Museum's Expansion Plan Draws Familiar Critique

| 08 Apr 2016 | 05:29

A contested expansion project that has spawned three neighborhood opposition groups had its first official airing this week and, unsurprisingly, residents' responses to the American Museum of Natural History's plans mostly echoed now familiar criticisms.

The museum, which is surrounded by the city-owned Theodore Roosevelt Park, hopes to add a five-story, 218,000-square-foot science center to its existing campus. The project, estimated at $325 million, has drawn robust criticism chiefly because it would carve into the park.

At the meeting, which marked the beginning of a public environmental review process, residents expressed concern that museum attendees would flood the new building entrance in what is now a peaceful area within the park cherished by locals. Some also sounded off about prospective increases in traffic and congestion. The museum anticipates an increase of 500,000 annual visitors due to the new facility. About 5 million people visit the museum now.

The discontent underscores the ongoing and fervent opposition to the project by local residents who weren't mollified by the museum's conceptual design, released in November, or a subsequent reduction of the project's footprint. The so-called scoping session, held by the city's Parks Department, was attended by about 250 people at the museum's LeFrak Theater.

The roughly three-hour scoping session, held by the city's Parks Department, allowed residents to comment on various aspects of the environmental review and to suggest areas of study for a draft environmental impact statement overseen by the Parks Department. About 250 people attended the meeting at the museum's LeFrak Theater. Alyssa Cobb Konon, assistant commissioner for parklands and planning, and Bill Castro, the department's Manhattan borough commissioner, led the session.

Although the meeting marked the formal start of the public review, the proposal has been openly, and sometimes forcefully, assailed for months. Some detractors of the plan asked that the environmental review process cease until the museum presents more information about the project.

“I cannot comment on something I don't know about,” said Seth Kaufman, a representative of Alliance to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park, a recently formed group. He said that additional details about an underground driveway and the park's landscape design are needed.

The Parks Department does not expect to suspend the process, a department spokesperson said.

Roberto Lebron, the museum's senior director of communications, said aspects of the project remain in development and will be detailed in an application to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission and in the draft environmental impact statement.

Adrian Smith and Sig Gissler of Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park, a park advocacy group that now participates in a landscape working group formed by the museum, cited concerns about the loss of a neighborhood respite. They asked that the environmental impact statement address why the museum can't shrink the building footprint, as well as how noise pollution and hazardous materials will be handled during construction.

Sean Khorsandi, of the preservation organization Landmark West, asked that the museum develop a master plan, and that the environmental impact statement explore the possibility that the museum's ongoing growth will eventually consume the whole park.

“Now is the time when the museum should be asked to consider off-site alternatives for future expansion,” he said.

Speaking after the meeting, Khorsandi said his organization is anticipating future expansion at the institution.

“They're not master-planning for a use of what the museum's role will be in the park moving forward, and that's our concern,” he said. “[The museum] is one of the key pieces that define the Upper West Side. But we don't want the success of that to be at the loss of the greater character or livability of the Upper West Side.”

A representative from the Municipal Art Society of New York also called for the museum to create a master plan, noting that the proposal includes the destruction of a 2001 addition. MAS also asked for a study by an independent arborist.

Many at the meeting also asked for robust transportation studies for the already congested neighborhood.

Some used the opportunity to sound off against the project more generally, suggesting that the Upper West Side is already being overrun by development. One neighborhood resident said that the extent of comments at the meeting showed that “ours is a community that's reached its breaking point in regard to overdevelopment and over-congestion.” She added that school buses constantly line streets around the museum.

Another commenter, who identified herself as a longtime educator, suggested that the money spent on the project, estimated at $325 million and paid for by state and city funds as well as private money, could be better used to improve public education in the city.

“I would like to see more science and more money spent in the schools in New York rather than bringing all the buses to our city,” she said to applause.

Museum officials highlighted their cooperation with the neighborhood, with Ann Siegel, the museum's senior vice president for operations and capital programs saying that the institution spoke with community organizations starting early in the design process. She said those consultations impacted the concept design and compelled the museum to reduce the amount of parkland slated for construction by half, to about ¼ of an acre.

Claudia DiSalvo, president of group Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park, said she was encouraged by what she heard from her fellow residents.

“I think this meeting has sent a chill through these folks because they realized that the community is not going to sit back. The community is really angry for a lack of transparency,” she said in a telephone interview.

The scoping session was the first of several steps in the Parks Department's review process. Responses to relevant comments from the April 6 meeting will come in the final scope of work and the draft environmental impact statement, expected this fall, when another public hearing will be held. The project requires the approval of other state and city agencies, including the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Parks Department will continue to accept comments on the draft scope of work until April 20 at 5 p.m. For information on where to submit comments, visit