Town Hall Thunder

Oct. 6, 2015

Museum's proposal riles neighbors

The American Museum of Natural History’s proposed expansion deeply into Theodore Roosevelt Park drew strong opposition at a town hall meeting on Oct. 6 hosted by the Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park. More than 300 neighbors attended.

Here is a two-part video of the meeting, provided by Landmark West!, which helped support the event. Click on the tabs below to read remarks from each speaker’s presentation.

Part One (Video): Speakers

Sig Gissler, former administrator, Pulitzer Prizes; president, Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park Inc.

Kate Wood, president, Landmark West!

Adrian Smith, landscape architect; trustee, American Society of Landscape Architects (New York chapter); vice president, Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park Inc.

Stuart Blumin, professor emeritus, urban history, Cornell University; author; board member, Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park Inc.

Part Two (Video): Audience participation


Why the American Museum of Natural History’s Expansion Plan Alarms the Community

Welcome to our Town Hall meeting on the American Museum of Natural History’s proposed expansion into beloved Theodore Roosevelt Park.

I am Sig Gissler, former administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University and now president of the Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park – a community-based group dedicated to preservation of the park

We were formed last July by a handful of neighbors alarmed by the expansion proposal. Starting from scratch, we now have with more than 2,500 supporters.

Tonight, we have several speakers who will briefly outline important issues related to park. They will talk about the impact on historic preservation, the environment and the community

But mainly this is YOUR opportunity to raise questions, discuss concerns and offer suggestions.

Let’s start with a few basics. Teddy Roosevelt Park is:

  • A city owned park surrounding the American Museum of Natural History, a rightly world-famous institution.
  • Bounded by Central Park West, Columbus Avenue and 77th and 81st streets.
  • Consistently rated among the top five small parks in New York City.
  • Part of an historic district (you learn more about this later).

The museum proposes to expand into the park in order to build a $325 million center to advance science research and education. It would be named for Richard Gilder, a benefactor who has donated $50 million.

Where will center be built? What would it look like?

We don’t know the exact footprint or its design. Answers from museum are apparently still weeks away. But we HAVE learned from AMNH officials and press reports that the building would:

  • Be located near the 79th Street entrance off Columbus Avenue.
  • Probably rise to six stories and occupy 218,000 square feet, an enormous edifice.
  • Be comparable in size to the new Whitney Museum downtown, which is 220,000 square feet.

In fairness, the new AMNH building would occupy some of the museum’s existing space. But about 180,000 square feet, or more than 80% of the structure, would consume fresh parkland.

What about Teddy’s Park (ironically named for a former president and great conservationist, who saved the Grand Canyon and helped develop the national park system)?

The endangered area plays a remarkably large role in our quality of life. It is where dads teach their kids how to ride bikes, fearless 3-year-olds polish scooter skills, dog walkers pause to swap pleasantries, tourists and museum visitors plunk down to rest and snack, the elderly find a shady bench to ease aching bones.

With a few pictures (slides shown), let me remind you of the park’s fragile tree-filled beauty and Its graceful blend of intimacy and diversity, marked by faces, young and old.

Users call this pocket park called many things. Some call it their “backyard.”   Some call it an oasis, a haven, a village square, a community sweet spot.


Each day you can witness the biorhythms of real people enjoying a genuine community asset and creating warm memories. As one mom put it, “This is where my child learned to walk.”

Thus, our organization and countless citizens on the Upper West Side and beyond are deeply worried about the proposed expansion’s impact – not only on the park, but on our historic district and our urban environment.

Specifically, based on what we know of the project, our group opposes:

  • Loss of precious parkland owned by the citizens of New York City.
  • Destruction of at least nine or 10 majestic trees that delight the eye and contribute to human health and vitality.
  • Devastation of a tranquil community gathering place that DOES serve as the “backyard” for thousands of neighbors of all ages, and as an urban oasis for a multitude of other users.
  • Increased congestion – pedestrians, cars, buses, food carts – in an already busy and noisy part of the neighborhood.
  • Expenditure of millions of tax dollars to subsidize a project that many taxpayers seriously question.

Yes, we support the advancement of scientific research and education but not at the expense of priceless parkland in an already densely populated urban environment – 50% more dense than Manhattan as a whole (according to CB7).

We are not anti-museum. We are pro-park.  

We ask why pursuit of one public good (science) must harm another public good (parkland).   Why rob Peter to pay Paul?

Thus we have called on the AMNH to find an alternative plan that fully preserves this remarkable patch of green space for future generations. Once lost, parkland is gone forever.

Remarks on the Upper West Side Historic District and Landmarks Preservation, by Kate Wood, President, Landmark West!

