Saturday, December 20, 2014

Parks Department Employee Fired After Accusing Bosses Of Sexual Harassment At Raunchy Holiday Parties - Suit

NYC PAPERS OUT. Social media use restricted to low res file max 184 x 128 pixels and 72 dpi
Parks Department worker James Cafaro was suspended and then demoted after the DOI found he had falsely claimed to not know about the unofficial holiday parties on Randall's Island. The woman who accused her bosses including Angelo Figueroa (below) of sexual harassment was fired according to a lawsuit.


A courageous Parks Department employee who blew the whistle on her bosses’ sexual harassment was fired for bringing “disrepute to the city,” court papers charge, according to an article in the NY Daily News. 

And the bosses Valerie Marville says harassed her — and who the city Department of Investigation found had committed wrongdoing — both still have their jobs, she says in a retaliation and discrimination suit filed against the city Friday.

“It’s astonishing,” said Marville’s lawyer, Norman Siegel.  

In papers filed in Manhattan Federal Court, Marville says she was groped, fondled and pushed to participate in stripper-pole parties by her bosses.  Marville, a single mother of three, went to work for Parks in 2009 as part of a welfare-to-work program. She was assigned to work at the 5-Borough facility on Randall’s Island for supervisor Angelo Figueroa and his deputy, James Cafaro. 

Marville says in the suit the pair made inappropriate comments and “held raunchy ‘unofficial’ holiday parties, replete with alcohol and a makeshift stripper stage, in which seasonal female Parks Department employees were encouraged to strip in exchange for career opportunities.”

Angelo Figueroa is also accused of sexual harassment.
Parks Department employee Angelo Figueroa is also accused of sexual harassment. Both he and James Cafaro were suspended  but later returned to the agency.   

She said she was encouraged to dance at the parties — and that Cafaro stuffed a $20 bill into her pants at two of them. On other occasions, Cafaro stuck his face in her crotch and put his mouth on her breast, the suit says. He then warned her not to do anything she’d “regret,” the suit says.  

Marville finally complained to higher-ups in 2013, and they had her transferred. She and another colleague with similar claims then spoke out about the harassment to a Daily News reporter. The paper did a front-page story and follow-ups about the shenanigans.  

Cafaro was suspended, and the DOI found he had falsely claimed to not know about the parties.

 Photo taken of a Parks Department worker dancing on a stripper's pole inside the Randalls Island Park's garage./Photo taken of a Parks Department worker dancing on a stripper's pole inside the Randalls Island Park's garage. The photograph is being used against Parks Department official James Cafaro. Cafaro has been accused of sexual harrasment.
(left) A Parks Department worker dances at a Christmas party on a portable stripper pole at "Five Borough" a parks-owned facility on Randalls Island. (righ) Another photo from the party. A parks superviser allegedly demanded that workers get on the strip pole if they wanted jobs.

Cafaro was demoted after the DOI report, but Marville was canned. When she tried to file for unemployment, the agency fought her claim. The other Parks worker who complained was also fired, said her union rep, Dilcy Benn. Marville’s suit, which seeks unspecified money damages, names the city, Figueroa and Cafaro as defendants.

“I think it’s very sad that after these women were victimized, and were brave enough to speak out, the men are still here and they are both gone,” said Benn, president of the union that represents Parks workers.  

A rep for the Parks Department did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the city Law Department said it “will review the lawsuit once we are served.” 

Read More:

Ex-Parks Department employee claims she was fired after accusing bosses of sexual harassment, raunchy holiday parties
New York Daily News - December 20, 2014 - By Ginger Adams Otis, Dareh Gregorian

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Man Killed By Tire Swing In Tompkins Square Park

A tire swing in Tompkins Square Park on Tuesday. Aleim Perkins, 39, of Harlem was killed on Monday when a tire swing he was playing with swung back too hard and hit him in his face.  The Arch Tire Swing by Landscape Structures “tire” isn’t made with any rubber at all, but is a circle of rock-hard ethyl vinyl acetate plastic molded over steel, according to the company. The piece of play equipment was purchased by the Parks Department in 2009.  (Photo: Michael Appleton for The New York Times)


A 39-year-old man died this week after being hit in the face with a tire swing in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, the police said on Tuesday, according to a report in the NY Times.

