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Natural History Museum Shrinks Its Plan to Use Parkland in Expansion

By Emily Frost | November 13, 2015 4:48pm
 The museum held a public meeting on its planned expansion. 
AMNH Meeting on Expansion
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UPPER WEST SIDE — American Museum of Natural History officials told locals they've heeded their feedback and shrunk the amount of parkland they'd envelop in their expansion — but many residents say they're still not satisfied with the plan.

Hundreds of residents gathered Thursday to hear museum officials present preliminary designs for the new $325 million Gilder Center that is expected to open at the end of 2019 along Columbus Avenue at West 79th Street.

The amount of parkspace used for the project will be 50 percent less than the musuem had originally planned, and will include landscaping that will recreate any walkways and trees lost by the development, according to Ann Siegel, senior vice president of the museum.

Some residents were prolific in their praise of the museum and by extension the expansion plan: a mother talked about her daughter's desire to become a computer programmer after attending museum classes, a science teacher talked about its inspiration for his students, and a young woman spoke about a scholarship she received from the museum to encourage more women in science, among others. 


City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, who has come out in support of the 218,000-square-foot center, called it a "valuable project" with "minimal impact" on Theodore Roosevelt Park, the public park that surrounds the museum's grounds.

The museum listened to the community, she said.

"Had the museum come back to us with a plan that did not address those concerns, I would not be in support of the design," she added. 

The new center is envisioned as a way to make the museum more interconnected to improve the flow and reduce the number of dead ends, explained the lead architect Jeanne Gang and museum officials. 

The exhibition hall would also mean many more impressive exhibits at the AMNH, including simulating the echolocation bats use as well as a new insect hall that will display a larger portion of the museum's 16 million insect specimen collection for the first time, explained Mike Novacek, a vice president at the museum. 

But critics say they're not pleased with the potential for increased foot traffic to the Gilder Center amid already ballooning attendance numbers. In the past fifteen years, visitorship has risen from 3 million to 5 million annually.

The landscape architect for the new project, Joe James of the firm Reed Hildebrand, said all of the park's current uses — including sitting quietly with a book or a cup of coffee or strolling with kids — would be preserved by the landscape design, which will add new benches, replicate pathways and replace lost trees.

But local Maralee Wynman said she's not so sure.

"I don’t see how we can have both this hub where tons of people are still coming in and still maintain the quiet peaceful area… that is simply not true," Wynman said at the meeting.

Sig Gissler, who co-founded the 3,000-supporter strong Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park, Inc. group, described the park as a "neighborhood sweet spot," and "an urban oasis."

Even though museum officials said they'll take a quarter of an acre of parkland, he said, the community doesn't know if they'll get back enough to make the tradeoff worth it.

"We need to be sure that the museum would truly recreate what the community has lost. It’s difficult to tell," Gissler said at the meeting. "Would dads still be able to teach their kids to ride a bike" in what remains of the space?

But the museum's expansion team — the lead architect, the landscape architect and the executives — explained repeatedly that the oasis would remain and the center would very much feel like a "building within the park."

"We’re very intent on maintaining the quality of life of the park, replanting and replacing trees, and creating an environment that does encourage those kind of uses [quiet reading and family bike riding]," Siegel said.

Other residents were angry that a museum whose early supporter, Theodore Roosevelt, was so concerned with preservation, would allow the destruction of trees in favor of development. 

The anger over the park was at times palpable, with one resident hissing at the mere mention of the opening date, another laughing caustically at the mention of the museum respecting the park, and others interrupting museum executives as they explained why they'd chosen the site and not explored other offsite options.

Putting the new center along West 77th Street means that the building can connect to ten existing buildings and create a better flow for visitors, and also provides more space to show off the 33 million objects in its collections, museum officials said. 

"Our collections are bursting at the seams," said Novacek, adding that the museum brings in 90,000 new specimens every year. 

The new space also gives the museum a chance to add more classrooms and situate them right next to exhibits, so the learning can immediately become immersive, he explained.

But while one residents pointed out that a canvas of his neighbors on the new design repeatedly elicited the positive reaction "Wow," those opposing any impact on the park steadfastly held their ground.

"Why does education have to equal [tree] eradication?" asked resident Patricia Muckle. 

Read through our live tweets from the meeting. 

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