s Gilder Center,shown in a rendering of the entrance to the anticipated expansion. Photo courtesy of AMNH



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Release of environmental impact statement moves the process forward; will be open to public comment until June 26

By Madeleine Thompson

Nearly two and a half years ago, the American Museum of Natural History announced plans to build a new Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation that would create another main museum entrance at Columbus Avenue and West 79th Street. After numerous public sessions and protests from the community, the project was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission last October, and the draft of an environmental impact statement (EIS) that was released last week marks another step forward.

The City Environmental Quality Review process, to which most land use actions are subject, requires an EIS to understand and alert the public to the anticipated environmental consequences of a project. A draft EIS is issued first so that the public can make comments on its findings. The Gilder Center EIS released May 18 will be open for public comment until June 26. The city's Parks Department, which oversees Theodore Roosevelt Park, onto which the expansion would take place, will hold a public hearing on the document on June 15 at 6 p.m. at the museum.

Community opposition to the Gilder Center began with outrage over its half-acre intrusion into the park, which has since been reduced to a quarter-acre after developing a working group to collaborate with neighbors. But according to the EIS, publicly accessible park space is expected to increase after the Gilder Center opens, because the museum has suggested to the Parks Department that it open currently fenced-off areas such as the Margaret Mead Green, in the northwest portion of the park. “Access would be available through one or more public gates, and plantings and other improvements would be made within the lawn area,” the report reads. “The museum, in consultation with the Parks Department, would develop a proposed operating and maintenance plan for providing and managing public access to the lawn while also protecting the grass and surrounding plantings.” According to the EIS, the surrounding half-mile in which the study was conducted would have a ratio of park acreage per resident of 3.68 acres per 1,000 people, well above the city’s goal and the district average.

But the community isn’t only concerned about green space. Over the years activists have also raised the issues of traffic congestion, pedestrian flow, construction noise and sustainability. The group Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt hired prominent preservation attorney Michael Hiller in December to take up its case.

The EIS did agree with the community on a few of these points. The study identified significant adverse traffic impacts at the intersections of West 77th Street and Columbus Avenue, West 81st Street and Central Park West, and West 77th and Central Park West, as well as a significant pedestrian flow impact at West 81st Street and Columbus Avenue. It recommended signal timing changes to mitigate the traffic impact and, for the pedestrian issue, a widening of the east crosswalk. “Because existing traffic and pedestrian conditions in the study area are already severe and susceptible to worsening in service levels, even small increases in traffic could result in significant adverse impacts,” the EIS states.

Noise from construction was also identified as a potentially significant adverse impact for two nearby residential buildings: 101 West 79th Street and 118 West 79th Street. The report suggests measures such as investing in quieter construction equipment and providing noise reduction tools to residents, including air-conditioning units and storm windows.

Cary Goodman, who is running for City Council largely on a platform of opposition to the Gilder Center, sent out an email to his supporters on Monday alerting them that the EIS found beryllium, chromium, lead, mercury, and nickel in the groundwater at the site. “This means that demolishing existing buildings and excavating soil to erect the Gilder Center will represent a real threat to the health, safety and quality of life of our community!” Goodman wrote. The report states that its findings are “typical of groundwater at many urban sites, including throughout Manhattan” and suggests that measures such as proper disposal of excavated debris be taken to ensure control over potentially harmful substances. “The proposed project would have no known risks with respect to hazardous materials that cannot be controlled through the use of the measures described,” the EIS reads.

Ed Applebome, an environmental planning consultant for the museum, said additional and different issues could still come to light as the project progresses. “[The EIS] does not mean we don’t have effects in other areas,” he said. “The purpose of the EIS is to identify significant adverse impacts, so there may be other community issues that arise in the review of the project ... but they don’t necessarily rise to the level of significance under the environmental review process.” Dan Slippen, the museum’s vice president of governmental affairs, said the institution would continue working to construct a complete, coherent final version of the EIS. “We plan on working with city agencies and the community over the next number of months to try to find ways to mitigate what we can,” he said.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at newsreporter@strausnews.com


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