A spokesman for the Police Department said the man, Aleim Perkins of Harlem, was unconscious in the park when emergency officials arrived on Monday. He was pronounced dead at Beth Israel Medical Center. The exact cause of death was not known, the police said.

Aleim Perkins was in the park with his 6-year-old neice Leela on Monday when tragedy struck.

The tire swing hovers about two feet from the ground, and is attached to a bright yellow structure by three long chains.

Bystanders at the scene told parks officials that the victim, who was visiting the park with a young relative, appeared to be shadowboxing with the swing when it hit him in the face.

Accidents involving play equipment are not uncommon across New York City’s 1,700 parks and playgrounds, but they are usually relatively minor.

Tire swings are relatively scarce these days amid more modern climbing structures and play sets.  Parks officials said on Tuesday evening that they had not uncovered any record of a previous fatality in a city park involving a tire swing.

Man dies after tire swing hits him in the face
Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.  (Photo: Astrid Stawiarz)

Read More:

New York Post - December 18, 2014 - By Kevin Fasick and Natalie O'Neill 

New York Times - December 16, 2014

New York Post - December 16, 2014 - By Shawn Cohen, Lorena Mongelli and Georgett Roberts 

Fashion Week Ordered To Leave Lincoln Center - Park To Be Restored In Lawsuit Settlement

Damrosch Park Convention Center.  For years the Bloomberg administration allowed Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (LCPA) to rent out the entire 2.4 acre Damrosch Park to various private clients including Fashion Week (above) which they did for up ten months of the year.   These actions constitute an illegal alienation of Damrosch Park in violation of the New York State Public Trust Doctrine and other laws.     (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)  Click on images to enlarge)

Fashion Week, and other events like this are now prohibited from returning to Damrosch Park under a court ordered setlement.  The park, much of it destroyed to make way for private events, must also be restored. 

“Parks is thrilled to welcome Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week to its new, larger, home in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center,”  - Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe 2010.

Thankfully the new administration does not share the same irresponsible view.


Fashion Week will have to find a new home after February.

Private events in Damrosch Park will now be the exception not the rule according to the far-reaching agreement negotiated between plaintiffs, Lincoln Center and the City over the illegal use of Damrosch Park for non-park purposes.   

The settlement prohibits any possibility of Fashion Week renewing its contract with Lincoln Center, as contemplated in the original 2010 agreement.  A five-year renewal would have allowed the fashion show to stay until 2020.  Fashion Week's permanent home in Hudson Yard's Culture Shed is still years away.   

Now Fashion Week will have to find an interim home, away from city parkland,  until thier new home is completed. 

"IMG Fashion Week shall vacate the premises and remove all tents and other Fashion Week equipment from the park," according to the settlement, which was ordered by Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan.

Where's The Park. Damrosch Park's Northeast Entrance/Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week's Main Entrance.  This event like others have been allowed to completely take over the 2.4 acre park. "I was horrified to learn about the demise of Damrosch Park. It is ironic that a family of German immigrants, who brought so much to the musical life of this city and this country have been pushed aside by a German manufacturer of flashy cars." - Sidney Urquhart, granddaughter of Walter Damrosch.

The settlement includes language to prevent commercial, non-park purpose uses in the future.

"....the City and LCPA (Lincoln Center Performing Arts) intend to further expand public access to the Park by not entering into agreements for commercial events substantially similar in natures, size and duration to Fashion Week and for which access is not generally available to the public," the settlement states.

Under the Bloomberg administration the City allowed Lincoln Center free rein over Damrosch Park with no limitations on the number of private events it could hold in the public park. 

In May 2013 the plaintiffs, including NYC Park Advocates, Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, the founder of Friends of Damrosch Park and other individual neighborhood park users were forced to sue in an effort to restore the park and return it back to the community.

