AMNH gets go-ahead, but lawsuit looms

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Gilder Center expansion clears environmental review; community group promises court case to block project


  • The American Museum of Natural History is poised to move forward with its $340 million Gilder Center expansion after clearing the city’s environmental review process, but could soon face a lawsuit from a local group seeking to halt the project. Rendering: American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History has received approval from the Parks Department to move forward with its plan to build a 200,000 square foot expansion, a portion of which will occupy what is now Theodore Roosevelt Park. The city approval marks the end of a long and contentious environmental review process, during which the museum’s plans were met with consistent criticism from neighbors and local groups opposing the project. With the museum now poised to move forward with the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, one opposition group has announced its intention to take the museum to court to block the expansion.

“We feel that we have a very strong case that what the museum is trying to do is illegal,” said Laura Messersmith, co-president of Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park. The group has retained land-use attorney Michael Hiller and intends to file a lawsuit “in the near future,” Messersmith said. “We will be moving quickly, because we expect the American Museum of Natural History to try to move quickly,” she said.

Messersmith and Community United believe that because the Gilder Center will stand on what is now public park land, the project should have been subjected to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. “I think it’s clear that the museum thinks that they own that park, but that’s not the case,” Messersmith said.

The $340 million Gilder Center project, which museum officials hope to complete by 2020, would add new exhibition and educational facilities to the museum, as well as improve circulation routes for visitors within the complex. The Gilder Center would sit on the west side of the museum, occupying a quarter-acre of what is now Theodore Roosevelt Park, and include a new entrance to the museum facing Columbus Avenue.

Community United and others opposing the project have cited an array of concerns with the museum’s plans, including complaints regarding the loss of public parkland and trees, increased pedestrian and vehicle traffic as a result of the new entrance, and the presence at the site of toxins that they claim could be released from the soil during construction. In a press release announcing its intention to file a lawsuit, Community United accused the museum’s administration of “glossing over the inconvenient facts of the project and avoiding legitimate accusations that it has no idea how to avoid the dangers from disturbed toxic substances.”

The final environmental impact statement on the project issued by the Park Department last month addresses many of the criticisms and details steps intended to mitigate potential adverse impacts — including the potential release of hazardous materials, which it says can be controlled through “measures commonly used at construction sites throughout New York City” — but Community United has criticized the statement as “incomplete,” claiming it provides insufficient detail regarding health and safety.

In an emailed statement, museum spokesperson Scott Rohan wrote, “Community United’s press release is unfounded and contrary to the comprehensive environmental review undertaken over the course of several years. As set forth in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the project will not pose any public health risks with respect to hazardous materials. Materials of similar type and extent are commonly found at construction sites throughout New York City and can be controlled through the use of well-accepted remedial measures, which were reviewed and approved by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.”

“To date, the Museum has not been served with a lawsuit,” the statement continued. “If and when a suit is filed, the Museum will respond at the appropriate time in the appropriate forum.”

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