On a recent weekday afternoon, summer campers in matching blue T-shirts ran around a pocket of parkland in Theodore Roosevelt Park, which surrounds the American Museum of Natural History. Young parents pushed strollers while children cruised along the pathways on scooters as the late afternoon sun cast shadows through the tall trees.
For some residents, this familiar scene in a tranquil slice of the park at W. 79th Street and Columbus Avenue is in peril. The 146-year-old museum eyes this section of the park as the site for a new education and research building, while neighborhood residents fear the destruction of a favorite respite.
“This is not just a loss of parkland,” said Sig Gissler, who lives on W. 79th Street. “It’s more than that, because this is such a sweet gathering spot.”
Gissler and other members of the community are contesting the plan. Along with his wife Mary, Gissler started galvanizing the neighborhood in an effort to fight the museum’s encroachment into the park. The museum officially announced its plans last December, but many residents are just learning about the threat to their community enclave, Gissler said. He launched a website for the movement, saveteddyrooseveltpark.org, and a fellow resident started an online petition, now with nearly 850 signatures.
“We consider it as a backyard,” said resident Nadine Gill during one of her frequent strolls through the park with her long-haired Chihuahua, Ginger. “It’s just a big, big loss to everybody who comes here.”
The opposition effort is still nascent, Gissler said, as some residents only learned about the implications of the addition earlier this month when the museum held a meeting with residents of W. 79th Street days before the July Fourth weekend, timing that some found problematic.
Those fighting the location of the addition question the need for another building on the campus, suggesting that the institution repurpose space in its existing labyrinth of buildings, and construct satellite education facilities in other boroughs.
“If their job is to reach out to the public schools, have they really found out the best way to do that?” said Musa Klebnikov, who lives on W. 79th Street. Her three children learned to ride bicycles in the park.
Museum officials maintain that they remain sensitive to the new building’s position within the park space.
“We’re aware of the questions and concerns being raised by the petition, and will continue to involve and consult with the local community as we have been doing through a series of meetings and briefings that have taken place,” Roberto Lebron, senior director of communications at the museum, said in a statement.
The new Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation will focus on education and research. The museum hasn’t yet released publicly an architectural plan for the $325 million, 218,000-square-foot building, but it has selected architect Jeanne Gang for the project, and notes that her firm “is well-known for integrating architecture and nature,” Lebron said.
The project has also received early support from council member Helen Rosenthal.
“I’m delighted to report that my strong support for the American Museum of Natural History’s new science education center resulted in substantial funding for construction: $16 million from the City Council,” Rosenthal said in a statement. While in support of the initiative, she expects that the museum will “have an open dialogue with the community regarding the use of park space and construction safety.”
As a landmark located within a public park, the project requires approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Typically, in order to claim public parkland for such use, the museum would need state approval. But some members of the community note that the museum has offered documentation from 1876 that allows for ongoing development by the museum on this slice of land.
“They’re claiming they already have permission,” said Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates. “Which obviously we will be challenging in court if need be. So they seem to think that whatever actions transpired from the legislation in that year was an in-perpetuity placeholder.”
Dave and Marjorie Greenberg have lived on W. 79th Street for 32 years. When they learned about the museum’s expansion into the park, they started informing their neighbors and friends about the project, many of whom didn’t know what was at stake. The couple canvasses at the park’s weekend greenmarket, raising awareness and growing support for the opposition movement.
“Virtually every friend we have in the neighborhood we met in the park,” said Dave Greenberg. “It’s really a community.”
Now retired, the pair had an enduring pre-work ritual: they carried travel mugs of coffee with them to the park in the early mornings, even during winter, when they bundled up and brushed snow from the benches where they sat. After work, a stroll through the park was a welcome de-stressor.
Gregory St. John, president of the co-op board at Clifton House on W. 79th Street, where the Greenberg’s live, worries that the loss of green space and the potential spike in traffic along Columbus Avenue could jeopardize property value on the block, which at present ends with the park.
“If the museum has its way, it’s going to end in a building,” said St. John, who often reads on the park’s benches.
Though Central Park is just an avenue away, St. John doesn’t find the sprawling lawns an attractive alternative for the town square atmosphere at W. 79th Street and Columbus Avenue.
“This is for the neighborhood,” he said of Theodore Roosevelt Park. Central Park “is for the whole city.”