The park had been taken over for up to ten months of the year by private revenue generating non-park use events according to the suit.

As a deterrent to any future events like Fashion Week the settlement contains language that allows the presiding judge, Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan to issue a Temporary Restraining Order in the event Lincoln Center attempts to use the park for something like that again.   

Under the terms of the settlement Lincoln Center will also be required to produce the secret agreement "sublicense" between Fashion Week and Lincoln Center which lays out the financial arrangements  Lincoln Center received a $ 17.2 million dollar payday over five years which was diverted from the City General Fund.  

The public including the City's Comptroller were not privy to the agreement on the public park.  All future sublicense agreements for special events must also be produced.   

Access Denied.  A private security guard prevents the general public from entering a private event held in Damrosch Park on May 9, 2013, one of dozens of events held annually inside the public park.  Additionally, the Bloomberg administration also allowed Lincoln Center to divert all the consession revenue from the City's General Fund. The revenue from the city's July 2010 license agreement with LCPA collected totaled more than $32 million dollars over a four year period alone. 

The park's planting beds with magnificent azaleas were all destroyed for private events. Plantings are required to be restored under the settlement. 

Not Open To The Public - Entrance By Invitation Only. Never again are events like this allowed to seize this public park.

The Mercedes-Benz Star Lounge inside what is supposed to be a public park.

Public Park? The convention center-like atmosphere inside Damrosch Park for Fashion Week.

The City and Lincoln Center are required to restore much of the park including replanting trees and flora destroyed to make way for Fashion Week.  The City famously allowed Lincoln Center to illegally destroy 57 trees to make way for the semi-annual fashion event.    

The settlement also requires the installation of an additional Parks Department sign near the northeastern entrance of the park for the first time.  Defendants even went so far as to remove the only sign indicating it was a public park. City rules must also be posted in the park for the first time.

"Damrosch Park belongs to the City of New York not Lincoln Center," said Geoffrey Croft, of NYC Park Advocates, a plaintiff in the suit.

"The days of the Bloomberg administration's irresponsible policy of handing over public parks as cash cows for private groups and businesses are hopefully numbered.  We hope this settlement signifies a dramatic shift in policy and that parks across the city will finally be protected."

"It was outrageous and illegal," said Olive Freud president of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, a plaintiff in the case.

"It is environmentally unsound and harmful to the quality of life to allow a private for-profit organization to usurp a public amenity.  In our densely populated City of concrete and tall buildings the most important thing is to protect and cherish our public parks and open spaces. They are precious. 
Communities should not be afraid to fight.  This should be an example for the rest of the city. 

What Lincoln Center did was illegal and they should have been required to pay our legal fees, they made millions from this," she added.  

The Bosque. Since the park's opening in 1969, the granite benches - part of noted landscape architect Dan Kiley's (1912 - 2004)  original garden design -  have been an integral part of the park. They were removed for Fashion Week and area residents want them returned.  (Photo: Darial Sneed)

The granite benches were permanently removed and replaced by couches for an outdoor smoking and drinking area during Fashion Week.

"Almost 5 years ago I woke up to the sound of power saws and watched helplessly as our beautiful neighborhood Park was destroyed by the monstrous Fashion Week," said plaintiff Cleo Dana, Chair of Friends of Damrosch Park.

"We were devastated.  It was a gross injustice perpetrated on us by a misguided administration that valued mega-corporations’ profits over the public’s right to its own parks.   We are thrilled at the current settlement and that the Park will be rebuilt. It can never be the same but it will be wonderful to have the community sharing space together again."

The Parks Department and LCPA are also required to create a plaque - to replace the one mysteriously lost - to honor the contributions of Walter Damrosch and other members of the family to the city's musical life. 

"I was horrified to learn about the demise of Damrosch Park," said Sidney Urquhart, a granddaughter of Walter Damrosch, who attended the park's dedication on May 22, 1969 with several other members of her family.

