A Manhattan judge has ordered a halt to the American Museum of Natural History’s $383 million expansion project, which has drawn opposition from local residents who are concerned about the loss of parkland by the museum and other potential environmental ramifications.
In defense of allowing the controversial project to move forward without subjecting it to a run through the land-use review process for new development and rezonings, the New York City government cites a state statute enacted in 1876 that it argues gives the museum the right to expand into the neighboring Theodore Roosevelt Park, which the city owns.
But acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Lynn Kotler issued a temporary restraining order on Monday that put a stop to the work on the expansion project until the parties appear for a hearing in December and denied the city’s application for an emergency appeal.
The Community United to Project Theodore Roosevelt Park, which includes residents from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, have brought an Article 78 challenge to overturn a decision by the city’s Parks Department to approve the museum’s expansion, which will about 190,000 square feet to the museum, without conducting a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which includes an environmental impact study.
“I believe in this case and the decision has only reinforced our confidence that we are on the right side of this,” said Michael Hiller of Hiller PC, who represents Community United, of Kotler’s ruling.
The group argues in court papers that it is “absurd” for the city to suggest that the state Legislature enacted a statute in 1876 that would allow the museum to expand its footprint more than 140 years later without further legislative approval.
The group alleges that preconstruction activities at the site are already killing trees and other plant life, but also claim that an independent environmental consultant has found that construction at the site would unearth trichloroethylene, organic lead, asbestos, carcinogenic hydrocarbons, benzene, nickel and industrial solvents.
In fighting the TRO, lawyers from the city’s Law Department and attorneys from Sive, Paget & Riesel and DLA Piper, who represent the museum, argued that, while the expansion project was not subject to the ULURP, it was reviewed by numerous city agencies and that the Parks Department conducted an environmental impact study that found there would be nothing out of the ordinary about the project compared with other construction projects in the city.
The city and the museum also claim that halting the project will cost the museum $1.3 million per month and that the plaintiffs’ concerns about environmental hazards that would occur if the project is allowed to move forward amount to “indefensible rhetoric.”
Hiller disputed the economic impact of stopping construction, saying that the city and the museum are relying on a “garbage” figure that is was calculated on the assumption that all construction costs were paid upfront.
Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, said the defendants are appealing the TRO, calling the museum’s expansion a ”worthwhile project for the community” that will include improvements for both the museum and the park.
“The project is legally authorized under the lease and state law,” he said. “As detailed in our legal papers, petitioners will not suffer irreparable harm by the removal of trees or by the construction.”