A Mess at the Met: Constructionists vs. Ritzy Neighbors

When Beverly Gunther moved into 1001 Fifth Avenue seven

years ago, she never imagined that she would one day find herself feuding with

her neighbor across the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the

contrary-the Met was one of the neighborhood’s prime attractions. During the

days, Ms. Gunther, an art lover, roamed the galleries. At night, she frequently

entertained friends in the Met’s trustee dining room. “I’m retired and single,”

she said. “It makes life easier.”

On warm afternoons, she watched the street theater on the

Met’s front steps, right outside her living-room window. “The fountains,” she

said, “are so beautiful.”

Then, at 7 a.m. on April 7, construction crews showed up. Clang! Ms. Gunther awoke to the sound of

old file cabinets being thrown into a metal Dumpster. She didn’t know what made

her more angry: the debris, or the fact that the Met had chosen the first

morning of Passover to remind her that it was about to embark on a 12-year,

$200 million renovation-and that a giant hole might soon take the place of her

beloved fountains.

Ms. Gunther is a bridge-player, not a political

activist-and, she hastens to add, a frequent donor to the Met. But when she

heard about the renovation project, she pulled out her checkbook and wrote out

a $250 donation to the Metropolitan Museum Historic District Coalition, a

two-month-old neighborhood group formed solely to rein in the Met’s big plans.

Inspired by a similar uprising in neighboring Carnegie Hill,

leaders of the coalition boast that they’ve already raised $28,000. And if

their concerns run toward the mundane-they’re worried about noise, dust and the

deleterious effects of an influx of construction workers (and their trucks)

into the neighborhood-the Met’s executives have reason for concern. Their

neighbors are angry, they are rich and they have lawyers.

“They are my neighbors, and I’m acutely aware of that,” said

David E. McKinney, president of the Met. In recent days, Mr. McKinney has

scrambled to meet with members of the coalition and their attorneys.

Not everyone is so diplomatic. Parks Commissioner Henry

Stern, who is technically overseeing the renovation because the museum lies

within Central Park, fairly scoffed when he heard of the neighbors’ complaints.

“They’re building a museum,” he said, “not a slaughterhouse.”

But the coalition leaders say they’re serious. How serious?

They’ve already hired  the white-shoe

law firm Greenberg Traurig, as well as Ed Hayes, a nearby resident and a

seasoned manipulator of the city’s levers of influence.

Pat Nicholson, a resident of 1016 Fifth Avenue and the

leader of the coalition, said there will be more money pouring into the group’s

coffers. She won’t identify all her privacy-minded donors-“We’re not out to

show the world who we are,” she said-but she says many of them are quite

well-known to the Met’s fund-raisers. “One museum patron and top-level

gift-giver,” Ms. Nicholson said, “is also a contributor to the coalition.”

As the Met surely knows, any dispute with the locals is not

quite like most neighborhood spats in New York. Included among the residents is

Republican State Senator Roy Goodman, a resident of 1035 Fifth Avenue and a

noted patron of the arts. “I think we have a considerable amount of influence

with the museum,” Mr. Goodman said with characteristic understatement. “We’ve

been very good to them.”

But wait, there’s more: Mr. Goodman is not the

neighborhood’s only person of immense political influence. Last month,

officials from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority handed the Met a

logistical setback when they told the museum the M.T.A. would no longer allow

tour buses to pull up in the curbside bus lane to deposit and retrieve

passengers-a decision, coalition members believe, that will hamper the museum’s

construction plans. “When David McKinney heard that, his face just dropped,”

cackled one of the coalition’s lawyers, Elizabeth Shields. The neighbors, who

have been complaining about bus noise for years, credited incoming M.T.A.

chairman Peter Kalikow, a nearby Fifth Avenue resident, with the assist.

Mr. Kalikow’s spokesman, Marty McLaughlin, said that when it

came to the Met, the M.T.A. president “supports his neighbors.”

“He wants the construction done in a careful and sensitive

manner,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

Mr. McKinney, who noted that he too lives across the street

from the Met, now sounds chastened. “We underestimated the need to communicate

with the community,” he said. After meeting with Ms. Nicholson and her lawyers,

he said he saw some cause for hope. “There are some hard feelings right now,

but we hope to work through that,” he added.

Time to Move On?

But it’s hard to see where the two sides can find common

ground. Ms. Nicholson and her coalition are convinced that the Met has outgrown

the Fifth Avenue location it has occupied for more than 120 years and would

like to see it expand to new buildings-presumably in someone else’s

neighborhood. The Met, on the other hand, says the 200,000-square-foot

expansion is vital to its future. The renovation will provide the museum with a

much-needed reconfiguration of several of its galleries, museum officials say,

as well as a new high-tech education center for children, additional office

space for museum staff and volunteers, and an 81st Street loading dock to

handle incoming art work. But because Met officials promised the Parks

Department they would not expand on the museum’s “footprint”-its length and

width-they will instead build on the roof and excavate two stories below

ground. Residents fear this means the end of the fountains. (The Met maintains

that no final decision has been made about whether to uproot them for the

excavation.)

The fountains are the touchstone. One Fifth Avenue resident,

Shirley Sherman, wrote a letter of protest from her winter home in Florida.

“The city has too much concrete and asphalt,” she wrote. “The beauty of the

fountains is our escape.”

But Mr. Stern said the residents are demanding too much.

