Museum releases design plans -- and critics stand firm News

| 10 Nov 2015 | 11:51

After announcing a 218,000-square-foot addition last December, the American Museum of Natural History released its conceptual design for the new building. Partly located on an intimate section of Theodore Roosevelt Park, the expansion on the Columbus Avenue side of the museum drew criticism from some in the neighborhood who regard the quiet area, little trafficked by the same swarm of museum-goers that rush the stately Central Park West entrance, as a valuable neighborhood respite.

The design proposal for the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation includes the removal of three existing buildings, a move that allows 80 percent of the new building to sit within the museum’s existing envelope, with about 11,600 square feet, or around a quarter acre, coming from current parkland, less than initially outlined by the museum and feared by opponents of the project.

Despite the more modest use of park space—The New York Times reported last week that nine trees will come down, and the plan includes planting additional trees and increasing the number of park benches—critics of the proposal aren’t mollified.

Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park, which formed this summer, issued a statement on Nov. 5 saying that “while the plan would take less parkland than originally indicated by the museum, the extensive loss of green space and mature trees—along with other important issues—is still cause for deep concern.”

“This is not just a patch of ground. It’s a very crucial gathering spot for the neighborhood,” said Sig Gissler, president of the organization. In addition to concerns about further congestion in the busy area, and the loss of a cherished community enclave, Gissler’s group and others worry about what sort of message is sent when parkland, regardless of size, is sacrificed for the needs of a museum.

“We still have a long way to go to understand what kind of impact this particular addition would have, if it were approved, on the park,” said Kate Wood, president of Landmark West. “The museum has made it clear that it sees the park as developable area and room for growth. So taking the long view, we have to see beyond not just this project but the next, and the next after that.”

The new building, in addition to creating dedicated space for the museum’s education and research initiatives, will also help solve space issues that have grown more pressing in the past two decades, when the museum saw its annual attendance increase from around 3 million visitors to 5 million visitors per year. By using existing space, the new building will incorporate connections between galleries in adjacent buildings that are currently dead-ends, which will improve visitor circulation throughout the museum and create access to collections from new research and education facilities.

“Crowding is acute, at the same time the circulation is exceedingly difficult,” said museum President Ellen V. Futter.

The proposed design will link 10 different buildings at 30 new connection points. Reusing existing facilities is also a sustainability effort, said architect Jeanne Gang.

“Reusing that footprint and utilizing as much as we can of the existing structures, that’s the baseline of sustainability,” said Gang.

Included in the new building’s design are three floors of classrooms, direct public access to the research library, a new insect hall which will house the butterfly conservatory, and visible collections storage for specimens not currently on view to the public. The new building will also include an immersive theater, which will display aspects of new scientific research, as well as an interpretive wall at the center of the building that will help attendees orient themselves and plan their visits.

While the release of design plans has eliminated some of the mystery surrounding the proposed project, the opposition efforts haven’t slowed. Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park held a “breathe-in” at the proposed building site on Nov. 10 to protest the expansion.

Other residents remain worried about increased traffic to the area with what some perceive as an expanded entrance on Columbus Avenue that could draw food carts and its share of museum attendees.

“The museum is aware that people are very emotional about losing the park. I think they have tried to show that they’re making some effort but I have great concerns about issues like congestion and making 79th Street a main entrance,” said Patricia Muckle, a W. 79th Street resident who also worries about decreased property values as a long-term effect of the expansion. “The museum could continue to make further concessions to save the entire park and still build a stunningly beautiful building that links their other buildings together.”

Gissler thinks his group and the surrounding community have affected the moderated use of parkland. Futter acknowledged that the strong response from museum neighbors did factor in to the building design, along with circulation needs and programmatic priorities.

“It is definitely a part of our thinking to be good community members,” said Futter. “We really care about the park and the community, and we’ve been listening.”

Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who supports the project and received strong criticism from some constituents during an Oct. 6 Town Hall meeting for helping allocate $16.75 million in City Council funds for the new building, said she’s eager for the public discourse that can now take place.

“I think this design responds to the fears that people raised,” she said in a phone interview. “And now we have something to talk about. I’m very excited about it. I’m looking forward to hearing people’s input.”

Residents can hear about the plan directly on Nov. 12, when the museum hosts an informational public meeting to share the design. The project requires approval from city agencies, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Museum officials expect to begin an environmental impact study, which is headed by the Department of Parks and Recreation, in early 2016, which will examine transportation issues among other aspects of the project, and includes a public scoping session. The museum expects to present the project to LPC in the spring of 2016. If the project is approved, construction will start in 2017, with an opening date expected in 2020.

While detractors remain cautious, not all residents share such strong concerns. Bob Weingarten, a W. 79th Street resident and active participant in the opposition effort, said he’s heard from residents who feel the opposition has prevailed, since the museum scaled back the anticipated use of green space.

Joe Ornstein, a fellow resident who frequently plays mandolin in the park, said he won’t judge the plan until after the Nov. 12 meeting.

“Change is inevitable in New York,” said Ornstein, who added that the museum is a resource for the entire world, not just locals. “As long as they put up something that respects the park, respects the space and doesn’t go crazy in terms of over-building, or is too tall or too wide or out of scale, and keeps the humanity of the space.”

Still, some won’t be satisfied as long as a single tree is at risk.

“You cannot tear down trees,” said Weingarten. “They’re too precious. You don’t smash beautiful diamonds.”