Thank you, Sig and Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park for bringing so many of us together tonight and inviting me on behalf of LANDMARK WEST! to provide some context in terms of landmarks preservation. LW! has been working for the past 30 years – since 1985 – to protect historic and public assets on the Upper West Side, including:

  • The Museum of Natural History – one of 54 Individual Landmarks on the Upper West Side, designated in 1967.
  • Theodore Roosevelt Park, protected as part of the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District

LW! was deeply involved in getting this historic district of 2000+ buildings designated 25 years ago in 1990. In fact, the public hearing was right here in this magnificent building, the Fourth Universalist Church. So, it is fitting that we gather here tonight to show our support for preserving one of our neighborhood’s most important assets.

Another reason I’m glad to be part of this discussion tonight is that, in LW’s experience, if we’re not too early, then we’re too late.

Landmark and historic district designation sets up a formal public review process, and that process is typically driven by the developer—whether it’s an institution, a commercial entity or an individual property owner. The community is automatically cast in a reactive position. By the time the official public process starts, the die is already cast.

And that’s a shame because, after all, the law defines landmarks preservation as “a public necessity required in the interest of the health, prosperity, safety and welfare of the people of New York.”   We in the community should be, must be, equal stakeholders in determining the future of our landmarks. The Museum reports that it has already met with some of you—LW! was part of two briefing sessions in the past year. That kind of outreach is valuable. The conversation has begun. Let’s continue that conversation tonight—out in the open—and keep the balance set, right from the beginning.

Here’s a broad overview of the review process, briefly…

Any property owner seeking to make changes to a building or setting that has landmark protection must apply to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission – in the case of a major project, like this one, the permit that the owner must seek approval for is called a Certificate of Appropriateness. The community board—in our case, Community Board 7—plays an important role in the process. Our elected officials have a strong voice. This project is also subject to approval by the New York City Parks Department and the Public Design Commission. It is our understanding that, if approved, the project will receive City as well as State funding. The Museum has selected architect Jeanne Gang to lead the project team, but so far no specific plans or designs have been made public.

So, in the interest of being too early rather than too late, on August 28, LW! sent a letter to the Museum of Natural History, outlining some very preliminary questions and concerns about the project. We received a response from the Museum this past Friday, October 2. Here are some of the points we raised:

  • This project would be the first expansion of the Museum’s footprint into Theodore Roosevelt Park since the construction of the original Hayden Planetarium in the 1930s.

The Rose Center was built on the footprint of the original planetarium in 2000.

  • Theodore Roosevelt Park has special historical significance as “one of the few parks allocated by the 1811 Commissioners’ plan that created Manhattan’s iconic [street] grid.” In other words, this area was set aside as open space more than 200 years ago and was, in fact, part of the original footprint of Central Park.
  • In 1876, New York State authorized the City Parks Department to enter into a contract with the Museum of Natural History to build in the park, then known as Manhattan Square. This was like the 19th-century version of “urban renewal” – incentivizing the development of public land to prime development in the surrounding area. Obviously, there was very little built on the West Side at the time.
  • Since then, the Upper West Side has transformed dramatically, from rural farmland to one of the densest neighborhoods in New York City. By 1958, the Parks Department had renamed Manhattan Square “Theodore Roosevelt Park,” underscoring its function as “a place of recreation for local residents and museum visitors alike.”
  • We also made the point that Theodore Roosevelt Park has been diligently maintained in recent decades by the Parks Department using public taxpayer dollars as well as individual contributions raised by local organizations from neighbors like you.
  • But the Museum of Natural History still views this park as developable. In our briefings, the Museum referred to the fact that the proposed addition would sit on the footprint of the institution’s original master plan from the 1870s. So, in our letter, we pointed out that the Museum’s development has already deviated significantly from this plan, which envisioned an architecturally unified complex oriented around open courtyards. Instead, the Museum has grown ad hoc, using an eclectic mix of architectural styles and filling in the areas designated for open courtyards, so that the current footprint is already much denser than originally planned.
  • We asked whether the Museum anticipates continuing to grow in this piecemeal way until Theodore Roosevelt Park, its open space and its special community functions are erased altogether.

This is an important point, because it means we need to look at this proposal not just in terms of the specific plan, program and design (again, none of which have been presented yet by the Museum), but even more significantly in terms of the future.

We need to think about this in the larger context of potential development that occupies space that we, the public, consider a collective asset—parkland, sunshine, sky. Developers call the open space above property “air rights.” But, in fact, there are many controls over the “right” to develop. This is especially

true in a historic district, and in the case of an individual landmark. Recent proposals come to mind like the one to build a tower over the New-York Historical Society or into the garden of the Frick Museum. Property owners, no matter how noble, are not guaranteed the right to develop where other public interests are at stake.

