Despite frigid temperature and winds, a group of Upper West Side residents took to the sidewalks on Monday afternoon in protest of the American Museum of Natural History’s planned use of public parkland for a new building.
Rallying outside Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal’s Columbus Avenue office, the group of eight residents expressed alarm over the plan for an addition at the museum’s expansive home, and asks that Rosenthal stop the allocation of city funds for the project.
Cary Goodman, a West 86th Street resident who organized the protest, said he does not approve of the $325 million construction project for the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, due to its use of a portion of Theodore Roosevelt Park, which surrounds the museum.
Goodman, who is executive director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District near Yankee Stadium, suggests that the museum open the new education center in the Bronx as opposed to the Upper West Side, where residents already have access to the museum as well as to the New-York Historical Society and other cultural institutions. He questions how well this center, which will enhance the museum’s educational offerings, will serve students in other areas who do not benefit from living near such facilities.
“The idea that you would have city money and private money poured into a new building that reinforces that sense of privilege and sense of inequality is really distasteful for us,” Goodman said. Although he works in the Bronx, he said he does not necessarily advocate that the building land in his immediate area.
The protest comes at a time when some of the small park’s protectors are separating from the efforts of Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park, an organization working to lessen the impact of the project on the public space. Started in opposition to the loss of any parkland, that group refocused on influencing the redesign of the park near the new building’s entrance and minimizing tree loss. The conceptual design for the project, released in November, revealed less park space would be affected than anticipated.
Recently, three of the organization’s board members resigned because of the group’s new direction.
“Our board feels that we’ve won a significant victory and now we should focus on recreating this intimate oasis,” said Sig Gissler, the group’s outgoing president. Landscape architect Adrian Smith will take over as president and Gissler will remain on the board. “We want to be realistic and relevant.”
On Jan. 15, Goodman said he met with Rosenthal, who previously helped allocate $16 million dollars of City Council funding for the construction of the building. Goodman requested that she suspend any future funding until public dialogues were held, but he said Rosenthal remained dedicated to the project.
Rosenthal’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Rosenthal’s offices were closed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but the small and well-bundled band of picketers were spirited as they handed out fliers from gloved hands. After 50 minutes in the cold, the group dispersed.
Jessica Nooney, who’s lived on West 85th Street for 50 years and runs a preschool in the neighborhood, said she took frequent walks in the park with her students over the years. She worries about museums and universities “gobbling up” the city, and joined the group on Monday because she doesn’t want the museum growing beyond its walls in the neighborhood.
“I think it’s so sad to lose open space in New York,” she said.
Rudy Van Daele, who works with children through his athletic school, Life Sport, also passed out fliers. He said that Theodore Roosevelt Park is a rare space where many generations come together.
“Having worked with children all those years and spending all this time with families in parks, you would hope there’d be more park space, more community space,” he said. “Anytime a community space is made smaller, it’s a concern.”
Monday’s effort was the latest public remonstration by Goodman.
He said he spoke during a Community Board 7 meeting about what he sees as the board’s premature support for the project. The community board links to the project’s website from its own home page.
“I’m concerned they’re abandoning their responsibilities as a voice of the community by just having one side of the story on their website, so that’s what I spoke to at the meeting,” he said.
Goodman said he hoped to show his community that some are still fighting the museum’s plan and that the project is not yet a “done deal.”
“We’re not expecting to be able to storm the museum with our troop of merry men and women, but I think we’re serving as a sort of conscience to this project, and that’s important at this stage,” he said.