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Natural History Museum Expansion Foes Want to Stop Environmental Review

By Emily Frost | April 7, 2016 6:20pm
 A public hearing, the first step in a lengthy public review process for the Gilder Center expansion was held Wednesday night.
American Museum of Natural History Hosts First Official Public Review
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Passionate local residents spoke at length of their concerns over the American Museum of Natural History's expansion plans Wednesday night, with some calling for the public environmental review process that's just begun to be halted immediately. 

Because the expansion — including the construction of a $325 million new building called the Gilder Center that will open onto Columbus Avenue — would use city parkland, the Parks Department has taken on the role of leading the public review process.

The agency will ultimately issue a final document, which will forecast the extent of the Gilder Center's environmental impact during construction and after it's built, that could be used to green light or stop the expansion. 

The review process involves taking public comments on what kind of issues should be evaluated — from possible exposure to hazardous materials during construction, to the impact of increased foot traffic on local streets and services once the new museum wing opens. The Parks Department, using city guidelines and a consulting firm, will then evaluate these factors and issue a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which the public can weigh in on. 

At the end of the months-long review process, the agency will issue a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that the city will use to determine whether the expansion should be approved.

But residents who attended the meeting to comment on which factors should be evaluated wanted to stop the public review process completely.

"[Environmental] scoping is premature. We do not have a fully articulated plan from the museum. Adjourn this scoping session until we have a fully articulated plan," said Seth Kaufman, a member of a new group opposing the expansion called the Alliance to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park. 

"This is still a proposed plan, not a done deal," he told those assembled, the vast majority of whom attended to testify against the expansion. 

Another opposition group, Community United to Defend Theodore Roosevelt Park Inc., passed out buttons that read "Save Our Park" that were worn by many attendees.

The arguments voiced against the Gilder Center ranged from frustration that the plan would usurp a quarter acre of the park that surrounds the museum, to alarm at the projected increase of 500,000 new visitors expected at the new center annually.

"We’re kind of transferring ownership of a sacred community gathering place from us to [the tourists]... This little park is our park, so leave it alone," said one resident who testified, to resounding applause. 

Sean Khorsandi of the preservation advocacy group LANDMARK WEST! argued the park is more than "a latent development site," and that the museum "has treated the park as residual — an element to tolerate rather than as an asset to celebrate," he said in a statement on behalf of the organization. 

LANDMARK WEST! worries that without a master plan and a roadmap for the future, the museum will continue to argue it needs more space until there's no parkland left, Khorsandi said. 

Barbara Adler, executive director of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, was one of the few people who gave testimony in support of the plans, calling the Gilder Center "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to integrate the museum with Columbus Avenue and the Upper West Side."

Representatives from the Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park Inc., the original group formed this summer to sound the alarm about the expansion plans, said they were pleased to have a seat at the table to discuss the project through membership in a bi-weekly working group organized by the museum. 

Still, the group has major concerns about how the museum will tackle the influx of new visitors, "noxious fumes" from food carts the new Columbus Avenue entrance could attract, as well as issues like rats and hazardous materials possibly brought on by construction, said Sig Gissler, former president of the group. 

Community Board 7 members also raised issues the environmental review should consider, including:

► A study that looks at traffic and crash sites on weekdays, not just Saturdays

► A larger area for the traffic study to examine, stretching all the way up to West 86th Street

► Parking options and bike lane safety

► The impact on businesses during construction

► The impact of construction on street fairs, the nearby greenmarket, local students and the dog run next to the museum

CB7 chairwoman Elizabeth Caputo reiterated that board has not taken an official position yet on whether it approves the expansion. 

The board will weigh in on the project before it goes to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for approval. The museum must also get approval from the New York State Office of Historic Preservation and the Public Design Commission.

The next step in the process is for the Parks Department to issue a draft EIS that takes into account the public's comments. 

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