"It is ironic that a family of German immigrants, who brought so much to the musical life of this city and this country have been pushed aside by a German manufacturer of flashy cars. (Fashion Week is sponsored by Mercedes Benz)

"As a fourth-generation member of the Damrosch family, I am so gratified that this beautiful little park that was created to honor their achievements and then woefully neglected and misused, will now be restored to its former glory."

Lincoln Center has denied the existence of the memorial flagpole with its bronze plaque honoring five members of the Damrosch family.

March 2010 months before 56 trees,  including all of the ones shown above,  were  destroyed in order to accommodate Fashion Week. The Parks Department then later tried to cover up the reason for the removel of the trees. Below a plywood platform replaced the trees which enabled event tents to be erected. 

The planting beds were replaced by a plywood platform. The NYCHA Amsterdam Houses can be seen directly behind the bandshell. 

Plaintiff Harold Smith has lived in the NYCHA Amsterdam Houses directly across the street for more than sixty-five years. He remembers the tenements and the 5 and 10 cent store on Amsterdam Avenue long before Lincoln Center and the park were built.  From his apartment as a teen he watched the city raze the buildings "brick by brick" they took to build the sprawling cultural campus.  

"I feel really good, this is a victory and we don't get many of those," Mr. Smith said of the settlement.   

"The park used to be so beautiful, the trees were so full. We got pushed aside for money-making purposes.  Since Fashion Week we haven't been able to go over there."

Mr. Smith, a musician who turned professional at age 14, said he feels most concerned for the seniors, the kids and a neighbor in particular in a wheelchair who have been shut out of their own park over the years.

"The older people are going to head back in there. They are so hurt,  they have such negative feelings towards Lincoln Center,  they feel trotted on. The people around here feel very disrespected like they don't matter.  They'll believe the park is open when they see it. They don't trust them."  

Two Outstanding issues

Since Fashion Week the Big Apple Circus has also been allowed to take up the park's entire 2.4 acres for more than four months annually including the fall, one of the most desirable seasons.  Area residents want at the very least part  of the park to be re-opened during the circus. 
City Charter - Section 109 

Another outstanding issue not resolved in the suit is the city's policy of allowing the money generated from Damrosch Park to be diverted to Lincoln Center.  

City Charter section 109 requires that all revenue of the city be paid into the general fund. The city's policy of allowing certain groups to divert these revenues creates enormous disparities that needs to be addressed.   These types of arrangements also exist in Bryant Park and the High Line, among others.
The License Agreement between the City and LCPA for instance provides absolutely no compensation to the City and instead allows all of the revenue generated from Damrosch Park to go to LPCA in order to “provide a substantial revenue stream”  for them.

From 2006-2010 alone, LCPA’s Revenues and Expenses Reports show  that revenues from LCPA’s “Special Events” and “Concessions” totaled more than $29 million dollars - the garage located under Damrosch Park,  which is owned by the Parks Department,  alone grossed more than $26.7 million,  all of which was paid to LCPA and none to the City. 

The Bloomber-era Licence Agreement goes even further to protect the fiscal interests of LCPA at the expense of the City: “[The Parks Department] agrees that it shall not impose any fee, charge, or other imposition on either LCPA or Special Event Promoters engaged by LCPA in connection with Special Events held in the Public Areas.”

In addition to these amounts under a separate agreement, Fashion Week’s sponsor IMG Worldwide, is paying up to $17.2 million to LCPA to use the city park twice a year. This money is also being diverted from the city's general fund. The agreement between LCPA and IMG Worldwide, did not go through the City Comptroller’s Office.  

Plaintiffs were represented by the Super Law Group, LLC. 