Last point…Presumably, the Museum will continue to thrive and grow. What happens when the development potential of the park is maxed out? This world-class institution will need to find other ways to grow—by reconfiguring its interior, by creating satellites in other communities, other parts of the country, other parts of the world.

Why not start thinking about these alternatives today—before, not after, an irreplaceable community asset is built over?

If there is one thing we’ve learned through our decades of engagement on these issues, there is always another way.

Remarks on the Environment, Adrian Smith, ASLA
Design of Teddy Roosevelt Park and its relationship to the neighborhood

There is little usable park space in Teddy Roosevelt Park. Most of the park is off limits to the general public and behind steel fences.

We don’t know the exact size of the museum’s proposed structure. However we do know that to fit 180,000 sf of space into the park it would completely obliterate the portion of the park at the intersection of Columbus and West 79th Street that is usable. Parkland is NOT developable Real Estate.

Then I pose the question, why should the museum be allowed to develop according to their “1876 Master Plan” when they haven’t followed it for over 100 years? If they were following their master plan from the beginning, we would have a considerably greater amount of usable green space around the building today.

What about urban parks and the environment?

  1. Cities Need Green Space
  2. Parks contribute to Vibrant neighborhoods
  3. Trees enhance human Health
  4. I’ll speak a little about the Value of Trees when it comes to our health and well-being

Cities Need Green Space

It is widely understood that urban green spaces have a natural ability to filter pollution from the air and to reduce local air and ground temperature. They provide relief from congestion which leads to better air quality. When streets are pedestrian oriented—both walkable and bike-able—cars are used less, therefore fewer emissions are generated and better air is created. The better air helps to reduce asthma and other health issues.

With the museum’s addition, how will the additional visitors get there? Hopefully most will come by subway, but the fact remains that many will arrive on either a school or tour bus. Where will the additional parkland come from to help mitigate the air pollution that will result?

Green spaces reduce the negative effects of increased temperatures. Estimates show that thousands of Americans die prematurely each year due to acute air pollution and that higher summer temperatures lead to increased illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths, especially among older adults. As our population ages and extreme heat waves become more common, urban green spaces such as Teddy Roosevelt Park, can provide essential natural protection. Also, a recent study by the David Suzuki Foundation found that the health benefits derived from parks are directly related to the size, quality and density of the green space. It found that smaller green spaces, like Teddy Roosevelt Park, can provide greater cooling effects to adjacent urban areas than can large parks.

Parks contribute to vibrant neighborhoods

At a base level, parks in general, and Teddy Roosevelt Park in particular, provide the following benefits:

Healthy ground water – A less visible benefit parks provide is what is going on underground. The typical stormwater drainage system directs runoff into catch basins and pipes as quickly as possible. It then carries the water thru a combined sanitary/storm sewer system to a water treatment plant. During large storms these systems, including the treatment plants, are often overloaded, causing them to overflow. With parks and well designed “green infrastructure,” more of that runoff is allowed to infiltrate back into the soil, which it re-charges ground water and slows the volume of water sent thru the system which puts less stress on underground infrastructure, treatment plants and adjacent waterways.

Parks also help increase property values for nearby housing. Apartments near Teddy Roosevelt Park command a higher price than those farther away.

Through events and programmable space, the park contributes to the local economy. Witness the farmer’s market and other special events that take place in the park.

The park also makes our community more livable, by creating a better physical and cultural environment. Another study found that people living within 10 blocks of a park used it for around 50% of their weekly vigorous physical activity time

(source: Han, B., D. Cohen, and T. L. McKenzie. 2013. “Quantifying the Contribution of Neighborhood Parks to Physical Activity.” Preventive Medicine 57 (5):483–87)

Public open space can draw attention to interesting biological, historic, or geological features. We may see more of this in Central Park. But in Teddy Roosevelt Park, there is a great horticultural diversity which attracts pollinators and other attractive wildlife.

Finally, it’s been proven that parks lead to less recovery time for patients in hospitals. Science Magazine has stated that there is an 8.5% reduction in the number of recovery days for hospital patients with views of nature. While this doesn’t have a direct correlation to Teddy Roosevelt Park, just think of how the park can benefit each of us if we are recovering from illness or other health problems.

