Fighting a Museum’s Expansion

| 07 Oct 2015 | 03:27

Upper West Side residents on Tuesday night slammed an expansion plan by the American Museum of Natural History, fearing that the museum’s addition in Theodore Roosevelt Park, which surrounds the institution, would compromise a neighborhood gathering spot and destroy precious public parkland.

The crowd at the town hall meeting at Fourth Universalist Society on Central Park West and W. 76th Street was also critical of Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who came out in support of the museum’s plans and helped secure $16 million in city funds for the project. Amidst comments about loss of green space and neighborhood gathering spots were concerns about traffic congestion on an already busy corridor. Others suggested a satellite location in the Bronx, or reconfiguring existing space in the museum. Some wondered if the 218,000-square-foot education and research building slated for W. 79th Street and Columbus Avenue was already a “done deal.”

On a night when the New York Yankees played the Houston Astros in a wild card playoff game eight miles north, community members flooded the meeting. By the time remarks began shortly after 7 p.m., the 350 red upholstered chairs in the nave of the church were mostly filled.

Following addresses by a four-person panel situated on the altar—Landmark West president Kate Wood discussed the public review processes for the addition, which includes an application to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and a presentation to Community Board 7—the floor opened to comments and questions from the audience.

Longtime residents shared stories of museum visits as children, and evoked previous victories over development projects at the New-York Historical Society and the Frick Collection, plans that were dropped following public outcry. A W. 76th Street resident recited a poem he wrote about a tree that fell during last week’s heavy wind and rain, titled “Final Thoughts to a Fallen Friend.” He solemnly read the poem from his phone, as though giving a eulogy. He teared up, and the crowd cheered.

Peter Blanchard, a member of the Frick Collection’s board of trustees and lifelong member of the American Museum of Natural History, recalled the lengthy dialogue about conservation of the Frick garden over the past year, which ultimately led the museum to abandon expansion plans there. “Enough people cared and talked, and the good side won,” he said.

Some residents shared concerns over the powers of large donors (the museum received a $50 million donation from trustee Richard Gilder for construction of the new building, named the Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation).

But much ire was reserved for Rosenthal, who sat in the front row. When a resident asked about a letter Rosenthal sent to her newsletter subscribers in July that underscored her “strong support” for the project, for which she helped allocate $16 million in City Council funding, the crowd grew agitated. Rosenthal assured the room that the museum will engage in an active dialogue with the community.

“We are at the absolute beginning of this discussion. All of your points of view are going to be heard,” Rosenthal said before pausing as shouts of dissent erupted from the crowd. “I’m absolutely committed to the museum making its program as sophisticated and as good quality and up to date as possible. My expectation is that they will not take park space, but they will repurpose it to be more interactive, beautiful, friendly and welcoming.”

The crowd booed. Someone shouted “represent your constituents!”

“If you think that by booing me today, I am going to take away this funding, that’s not true, and not possible,” Rosenthal said.

Museum officials, seated in a middle row next to the line of residents waiting turns at the microphone, did not speak. When a fuse blew on a projector at the front of the room with a loud crack and a stream of smoke, few seemed to notice.

Still, hope that the advocacy of residents could result in a change of course percolated throughout the comments.

Cullen Johnson, a resident of W. 76th Street since 1972, thanked his neighbor for his “heartfelt” poem about the tree that he had lived across for 43 years.

“We really don’t need any more fallen trees, whether it be from Mother Nature or wheelbarrows or plows,” he said, and evoked Margaret Mead’s sentiments on the powers of community to cause change. “All of us here, if we tell one person, if that person tells another person, we can make a change. We stopped the Historical Society. We can stop this!”

He walked away from the mic, and the crowd applauded.