A private security guard attempts to prevent the park from being photographed from Amsterdam Avenue during the setup of Fashion Week.  (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)  Click on images to enlarge)

Read/View More:

WABC - December 18, 2014 - By Tim Fleischer 

New York Daily News - December 18, 2014 -  By Barbara Ross 

New York Post - December 18, 2014 - By Natalie O'Neill and Julia Marsh 

New York Times - December 18, 2014 - By Robin Pogrebin   

Associated Press - December 18, 2014 -  By Leanne Italie  

Crain's New York Busness - December 18, 2014 - By Adrianne Pasquarelli 

AM New York - December 18, 2014 - By Ivan Pereira 

Metro NY - December 18, 2014

CNBC -  December 18, 2014 - By Krystina Gustafson

 New York Magazine -  December 18, 2014 - By Véronique Hyland 

gothamist - December 18, 2014 - Rebecca Fishbein  

 The Hollywood Reporter - December 18, 2014 - By Stephanie Chan

 WNBC - December 18, 2014

A Walk In The Park -  May 22, 2013 - By Geoffrey Croft 

A Walk In The Park February 15, 2012 - By Geoffrey Croft

A Walk In The Park - February 6, 2012

A Walk In The Park - September 10, 2010 - By Geoffrey Croft

A Walk In The Park - September 11, 2010 - By Geoffrey Croft

Sunday, December 14, 2014

East River Esplanade 81st Street Pedestrian "Prison Bridge" Design Under Fire

A rendering of the proposed design for the East 81st Street pedestrian bridge extending south from Carl Schurz Park along the East River Esplanade includes a 450-foot-long handicap accessible ramp. The Department of Design and Construction's design,  including its eight-foot-high fence has been likened to a prison. The fence which DDC claims is required by regulation to protect cars from objects from being thrown onto FDR Drive will do little to prevent this.  Work on the $ 10 million dollar project is supposed to begin this spring and be completed in June 2016. 

The full board of CB 8 will vote on the issue on Wednesday at their Dec. 17 meeting. 


Members of the city’s Dept. of Design and Construction met with Community Board 8’s transportation committee and residents who live near 81st Street and East End Avenue to discuss plans for a pedestrian bridge connecting the Upper East Side with the East River waterfront that will be built there in the spring,  according to an article in OurTown.

The current bridge does not offer handicap access and is sorely in need of repair, a condition that prompted the city to decide years ago that it should be replaced altogether. 

Discussions surrounding the bridge go back at least five years and have generated no small amount of feedback from the community. A resolution from 2012 articulates the committee’s criticisms of the plan, which include the potential for crime on the bridge, bikers speeding due to its length, and the look of an eight-foot fence that will be installed over FDR Drive and along the ramps.  

A jogger and dog make thier way down to the current deteriorating and non-ADA complaint staircase which will be replaced by a 450 foot long handicap accessible ramp. (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge

According to the minutes, the committee asked the Dept. of Transportation and the DDC to install surveillance cameras, safety call boxes and signs on the bridge telling bikers to walk. The minutes from 2012 do note that a number of changes were made to the design, but that the “bridge still does not fit with the surrounding neighborhood.”  

The intervening years have been spent securing funding and coming up with a design, which is now being negotiated at the community board level.

At issue is the way the bridge looks in renderings supplied by the city. Residents who will have to look at it every day say the existing bridge proposal, with its eight-foot-high fence, looks like a prison. And the handicap accessible ramp, at 450 feet, puts a significant damper on views of the East River they say.  

The community is pressing to have a say in an infrastructure project they’ll have to look at every day for the foreseeable future.

For residents who live along the East River, the eight-foot-tall fences on the bridge – which sits over 30 feet above FDR Drive - and ramp mar views of the water.  “There is no question that [the city’s plan] does make a statement and it does block your view,” said Charles Whitman, co-chiar of Community Board 8’s transportation committee.

The committee’s resolution will go before the full board this Wednesday at their Dec. 17 meeting. 

The city says work will begin early next year, according to a spokesperson with the city’s Dept. of Design and Construction. 

“We expect shovels will be in the ground in the spring of next year,” said Howard Pollack, a spokesperson with the Dept. of Design and Construction. “An estimated completion date is June of 2016.”   

The proposed East 81st Street pedestrian bridge extends south from Carl Schurz Park along the East River Esplanade.

Read More:

Our Town - December  9, 2014  - By Daniel Fitzsimmons

Our Town - November 20, 2014  - By Daniel Fitzsimmons

Saturday, December 13, 2014

New “Privacy Fence” Illegally Installed At Gracie Mansion

De Blasio never got permits for new Gracie Mansion fence

A new “privacy fence”  around the mayoral residence adds about 4 feet to the barrier already there. The de Blasio administration failed to secure the proper permits to build the fence around Gracie Mansion in Carl Schurz Park.  The administration also bypassed the Public Design Commission for review which is also legally required.   (Photo: Brigitte Stelzer/NY Post) 


Mayor de Blasio failed to secure the proper permits to build his “privacy fence” around Gracie Mansion — and the Parks Department is now scrambling to file the paperwork after the fact, City Hall officials admitted Friday, according to the New York Post. 
On Thursday, The Post exclusively reported that the mayor ordered the construction of a roughly 10-foot-tall fence inside an existing 6-foot brick wall to keep the public’s prying eyes out of his yard.
Officials couldn’t say whether any employees of the Parks Department, which handled the construction for the mayor, would be disciplined for building the barrier without first obtaining the alteration permits they needed.
City property owners are routinely levied hefty fines for such infractions.
Plans for the eyesore fence should have gone before the city’s Design Commission for review — but never did, a City Hall source also admitted. The job was finished in November.
Through a spokeswoman, de Blasio said White House fence jumpers sparked his desire to erect the barrier, for which the Parks Department paid $4,250.
“The head of the mayor’s security detail made the decision to increase the fence’s height after examining the perimeter with other NYPD officials, and in the wake of the White House fence jumping incidents,” said City Hall spokeswoman Rebecca Katz.
But security experts called that excuse bunk.
Read More:

New York Post -  December 13, 2014 - By Yoav Gonen, Larry Celona and Shawn Cohen

Real Estate Market Around City Hall Park Heats Up

City Hall Park is becoming the new hotbed for luxury development
The real estate market around City Hall Park in lower Manhattan is heating up.  Is the Department of City Planning taking into consideration the shadows cast into the park caused by new developement?


As the real estate market in lower Manhattan heats up, hundreds of pricey new apartment projects are set to debut by 2016. The new developments will form a ring around City Hall Park, the often-overlooked green space running from Chambers to Barclay Sts, according to the New York Daily News.

Real estate pros have their eyes on the middle of lower Manhattan. 

“This area is becoming so relevant,” said Tara King-Brown, a broker at the Corcoran Group and a resident of the area. 

“As the neighborhood turns from a massive construction site into a real place where people live, the park will establish itself as a residential anchor — and not just a place where office workers go to eat their lunch.”  

City parks have long been a major draw for real estate developers, who crave views of green space and plenty of light and air. For years, developers have trampled one another for opportunities to build around Central Park, Gramercy Park and, more recently, Madison Square Park.

Now attention turns to City Hall Park, which has already had a small taste of new development in the form of Frank Gehry’s rippling steel tower at 8 Spruce St. and a glitzy new rental tower called the Lara at 113 Nassau St.  

But now, hundreds of new for-sale units, including 34 multimillion-dollar homes at the Woolworth Building and 68 at the stunning Beekman Residences at 5 Beekman St., are about to test the market for luxury homes in the heart of Manhattan’s civic center. 

Historically, this is where you’re more likely to run into an arraigned criminal, a politician, or both, than a billionaire oil mogul. 

“City Hall Park is the center of the new downtown,” said broker John Gomes of Douglas Elliman.  Prices are also slated to go through the roof as the hot market for luxury homes in the Financial District and Tribeca spills over into the civic center, which is the last lego block to be developed south of Canal St. Developers are expecting condo buyers to pay up to $110 million for a trophy penthouse in a neighborhood where the median sale price for a newly built condo was just $4.5 million this year. 

On the flip side, some experts are skeptical whether City Hall Park really holds the same cachet — or can help drive sales of high-dollar apartment prices like its counterparts uptown.

