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Natural History Museum's 'Spectacular' Expansion Plan Earns First Approval

By Emily Frost | September 21, 2016 3:51pm
 Two committees from Community Board 7 gave their approval of the Gilder Center and renovations to Theodore Roosevelt Park. 
CB7 Committees Approve Gilder Center
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UPPER WEST SIDE — The American Museum of Natural History got its first approval to redesign a local park and build a new science center Tuesday when two Community Board 7 committees gave the project the green light. 

Museum executives sought buy-in from board members for their new $325 million Gilder Center project, which would create a new entrance on Columbus Avenue and West 79th Street while taking a quarter-acre of existing public parkland.

The board's Preservation and Parks committees approved the plans, which will go before the full 50-member community board for a vote on Oct. 5. The board's stance on the project is taken into account by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, whose approval the museum needs before it can break ground. 

SEE: Modified Plans for the Gilder Center and Theodore Roosevelt Park

However, locals in the audience Tuesday, including members of the opposition groups Community United to Protect Theodore Roosevelt Park and Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park Inc., called the museum's expansion "bewildering" and "delusional." They have demanded a reduction in the bulk of the new building and for no parkland to be used.

The expansion is going to turn Theodore Roosevelt Park "into a mini Times Square," said one resident who opposed the plan. 

"That’s fine for businesses. It’s not fine for the neighborhood."

Sean Khorsandi of the preservation group LANDMARK WEST! said the museum should have "growth boundaries" and provide a master plan to ensure its encroachment into the park doesn't happen again in the future. 

Others who attended the meeting spoke of the benefits of the expansion. Science teachers at schools in Queens and Brooklyn said their students needed the additional classrooms the Gilder Center would provide, and representatives from the Columbus Avenue BID said the expansion would help local businesses thrive.

Some board members took issue with the museum's plan to remove decades-old trees and reduce the park's acreage under the plan.

"It’s striking to me how many people are concerned about the loss of this park," said board member Susan Schwartz.

The park redesign should go even further in separating the flow of people into the Gilder Center from those using the park, preserving the green space's "small and intimate" feel, members said. 

However, the majority of board members gave positive feedback on the new park and said they were impressed that the museum had worked with community members to shape the changes.

"You’re giving us a better park. It’s redesigned. I think you’ve done a spectacular job here," said board member Dan Zweig. 

There were a handful of negative comments by board members regarding the Gilder Center's design by architects from Studio Gang

One board member voiced concern about the new building's volume, a second called the design "not fully baked" and another worried that as a "destination building," the Gilder Center would draw large crowds to the museum's Columbus Avenue side. 

But the bulk of the board's comments were laudatory. 

Members called the design "stunning," "magnificent," and "exciting and interesting."

"The [building's] atrium — it’s spectacular," Zweig said. "People are going to come from all over the world to go there."

The design represents "the next step in the museum’s evolution," added board member Gabby Palitz.

After the full board votes on the park and Gilder Center building, the designs will go before the Landmarks Preservation Commission for a public hearing.