history museum’s expansion seen as boon for columbus ave.

| 08 Jul 2015 | 02:57

The American Museum of Natural History has yet to reveal an architectural plan for a proposed addition to its Upper West Side campus, but some of the museum’s neighbors already eye opportunities for upgraded public spaces at the museum site.

The new building addition is slated for construction on the Columbus Avenue side of the institution, at 79th Street, and some business owners along Columbus see a chance to improve public access and open spaces along that corridor, and specifically for a section of Theodore Roosevelt Park at the western side of the museum. The museum is a city-owned landmark on pubic parkland, and the project requires approval from city agencies.

“This is an opportunity to make that parkland really great parkland,” said Huntley Gill, an associate with Columbus Avenue firm Guardia Architects and a member of the board of directors of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District.

Gill and other members of the Columbus Avenue BID look at the museum’s addition, an expected 218,000-square-foot building dedicated to scientific research and education, as an opportunity to adapt portions of the park, which is presently fenced off and inaccessible, and create a welcoming neighborhood hub.

Presently, the park is under-utilized, Gill said, not an inviting enclave for the neighborhood or for the museum’s 5 million annual visitors.

Members of the Columbus Avenue BID shared their ideas with the museum, and those involved in the project, “seemed surprised and pleased with the idea,” Gill said.

The museum does not yet have a design for the addition, according to Roberto Lebron, senior director of communications at the museum, but expects to share the plan for consultation once it’s available, potentially this fall. The relationship between the addition and the park “is one of our principal concerns,” Lebron said.

Without a design plan from the project’s architects, the Columbus Avenue BID’s concept remains nascent (the museum has also hired landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand). Some ideas for improvements include fresh landscaping, removal of the iron fence and the addition of movable tables and chairs, similar to Bryant Park’s setup.

“We’re hoping that the museum takes down some of the fencing along the Columbus Avenue side and makes an area that is a real meeting and greeting area, that’s both green and welcoming,” said Barbara Adler, executive director of the Columbus Avenue BID.

Gill imagines that a well-designed public space in what is commonly considered the back of the institution will not only give the museum opportunities to host educational events outdoors, but also provide Upper West Side residents with a location to hold meetings and gather, which, he said, the neighborhood currently lacks. And with the location of the new building, patrons will have a new way to enter and exit the museum on Columbus Avenue, an exciting prospect for nearby business owners.

Chris Doeblin, who owns Book Culture on Columbus Avenue between 81st and 82nd Streets, noted that visiting the museum is not a casual affair, but a planned event often consuming an entire day. He thinks that an inviting public space and museum entrance on the western side of the campus will also encourage visitors to have more of a “drop-in” experience, that doesn’t involve entering through the museum’s grand, columned entrance on Central Park West.

“What I’d like to see is that the museum experience becomes a little less monolithic,” he said. “There are tons of people going by, with kids in strollers and they don’t stop because when you go in it’s your whole day.”

If all goes well, the Columbus Avenue BID could use some of its funds to provide planning, coordination and professional expertise to the park project, along with other initiatives along the avenue, Gill said. He noted that the board has not formally voted on the prospect but that “there’s no hint of dissention” among members.

“An acre of parkland that is badly designed is worth very little,” Gill said. “An acre of park that is well-designed is worth 10 acres.”