(source: The Value of Open Space, by Todd Kohli, September 17, 2015)

Trees enhance Human Health

As long time city dwellers, we may feel this in our bones, but now research is proving that trees do indeed make us feel healthier. A team from the US, Canada and Australia led by a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, found that an additional 10 trees on a given block corresponded to a 1% increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. They also found that to get an equal increase with funding, each household in the neighborhood would need to be given $10,000.

So for our neighborhood to lose the 10 magnificent trees, that Sig mentioned earlier, our health will be seriously, negatively affected.

In another example, Ash trees, a common North American urban shade tree, are being killed by the millions due to an infestation of the Emerald Ash borer. An analysis of data from the National Institute of Health found that deaths related to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses rose in places where trees had died due to the pest, which contributed to more than 20,000 deaths between 1990 and 2007.

The same researcher from the University of Chicago also found that by taking a 50-minute walk through an arboretum or park at the end of their workday, workers’ memory and attentiveness were restored 20% better than their counterparts who were sent for a 50-minute walk on a regular city street. This nature walk activity also helps people to a much greater degree who have been diagnosed with clinical depression.

The study concludes that a walk in the woods trumps a picture of a tree, which trumps an abstract image, no matter how soothing. Something deep within us responds to the 3Dimensional geometry of nature. So if someone offers you $10,000 or ten trees, take the trees! And if the choice is between a 180,000 sf building in your neighborhood, or a park with 75 year old shade trees, take the park!

Remarks on our Community, by Stuart Blumin

We’ve been talking this evening as Upper West Siders about Teddy Roosevelt Park as a precious resource within our neighborhood. I’d like to take a few minutes to expand the context of our concerns by arguing that this little park is precious as well to the city as a whole, certainly to Manhattan—that we can, in other words, defend the park not just as Upper West Siders, but as New Yorkers.

My basis for saying this is that New York is, and for much of its history has been, a place with a paucity of parks and other public spaces, particularly those set within and serving residential neighborhoods. Indeed, it has far less of these amenities, per capita and per square mile, than any other Western metropolis. Why should this be so?   As an American city it lacks the parks and gardens of royal palaces and the enormous amounts of public space major European cities have gained from knocking down their medieval walls (fully 50% of Vienna’s land is public for these two reasons, and London’s public space approaches 40%). But even in comparison with other American cities New York (with about 15% of its land in public space according to some calculations) lies far behind. Why should this be so?

Many blame the uniform grid that was imposed on nearly all of Manhattan by the Commission Plan of 1811, which must be understood as a deliberate plan to facilitate real estate transactions and the building up by private money-makers of this most intensely entrepreneurial of American cities—a place already on its way to becoming the most important commercial and industrial city in the Western world. As such, it proved a rather unfriendly plan for the creation of public space, and as New Yorkers leveled, bought, sold, and built, not much was set aside for parks or other kinds of public spaces. Interestingly, many of the public spaces that did emerge resulted from the Commissioners’ decision to allow one major road to depart from the grid, and as this anomaly, called Broadway, intersected with the new avenues it created residual spaces that could not easily be bought, sold, and built upon. So we have today, more or less by accident, such spaces as Herald Square, Times Square, Columbus Circle, and, closer to us, Dante Square and Verdi Square. A couple of these, Union Square and Madison Square, were expanded into somewhat larger parks, and a few other parks did appear within the grid.   The city needed reservoirs, and built one north of 40th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. When that reservoir was no longer needed it remained a public space that could become the site for the city’s new library, with a park, Bryant Park, behind it.   A few other square parks, such as Tompkins Square and Gramercy Park, emerged as private projects (the latter remaining private to this day).

But all of these places, including the grassless and treeless ones, add up to a very low total of public space, and it was in reaction to this that, in a Romantic era that grew more interested in Nature, that a powerful political movement led to the setting aside of a pretty large portion of the as yet undeveloped grid north of 59th Street as a Central Park (which included the Manhattan Square on which the American Museum of Natural History and Theodore Roosevelt Park now sit). This new park was an enormous success, but it did not tip the scales to a park-rich city, and neither did other, smaller parks beyond mid-town, such as the one we’re trying to save. New Yorkers continued to build, almost wherever they could, and, increasingly, as high as they could, and our own neighborhood is one of the most densely populated in the city. And it remains the case that most of the smaller parks of the city (and in many respects Central Park itself), are not neighborhood parks. So, as I said at the outset, those few parks that do serve in the way Teddy Roosevelt Park serves, are precious to the city that has so few such wonderful spaces. This is why, as New Yorkers, as well as Upper West Siders, we must defend every tree, every bench, and every spoonful of dirt in the little park we love.

Read Teddy’s Park and Central Park Sharply Differ by Stuart Blumin