Museum Expansion Faces Neighborhood Opposition

Many local residents are hoping to stop the Museum of Natural History's expansion.

Residents gather in Theodore Roosevelt Park, just outside the Museum of Natural History

Residents gather in Theodore Roosevelt Park, just outside the Museum of Natural History

By Patrick Ralph

Dr. Cary Goodman, a resident of the Upper West Side, has fond memories of Theodore Roosevelt Park, located between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue and next to the American Museum of Natural History.

“This is where my daughter came when she was growing up”, said Goodman. “It was a place for her to play and for us to relax.”

Like Goodman, many residents of the Upper West Side care deeply about their neighborhood park. That is why so many have come out in opposition to the museum’s proposed expansion plans.

Goodman is a member of Community United, an organization of about 4,000 residents in the neighborhood who oppose the museum’s expansion.

In early September, the Museum of Natural History filed a $325 million expansion proposal to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The museum’s directors want to build the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation on the west side of the museum facing Columbus Avenue. Construction would begin next summer with a goal of completing the project by 2020.

The museum’s original expansion plans proposed taking half an acre of the surrounding park, but it was cut down to one quarter of an acre in early September after hearing concerns from the public. Even though the expansion will not increase the museum’s footprint in the park, the project’s total size has increased approximately eight percent to 235,000 square feet.

The increased space will come from renovation of existing spaces and the removal of three existing buildings to allow for more display space, according to museum officials. Seven trees will be cut down as a result of the expansion.

Community Board 7, which represents the museum’s neighborhood, approved the museum’s expansion plans and the design for both the building and the park this past Wednesday with an overwhelming majority.

“We really wanted to listen to the public and the museum when making this decision,” said Gabby Palitz, a Community Board 7 member who co-chairs the Preservation Committee.  She added that the committee had been in discussions over the last year about the project.

Although the museum is taking less parkland now than it had originally proposed for its expansion, members of Community United remain opposed.

“We’re not giving up a teaspoon of dirt”, said Claudia DiSalvo, who serves on the board of directors of Community United.

“Once you lose green space, you won’t get it back”, said Jey Purushothan, a member of Community United. “A powerful entity is trying to take it over and it won’t come back. It’s easy to take away green space, but hard to fight against that.”

Members of Community United were originally part of another group called Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park. According to members of Community United, the split-off occurred earlier this year when Defenders conceded and aligned to work together with the museum.

Sig Gissler, the founding president of Defenders, said that the group has not conceded and has made a lot of progress by working with the museum.

“They’re [Community United] well-meaning but not realistic in their hopes”, said Gissler, a former director of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia Journalism School. “We’re the ones who spotted these issues and brought it to the museum’s attention.”

Even though Defenders has been able to work with the museum to save two trees in the park and reduce the total number of trees cut down to seven, the group still has concerns about the plans.

“We’re still very concerned about the size of the building”, said Gissler. “We’re primarily focused on seeking to preserve the sanctity of the park.”

Members of Community United also say that the museum has not been helpful. “The museum says it wants to listen to the community input, but they’re [the museum] not”, said Raudenbush. “The museum is not doing these actions in good faith with the community.”

Although there is passionate and strong opposition to the museum’s expansion into the park, museum officials say they have the backing of people in the community.

“There are a number of businesses and residents in the neighborhood who support the expansion”, said Dan Slippen, Vice President of Government Affairs for the museum.

Slippen and other museum officials believe that the museum’s expansion will ultimately benefit the local community.

“Residents will have a beautiful west side of the park and plenty of areas for respite and play that families can enjoy”, said Slippen. “I believe a lot of residents are proud that this institution is in their neighborhood. It allows them to visit history right in their backyard.”

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