UPPER WEST SIDE — American Museum of Natural History officials unveiled new designs for the public park surrounding the museum Tuesday — saying a planned renovation would preserve the green space's character and function, despite an ongoing controversy regarding the loss of parkland.
The museum's $325 million expansion of the Gilder Center, which still requires a series of city and state approvals, would eat up a quarter-acre of the surrounding public Theodore Roosevelt Park under the plan.
For nearly a year, opponents have vehemently battled against any part of the project encroaching into parkland, with one woman accusing museum execs of "aligning with the science deniers" at a public meeting Tuesday.
"You are taking away green space," she said. "I don’t care if it’s one blade of grass."
The latest plans respect and maintain the park's use as a place for "community respite and play," maintained Joseph James, a landscape architect for Reed Hildebrand who was hired by the museum. His comment elicited a series of boos from audience members, many of whom voiced their dissatisfaction during a question-and-answer period.
Near the park's Margaret Mead Green, Reed Hildebrand has added 2,000-square feet of paved terrace under the plan to facilitate residents gathering there, James explained.
The firm has also added space to the paved terrace near the Nobel Monument, for the same purpose.
By eliminating and rerouting paths in this area, the firm hopes to separate visitors headed into the museum from people using the park recreationally, Joseph noted. The design is meant to facilitate distinct secluded areas, he said.
After convening with residents in a working group throughout the spring and summer, the museum changed its designs, pushing the expansion eastward, executives said. The new plan would save two large canopy trees, a pin oak and an English elm, as well as adding 15 new benches so that park users can enjoy the trees' shade.
The designs do away with an existing, narrow single sidewalk entrance to the park along Columbus Avenue, replacing it with a wider entry to the park that leads to the new center's entrance, museum president Ellen Futter explained.
This "more harmonious" design ensures the Gilder Center is "set back and integrated into the park," she added.
The updated designs, which were sent to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for review last week, still necessitate the destruction of seven trees — a major sticking point for opponents.
At one point Tuesday night, foes of the project started chanting, "withdraw the plan."
Advocates against the plan said they are concerned the expansion sets a bad precedent in removing parkland, but museum vice president Ann Siegel tried to quell that fear.
"We intend to be a museum in a park," she said.
Community Board 7 committees will hear the museum's presentation of its Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) application on Sept. 20. The full board will take a vote on the plans on Oct. 5 and the museum anticipates a public hearing at LPC sometime in October.