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Natural History Museum Expansion Critic Demands Parks Boss Step Down

By Nicole Levy | March 22, 2017 8:32am
 A rendering of the Gilder Center, the planned expansion of the American Museum of Natural History
A rendering of the Gilder Center, the planned expansion of the American Museum of Natural History
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Studio Gang Architects

UPPER WEST SIDE — A staunch opponent of the expansion of the American Museum of Natural History has demanded the resignation of the city's Parks Department Commissioner — saying his apparent backing of the controversial project means he's failed at his agency's mission. 

Upper West Side resident Cary Goodman, who launched in January a City Council race on a primarily single-issue platform against the AMNH expansion, told those present at a City Hall hearing on the Parks Department's preliminary budget Tuesday that Mitchell Silver is abdicating his responsibilities as outlined by the City Charter unless he rejects the museum's "toxic" proposal.

"Commissioner Silver, as charged by the Charter, is responsible for his 'duty to manage and care for all parks,'" said Goodman, one of seven community members speaking out at the hearing against the private institution's plans to build a 235,000-square-foot addition on surrounding public parkland. "Instead of managing Teddy Roosevelt Park effectively, this commissioner has targeted it."

The AMNH's new $340 million wing — which would create a new center for science, education and innovation and remove seven existing trees and a quarter-acre of Roosevelt Park in the process — has been approved by Community Board 7 and the Landmarks Preservation Committee. The project still requires the Parks Department's approval, according to the museum's website.

"The Parks Commissioner has the power to approve or disapprove the permit, and I think he has just botched that up horribly," Goodman said in an interview Monday. The current executive director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District in the Bronx arranged a meeting with Silver in July to ask that the agency head scrap the museum's proposal and send its architects back to the drawing board, he told DNAinfo. He insists on further hearings, focused exclusively on the matter.

The city's Department of Parks and Recreation did not respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, Goodman also called for the City Council's Parks committee to freeze funding for the Richard Gilder Center. 

However, city funding for the museum's plans actually falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Cultural Affairs, according to a briefing paper on the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2018. That agency has set aside $70.1 million for the Gilder Center so far, museum officials said.

Goodman told DNAinfo he's running for the Council's District 6 seat because his opponents, incumbent Helen Rosenthal and challenger Mel Wymore, either actively support or take no stance on the museum's project.

In a statement, Council member Rosenthal said she endorses the Gilder Center as "a vital resource for our local schools and millions of visitors," one that will "help strengthen the connection between the Museum and its neighbors and further the Museum’s place as a gem in our community and our City.”

The museum has already reworked the project to decrease its footprint on Theodore Roosevelt Park and enhance the experience of park users, she said, but the public review process will continue this year.

Goodman has vocally opposed the facility that would add new exhibition halls and classrooms to the AMNH campus for over a year now, organizing protests outside movie screenings and Rosenthal's office. He cites the shrinking of public parkland, the destruction of trees, the construction of a fossil-fuel emitting building, and the glut of cultural institutions in his neighborhood as reasons for rejecting the plan.

A museum spokesman said the institution expects to plant 19 new trees in the park as part of its redesign and its new building will follow sustainable design principles. 

The Gilder Center is expected to open in late 2020 along Columbus Avenue at West 79th Street.