UPPER WEST SIDE — The board of the American Museum of Natural History approved a conceptual design of the museum's new $325 million Gilder Center Wednesday that includes a new entrance on Columbus Avenue and features arches reminiscent of carved rock formations.
The center — officially named the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation to honor one of the museum's largest benefactors, who has given $50 million to the project — will open at the beginning 2020, the museum said. The opening will come at the close of the museum's 150th year in 2019.
After locals initially lashed out at the plan for encroaching on public parkland, the museum said it now plans to use 80 percent of existing space to "minimize the impact" on the green space, according to the museum.
While the design takes up less of the public Theodore Roosevelt Park than originally indicated by the museum, "the extensive loss of green space and mature trees... is still cause for deep concern," said the Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park Inc. in a statement issued Thursday.
Under the plan, the museum will remove eight existing trees, move an additional tree to another part of the park and add 17 new trees, according to City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal.
The Defenders, which have loudly criticized the plan, said they will examine the plans carefully, but that they oppose the loss of any trees.
"They are adding  benches so it will be a more friendly and welcoming area," Rosenthal said, adding that she viewed the fact that the museum was using 80 percent of its existing footprint as a positive development.
The museum's shift away from what initially appeared to be the removal of a larger chunk of the small park is "very much in response to the community and at a great monetary cost to them," Rosenthal said at a Community Board 7 meeting Wednesday.
The design will add a new entrance to the museum along Columbus Avenue, but the museum has not addressed how it will handle new visitors and their transportation needs.
"We also are concerned about the added congestion in a crowded neighborhood, the impact on the environment and the precedent of taking parkland for museum purposes," the Defenders' statement added. "Where will that end?"
The center's primary aim is to prepare the next generation for an education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Designed by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, the new center will link to 10 of the museum's existing buildings and include classrooms, exhibition areas and theaters.
The glass-and-stone exterior along Columbus Avenue will allow light to travel through the large exhibition hall that will be held up by sculpted concrete walls, the museum said. The center will not rise higher than the current surrounding museum buildings, they added.
The walls inside the center look like carved rock formations, with arches and niches cut out, the design images show.
The museum will tuck away exhibits into these arches, and visitors will have a view of most of the hall as they travel through the museum's center and across its upper bridges.
"[The Gilder Center] will also connect for the first time, both physically and intellectually, many of the Museum’s existing galleries, thereby vastly improving visitor circulation and experience,” said museum president Ellen Futter.
The museum will present its plans to the public at an upcoming meeting, though a spokesman could not immediately provide a date.