NYC Parks OKs Natural History Expansion; Critics Vow Lawsuit

The black dotted line on the diagram indicates portions of the Theodore Roosevelt Park that face alteration as the result of the current plans for the Gilder Center’s construction. | AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Achieving a significant milestone in its effort to build a 245,000-square-foot expansion devoted to science education, the American Museum of Natural History has won approval for the project from the city Department of Parks and Recreation.

That approval, announced last week, was necessary since construction of the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation — slated for completion in 2019, coinciding with the museum’s 150th anniversary — would seize surrounding land currently part of the Theodore Roosevelt Park.

The parks department’s action drew immediate fire from opponents of the project, with Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park issuing a blistering release charging the city with “an amazing display of indifference to and contempt for the health, well-being, and lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers.” Working with attorney Michael Hiller, the group is threatening a lawsuit, a move supported by other critics including the Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park.

Roughly one-quarter of the Gilder Center would be built onto land currently part of the park, which surrounds the museum in the superblock from Central Park West to Columbus Ave. between W. 77th and W. 81st Sts. According to museum plans, the construction would alter roughly 75,000 square feet of the park and involve the destruction of at least half a dozen older trees — though the planting of 19 new or moved trees has been offered as compensation. The $340 million dollar project — to be funded with government money perhaps up to one third of the total, with $90 million allocated to date — aims to create new exhibition and educational space and improve visitor flow throughout the museum and would create a new entrance to the institution on the Columbus Ave. side near W. 79th St.

Though opposition to the Gilder Center initially focused on the ecological and pedestrian disruption to a treasured quiet neighborhood park, opponents have broadened their critique to include what they warn would be environmental dangers in the construction process and dramatically increased traffic in the area.

In Community United’s release, the group’s co-president, Claudia DiSalvo, said, “The museum administration is about to dig into poisoned earth, scattering toxic substances into our air, water, and soil. It does not care that it is fueling the terrible traffic problems we already have, or about the destruction of quiet parkland for this pseudo-Disneyland building, which has nothing to do with science, education, or innovation. A major entrance on Columbus Avenue would destroy our neighborhood, and we’re going to stop it if we have to wrap ourselves around the trees or block the bulldozers.”

The group charged that Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver’s approval came after a 10-day public comment period, coinciding with Thanksgiving week, regarding the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

“The FEIS is incomplete in its health and safety information despite being over 8,000 pages long,” the group charged. “Officials have also decided to ignore objections raised by the original Draft Environmental Impact Statement.”

A report issued earlier this year by GHD Services, an engineering and environmental consulting firm engaged by Community United, had faulted that draft study for failing to consider “socioeconomic conditions” or to provide “sufficient information” about hazardous materials, transportation, and construction related to the project.

“Commissioner Silver’s approval comes as no surprise, DiSalvo wrote in an email to Manhattan Express on December 13. “Our pleas to elected and museum officials for transparency and public hearings on the environmental impacts, plans to mitigate toxic and cancer-causing materials on the site, and the use of $140 million tax dollars committed to this project have fallen on deaf ears.”

She added, “We will see the AMNH in court.”

A multi-story, glass-walled Collections Core would be a critical resource within the Gilder Center, displaying specimens and artifacts that scientists use to investigate fundamental questions and formulate new research directions. | Photo courtesy of Ralph Appelbaum

Support for Community United’s threatened lawsuit by the Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park suggests that the museum’s efforts to sideline critics by inviting their involvement in the planning process have not been fully successful. At the museum’s invitation, the Defenders participated in the project’s Park Working Group, but the group also continued to offer criticism at public forums. Earlier this year, Lydia Thomas, the Defenders’ president, told Manhattan Express that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was “wide-ranging but seems to resolve every issue in the museum’s favor. From loss of parkland to increased congestion, it concludes there is ‘no significant adverse impact.’’”

Responding to Community United’s charges, a museum spokesperson wrote, “Community United’s press release is unfounded and contrary to the comprehensive environmental review undertaken over the course of several years. As set forth in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the project will not pose any public health risks with respect to hazardous materials. Materials of similar type and extent are commonly found at construction sites throughout New York City and can be controlled through the use of well-accepted remedial measures, which were reviewed and approved by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.”

The museum has not been served with a lawsuit, that spokesperson said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *