About 70 Upper West Side community members (and at least one politically inclined mouse that was spotted running around) attended last week’s meeting at the American Museum of Natural History to hear an update on the $325 million Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation project.
Almost exactly a year after the first public meeting was held to present the expansion, the approval process is finally getting underway. Within the next few months, the museum will file its application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and to Community Board 7, with construction tentatively set to begin in mid-2017, pending approval from at least six city agencies.
In a city that treasures its parks, it is perhaps unsurprising that much of the public interest surrounding the expansion stems from anger over its quarter-acre intrusion into Theodore Roosevelt Park, which is made up of all the green space on the superblock occupied by the AMNH. “We have seen some significant progress, but we still have some important concerns about the progress,” Adrian Smith, president of the Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park, said during the meeting’s allotted time for public comment. “While some parkland would still be lost in the museum’s expansion, we believe the role of the park would be preserved … The science center entrance would still be too massive, looming over a small park without convincing justification. It certainly is not clear why a solution to the museum’s internal circulation problem requires such a large edifice.”
Renderings of the Gilder Center demonstrate how its connections to the other AMNH buildings will help ease the crowded, complex museum structure. At the beginning of the meeting, AMNH Senior Vice President Ann Siegel noted that the museum has increased to five million annual visitors and called the expansion an “unprecedented opportunity to offer thrilling new exhibition space (and) interdisciplinary learning space.”
Earlier this month, W. 86th Street resident and opponent of the Gilder Center Cary Goodman took it upon himself to meet with Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mitchell Silver. “If (Silver is) unwilling to reject this in the face of so many thousands of people who don’t want this project than he should be discharged of his responsibilities,” Goodman said after their meeting. Though he expressed gratitude that Silver was willing to speak with him, Goodman stands firm that the project should not be allowed to move forward.
Over the last year, neighborhood opposition to the project out of a desire to protect beloved green space has grown fiercer. After some members of Defenders decided the group was not taking a hard enough stance against the expansion a second group, Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park, Inc., was formed. In response to the outcry, the AMNH formed a Park Working Group that included the Defenders, the Theodore Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association and West 77th Street Block Association, as well as several elected officials. Despite the initial estimate that eight trees would have to be cut down -- and one relocated -- their collaboration has led to the preservation of a pin oak and an English elm tree near the museum’s entrance at W. 79th Street and Columbus Avenue.
The purpose of the meeting last Thursday, in addition to providing a general update, was to show updated renderings that included the new, secluded bench areas the museum has decided to carve out for its neighbors to compensate for the loss of 11,600 square feet. Joe James from Reed Hilderbrand landscape architects called saving the trees an “achievement” that would help retain the “essential character” of Teddy Roosevelt Park. “By being able to move the service drive further east than originally anticipated, we’ll be able to design the driveway in a way to lessen the impact on the elm’s root structure,” he said.
Despite this improvement, Smith suggested that he would like monetary restitution to be made for the loss of seven mature trees, and that a park endowment fund should be created that would be “large enough to sufficiently fund maintenance and to preserve the improvements that we now see … as well as the rest of the park.”
Two common themes to the concerns expressed by the 20-odd residents who lined up to address the panel of museum staff and hired experts were increased traffic congestion due to the Gilder Center’s W. 79th Street and Columbus Avenue entrance and the possibility that the AMNH could expand again in later years. “We are deeply concerned about the chaos that we perceive will be happening around the museum,” one resident said. “We support the science … but we feel threatened. We’re the people who don’t need a study when we look outside and see the corner at Columbus Avenue and 81st Street with all the buses … we’ve seen it. I ask you tonight to tell us: is this the end of the building? Because you’ve asserted your rights to build in the entire park.” The AMNH representatives did not directly respond.
The museum will hold its next public session on Sept. 13 to review its application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the preservation and parks committees of Community Board 7 will meet to discuss it on Sept. 20.