“[Met executives] are doing as well as they can,” he said. “Some people just

don’t like living across the street from one of the world’s largest art

museums. The problem is, the museum was there before they were.”

Indeed it was. Established in 1874 on a piece of farmland

far north of the stately mansions of Edith Wharton’s Fifth Avenue, the Met has

been under renovation almost ever since. The Beaux Arts main building wasn’t

constructed until the turn of the century; the last major addition, which

doubled the museum’s size, was begun in 1971 and completed only in 1993, after

years of obstruction by neighborhood residents. That generation, like this one,

maintained that the Met should expand into buildings elsewhere.

For years, residents have complained about disruptive

nighttime lighting, noisy early-morning trash pick-ups, and the heavy stream of

tour and school buses flowing past the museum’s entrance. The 1993 renovation,

they maintain, never really stopped. “I’ve lived here 11 years,” said Alan

Brumberger, a merchant-banker who lives at 1016 Fifth Avenue, “and it’s just

been one construction project after another.”

Ms. Nicholson said her coalition was born on Jan. 30, at a

meeting of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, when the Met presented

its latest renovation plans. For years, Ms. Nicholson had nursed a gripe about

the Met’s cooling system, which regularly belched large clouds of steam in the

direction of her apartment facing Fifth Avenue. When she and other residents

questioned whether the Met really had room for another expansion, they felt

they were put off in a dismissive manner by the museum’s attorney, Shelly

Friedman. “He acted like we didn’t even have a right to be there,” said

Elizabeth Herz, a coalition member who was at the meeting. “He told us that

there was no point in going to the meeting, because we wouldn’t be allowed to

speak.”

Ms. Nicholson’s husband, Roger Nicholson, is in real estate.

She knew neighbors were always tying up developments with protests and

lawsuits. “When [Met executives] said they were 80 percent of the way through

the approvals process,” Ms. Nicholson said, “I realized immediately that we’d

need to catch up.” At the end of the meeting, she asked all the residents there

to put their names and addresses on a list.

Ms. Nicholson began sending out homemade newsletters,

railing against the project and urging residents to organize. She frankly

acknowledged that she’s had some trouble stirring people up: Some building

managers have refused to distribute the newsletters, and it’s been difficult to

interest residents whose apartments don’t look out onto Fifth Avenue. But Ms.

Nicholson said the movement has been picking up momentum in recent weeks. So

far, she said, she has donations from 30 individual families and the support of

co-op boards representing another 300.

Ms. Nicholson said that,

thus far, all of the fund-raising had been done by mail. ” Coffee parties ? Maybe a block association could get away with

that,” she said. “We’re trying to approach this in a dignified way.”

Really Deep Pockets

In her fund-raising appeals, Ms. Nicholson is urging those

with Fifth Avenue views-the slightly richer rich people-to “dig deeper into

[their] pockets” when making their donations.

“The callousness of it is that the Met is saying, ‘O.K.,

we’ve destroyed your view, but we’re allowed to do it,'” said Ms. Herz, a

25-year Fifth Avenue resident. “They’ve single-handedly brought down the value

of several billion dollars’ worth of real estate.”

Ms. Nicholson, however, maintains that her crusade is not

“just a bunch of privileged people trying to preserve their Central Park

views.” It’s about steam and trash and trucks and dust and noise, and all the

other unpleasant detritus that comes along with living next-door to a major

tourist attraction that’s becoming a major construction project.

“We feel that no other museum has gotten away with what the

Met has gotten away with. The Met sits there saying they want to protect their

Da Vincis and they’re raising $200 million for their expansion, so why can’t

they come up with the money to address our issues?” asked Ms. Nicholson.

Not everyone along Fifth Avenue has been convinced. “I’d

rather get rid of the parades,” said Toni Goodale, a fund-raising consultant.

“Neighbors always go crazy whenever this kind of thing happens. It’s just

richer people this time.”

Still, Ms. Nicholson has found enough fellow travelers to

raise $28,000. But even that fairly substantial war chest didn’t get answers to

her questions. “Part of the problem is that we don’t know who to trust … we may

not be smart enough to ask the right questions, and you’ll always be able to

pull the wool over our eyes,” she said. So she called Mr. Hayes.

“At first I thought, ‘There’s not a lot of better things in

life that a guy can have than to say, “I represent Fifth Avenue,”‘” Mr. Hayes

said jocularly. “But when I saw the scale of the renovations, I realized it was

going to make a significant impact on this neighborhood …. They’re going to dig

some big holes in the ground, and there’s going to be a lot of big excavation

equipment and cranes, so it’s not a small thing. The Met has to cooperate with the community.”

Ms. Nicholson is angry the museum never did a traffic study

or conducted an environmental review, as is required before most major

construction projects. Mr. Hayes snorts at the Met’s contention that it didn’t

need to: “If you pay a lawyer enough money, he’s going to tell you what you

want to hear. On a bad day, that’s what I do, too,” he added with a laugh.

“They are prepared to go to court, if that’s what it takes,”

said Ms. Shields, another coalition lawyer.

Coalition members say they hope it doesn’t come to that. “I

love the museum,” said Ms. Gunther. “I really do. But the larger they get, the

more they need-it’s just growing like a fungus. The way they handled this from

the first meeting was just arrogance.

“But now that we have lawyers, they’re paying more

attention.”