2017-01-26 11:01:09
Critic’s Notebook: Fair Trade: A Museum Expansion for an Open Park

More than a year ago, the New York City Parks Department inaugurated the program Parks Without Borders. The idea? An obvious one: There are thousands of forbidding, disused, gated corners, squares and parks in town. They should be opened up, made accessible, inviting and useful. The Parks Department asked New Yorkers to propose sites.

In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers have laid the groundwork for giving away hundreds of millions of acres of federal land. And these last few days have reminded us that we express who we are, and what we believe, in public spaces, not just big ones like the National Mall. Every year, five million people visit the American Museum of Natural History in Theodore Roosevelt Park. The park stretches from 77th to 81st Streets, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. Increasing numbers of pedestrians have made those blocks along Columbus — with a Shake Shack serving as a de facto museum cafeteria, and a farmer’s market during weekends — among the busiest on the Upper West Side.

The roughly acre-size southwest quadrant of the park has long been gated and closed to the public. Around the time Parks Without Borders was announced, the museum unveiled plans for a large expansion facing Columbus. The expansion will take over a precious quarter-acre of parkland near 79th Street. In return, I wrote back then, the museum ought to nudge the Parks Department and neighborhood representatives to unlock the closed area at Columbus and 77th Street — and also offer to chip in for landscaping and maintenance. The area could get the same treatment as the north side of the park, which is a network of winding paths through gated lawns under pretty, old trees.

In other words, add just a path and some benches, with the lawns fenced off for security and to keep costs down.

Simple, inviting, useful.

Turns out, the Theodore Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association recently hired a landscape architect, Liz Farrell, to design that plan. Steve Anderson, a documentary filmmaker, leads the neighborhood association. He enlisted the architecture critic Paul Goldberger, a neighbor, who advocated opening that part of the park last spring at a Parks Without Borders event. The two shared Ms. Farrell’s renderings.

Her proposal creates an entrance off Columbus and another from 77th Street with a snaking path in between, paved in asphalt and salvaged granite. There’s a spot for Santiago Calatrava’s Times Capsule, the 1999 outdoor sculpture now destined to be displaced by the museum’s expansion. The plan capitalizes on an existing double row of tall trees that provide a ready-made canopy for the path. It relieves pressure on the rest of the park, to which the expansion will add, and traces an obvious public desire line, now thwarted by the fences.

This being New York, even something as straightforward as opening a gated public park for a single walking path ignites civil war. Neighbors of the park divide between north and south. Mr. Anderson’s group is essentially the 81st Street block association. Peter Wright heads another neighborhood group, Friends of Roosevelt Park, whose leadership skews toward 77th Street residents. Mr. Wright doesn’t want to open the park. He fears disturbing what he calls the “serene parkscape” outside his window, a block from Central Park. Mr. Wright said his group pays for about 40 percent of the park’s annual $250,000 operating budget.

It has supported the museum’s expansion to the north, at 79th Street (over objections from yet another organization led by — who else? — neighbors who live closest to that area). Perhaps this support is one reason the museum hasn’t taken a stand on the gated quadrant at 77th Street.

But it should.

The new museum wing is a $340 million project. Ms. Farrell calculates her plan might cost, at the outside, $700,000. That’s 0.2 percent of the museum’s expansion budget.

I reached out to the Parks Department. A spokeswoman, Crystal Howard, said the department is beginning a study of Theodore Roosevelt Park, expected to be completed by year’s end — which, let’s hope, is not bureaucratese for shoving the issue under a rug.

Randy Garutti is the chief executive of Shake Shack and an Upper West Sider. Some locals worry that the opened park might become the restaurant’s patio. The company now voluntarily sweeps up trash for several blocks around its restaurant on Columbus Avenue, at 77th Street, including all the way to Central Park West. Mr. Garutti said that Shake Shack had no official position about opening up the park, but “has always taken care of our community and we intend to continue that commitment.”

Mr. Wright raises an equity question: Why should the Parks Department expend resources to open up Theodore Roosevelt when it could devote money “to spruce up and maintain an orphan park or two in a poor neighborhood.”

In effect, he’s using Parks Without Borders’ populist rhetoric to argue against opening up a gated part of a public park.

Yes, there are underserved districts all over New York that should benefit from the program. But this doesn’t mean Theodore Roosevelt should be ignored — especially when the cost of landscaping and maintaining the fenced southwest quadrant for a path and benches could, and should, be defrayed by an institution like the museum that benefits directly from the park.

Every year this park serves millions of children and families across the city. It will become even more heavily subscribed when the expansion is done.

Public space should be public.