In recent years, the odds have certainly been stacked against the 9-acre park. But the history is rich and real. Dutch colonists grazed their livestock there. The green space even predates City Hall itself, the cornerstone for which wasn’t laid until 1803.  The park fell into disrepair by the late 1990s, then was given a major $35 million facelift in 1999 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The city installed a perimeter fence, reinstalled a historic central fountain and introduced beautiful bronze gas candelabras to light the park at night.  

 But the victory lap was cut short when 9/11 shut down lower Manhattan. A large chunk of the park remained closed for years after the terrorist attacks, making it virtually inaccessible to residents of the neighborhood. During that time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited security concerns surrounding City Hall.  

But Skip Blumberg, head of advocacy group Friends of City Hall Park, says the park is on the rise. There’s been a reopening of the northern segment in 2007 and the subsequent rebuilding of the World Trade Center site just a few blocks south.

Madison Square Park also had a renovation in 2000, right before it become a major destination for residential developers. That’s happening around City Hall Park now, too.  For his part, Blumberg is campaigning for more permanent seating areas in the park and for a new lawn on the plaza adjacent to Tweed Courthouse, the other large municipal building inside the park. 

Read More:

New York Daily News - December 12, 2014 - By Katherine Clarke 

American Museum of Natural History Hopes To Seize Parkland To Build $ 325 Mil. Addition

The American Museum of Natural History hopes to seize part of Theodore Roosevelt Park in order to build a $ 325 million dollar six-story addition.  Details regarding how much parkland they hope to use have not yet been released. Any use of the park for this non-park purpose would require NY State alienation approval. The new addtion would be named after Richard Gilder, who is also a large Central Park Conservancy donor as well.  (Photo: Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times.

NYC Park Advocates with the westside-based Committee for Environmentally Sound Development are currently in litigation over the alienation of Damrosch Park by Lincoln Center.

The American Museum of Natural History, a sprawling hodgepodge of a complex occupying nearly four city blocks, is planning another major transformation, this time along Columbus Avenue: a $325 million, six-story addition designed to foster the institution’s expanding role as a center for scientific research and education.

The new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation would stand on a back stretch of the museum grounds near West 79th Street that is now open space.  The addition, to be completed as early as 2019 — the museum’s 150th anniversary — would be the most significant change to the museum’s historic campus since the Art Deco Hayden Planetarium building became the glass-enclosed Rose Center for Earth and Space 14 years ago.

The addition, not yet designed, would feature exhibitions showcasing scientific topics, as well as labs and theaters for scientific presentations. Since 2008, the museum, through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, has bestowed a Ph.D. in comparative biology, something rare for a museum.

In 2011, the museum also established a separate master’s program in teaching science.

“We have a real gap in the public understanding of science at the same time when many of the most important issues have science as their foundation — human health, biology, environment, biodiversity, climate change, mass extinction,” said Ellen V. Futter, the museum’s president, during an interview at her office.

“This museum has a role to play in society in terms of enhancing the role of science.”

The museum, with its dioramas, castlelike turrets, cavernous hallways and giant whale, is one of the best-known buildings in the city, partly because school trips there are such an integral part of a New York City childhood.

Many others have come to know a version of it through the film “Night at the Museum.”

The expansion will probably face close scrutiny from residents of the Upper West Side. That neighborhood is known for its fierce development battles, such as the 1956 fight over the Adventure Playground at West 67th Street in Central Park, which the city’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, had wanted to turn into a new parking lot for Tavern on the Green. More recently, there were conflicts over renovation of the New-York Historical Society’s museum. 

Though Central Park is only a block from the museum, proposals to reduce any open space in the city can be particularly contentious. Museum officials said that while there were no drawings yet defining the addition’s footprint, they recognize the interest in preserving city parkland, which the museum sits on.

“The vast majority of the open space on the west side of the museum, between 77th and 81st Streets, will remain open space when the project is completed,” said Ann Siegel, the museum’s senior vice president for operations and capital programs.

