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Met Museum's $60M Plaza Would Be an Unwelcome 'Hangout,' Neighbors Say

By Amy Zimmer | February 14, 2012 7:04am
A rendering showing bird's-eye view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's proposed Fifth Avenue plaza redesign.
A rendering showing bird's-eye view of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's proposed Fifth Avenue plaza redesign.
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UPPER EAST SIDE — Grand plans for a multi-million dollar plaza stretching four blocks outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art have angered Upper East Siders — who fear the creation of a Fifth Avenue “hangout.”

The major overhaul of the tourist-crammed spot beside Central Park includes the creation of seating areas with 400 chairs and 100 tables scattered under new trees and umbrellas for shade. It’s being funded by billionaire industrialist David Koch, and reportedly costs $60 million.

But, instead of a vision of European-style splendor, the plaza’s well-heeled neighbors see it as little more than a huge gathering spot.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Community Board 8 member Peggy Price said. “This is a neighborhood, not a place to hang out.”

The new seating will help redirect traffic from the museum’s steps, which are a popular spot for tourists to sit as thousands more try to get in and out of the 82nd Street entrance, the Met’s director and CEO Thomas Campbell said at the board’s landmarks committee meeting Monday night.

"We're trying to turn this large, barren space into an attractive entrance to the greatest museum in the world.”

But his dreams for the area weren’t shared.

Residents also criticized the Met's plans to build a kiosk in the plaza to sell tickets and another to sell refreshments. They were chagrined to learn that the street vendors selling art and food would have designated spots after the renovation.  

"We don’t really need ticket vending outside the museum in that gorgeous plaza you’re going to create," said Paul Whitby, who lives across the street from the Met.

"I think this is going to be a windfall for the food vendors,” community board member Michele Birnbaum said.

She also thought it would be a boon to Madison Avenue delis that sell picnic lunches to park-goers.

“I think it you’re providing additional seating for 400 people," she said. "I think it will be a picnic destination.”

Residents also blasted the museum for not addressing safety problems neighbors have been complaining about for decades.

Shauna Denkensohn, who lives across the street, said the $60 million plans did nothing to fix the museum’s 80th Street driveway, where drivers often exit and go northbound on Fifth Avenue — a southbound street — to go east on 80th Street.

Nor did it address the dangerous conditions at the 84th Street driveway where trucks often drive backwards westbound across Fifth Avenue to get to the museum.

Met officials promised the issue at 84th Street was being addressed separately and being reconfigured with funding from City Councilman Dan Garodnick's office.

The plaza renovation, which includes replacing decrepit fountains with new ones that flank the stairs, has heeded community concerns about overcrowding, Campbell said, as it opens the path to divert visitors to the less trafficked 81st Street entrance.

'I want to assure you, the Met knows it has a responsibility not only to the art and galleries but to our neighbors," he said.

“The Metropolitan is the No. 1 tourist attraction in New York. We’re trying to create an environment that is more attractive for the neighborhood, that will diffuse the heavy traffic and dampen noise [with trees] and make it more pleasant.”

The Met needs various city approvals, including from the Public Design Commission, before it can move forward on the 23 month-long construction. Museum officials are seeking the commission's final approval by July, and are hoping to start work in the fall.

Before going to the commission, it is seeking approval from Community Board 8, which has an advisory role.

Community Board 8’s committee members approved of the Met’s plans for new state-of-the-art eco-friendly lighting and the plantings, adding 60 trees whose root systems will help with storm water runoff.

However, the committee voted against the tables and chairs, the kiosks and the new fountains, which one member said looked like they belonged in a children's playground rather than in front of Beaux Arts building.

The full board is expected to vote on the plan on Wednesday.