The museum is a veteran of such debates, having successfully weathered protests over its Rose Center, which some neighbors had argued would ruin the neighborhood.

Ms. Futter sounded prepared. “We take it very seriously, and I’m sure it will be an important discussion,” she said, adding, “We want it to be sensitive to being a museum in a park in a historically designated area and in the West Side community.”

Because the museum is a landmark owned by the city and on Theodore Roosevelt Park, its addition must be approved by various city agencies, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Cultural Affairs Department and the parks department.

“We’ve been informed about their proposed addition and will be reviewing it with the board in the future,” William T. Castro, the parks department’s Manhattan borough commissioner, replied in a statement when asked about the museum’s plan.

But the city’s preliminary support is already reflected in $15 million included in the city’s capital budget for the addition.  Richard Gilder, a stockbroker and longtime donor to the museum, is contributing another $50 million; a third of the cost has already been raised from these and other sources.  For its architect, the museum has selected Jeanne Gang, a MacArthur Fellow and founder and principal of Studio Gang, whose projects include Aqua Tower and the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo — both in Chicago, where the firm is based.

Ms. Gang said it was too early to discuss how the addition would interact with the existing complex, which encompasses about 25 buildings constructed at different times in styles including Romanesque, Victorian Gothic and modern glass and steel.  The museum chose Ms. Gang, Ms. Futter said, because she designs “on a human scale” and has demonstrated “an acute sensitivity and sensibility about the relationship of nature to the built environment in an urban setting.”

The new center’s permanent exhibits would be created by Ralph Appelbaum, who has designed several areas in the American Museum of Natural History — including the Dinosaur Halls and the Hall of Biodiversity — as well as projects like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Clinton Presidential Center.

Over all, the addition would total 218,000 square feet, roughly the size of the new Whitney Museum of American Art downtown. Of that, 180,000 square feet would be new; the rest would incorporate existing space.

The addition would improve visitor circulation throughout the entire museum, Ms. Futter said, and create spaces targeted to different age groups. There also would be food and retail areas. 

Connecting to the existing museum on its western side, where there is now an entrance, the addition would be the same height as the current main building, Ms. Futter said.  With the expansion, the museum also wants to better accommodate its swelling visitor numbers — attendance has increased to five million visitors a year from three million in the 1990s — and a collection that has grown to include more than 33 million specimens and artifacts.  In addition to the expansion of its degree-granting programs, the museum has developed a more formal relationship with the city’s Education Department, training teachers and, along with other cultural institutions, supporting middle school science investigations through the Urban Advantage program.

Founded in 1869 and chartered by New York State as a museum and library, the institution today employs 200 research scientists who each year conduct more than 100 expeditions around the world.

And the museum has “the largest free-standing natural history library in the Western Hemisphere,” Ms. Futter said.

“We have always been something of a hybrid,” she said. “It’s long been a scientific institute.”

The museum is also responding to a digital imperative, Ms. Futter said, to present information about “invisible worlds” like the human brain, the depths of the ocean, the outer reaches of the atmosphere or the composition of a grain of sand.

Mr. Gilder has been involved in every major initiative of the museum’s during the last 20 years, Ms. Futter said, having spearheaded the Rose Center, for example. His gift will put his total contributions to the museum at more than $125 million during that period, making him the single largest donor in the institution’s history.

Referring to Ms. Futter and Lewis W. Bernard, the museum’s chairman, Mr. Gilder said, “When you have leaders like that, you want to give them all the ammunition they need.” 

On a larger level, the expansion represents the changing nature of museums, Ms. Futter said, and a departure from their role as “cabinets of curiosity.”

“They were about collecting things and cataloging things,” she said.

“Now what we’re interested in is what the connections are among the different things that we have. It’s a much more interdisciplinary world.”  “This facility is going to transform what it means to be a museum in the 21st century,” she added, “what we do, how we do it and whom we reach.”

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American Museum of Natural History Plans an Addition
New York Times - December 10, 2014 - By Robin Pogrebin