Museum Bile: Fifth Avenue Razzing Met

In recent weeks, an incendiary fund-raising letter has been circulating among wealthy Upper East Side residents who are fighting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s multimillion-dollar expansion plan.

“If the Museum goes ahead, it will own our lives until at least 2015,” the letter reads. “We have a window of opportunity to act now, before the first jackhammer bursts or the first blast shakes …. Can you imagine the negative impact on the value of your home if trying to sell during the 12-year assault? … We could stop the whole magilla.”

The letter goes on to blast the Met as “arrogant” and sets a goal of raising more than $300,000 to finance a legal action against the project. It directs contributors to send checks to Pat Nicholson, a resident of 1016 Fifth Avenue, which is at the corner of 83rd Street across from the museum, and is one of the most expensive buildings in Manhattan.

The battle between the Met and its deep-pocketed neighbors, which has been alternately raging and sputtering for years, is reaching a strange, tense climax. The plan’s opponents-led by Ms.Nicholson,who heads a group called the Metropolitan Museum Historic District Coalition–have ratcheted up their fund-raising efforts in recent weeks. The group has stockpiled more than $135,000 to spend on the likely lawsuit.

But even as the opposition gathers momentum, an unexpected new subplot has arisen to further complicate this ongoing tale. Some of the museum’s neighbors have turned on the Met’s opponents , charging that they are a tiny minority who live in high-level Fifth Avenue apartments and are motivated solely by a desire to preserve their sweeping views of Central Park.

“It’s a very few people trying to preserve the value of their apartments,” said Richard Walter, a retiree who has lived at 1016 Fifth Avenue for five years.

In other words, all is not well on Fifth Avenue.

In recent months, residents of 1016 Fifth Avenue who oppose the plan have taken to shooting videotapes from their windows of the hellish scene across the street. On a recent afternoon, Ms. Nicholson did just that, training a hand-held video camera on the Met from her 15-floor window. She panned over traffic on Fifth Avenue and over trucks delivering art to the museum. She filmed fumes rising from the museum rooftop. She did an overhead shot of a mob of weekend visitors that had congregated on the steps. And she took some close-up shots of a crowd of young African-American break-dancers and an old, disheveled man playing the flute in front of a case of coins. As Ms. Nicholson recorded these images, she provided an ongoing, weary-sounding voice-over commentary: “These over here are the musicians … people are perplexed … that’s pretty filthy.”

Ms. Nicholson presented the completed video to officials at the Met. To her, and to other opponents of the museum’s expansion plan, these images are proof that any further construction risks overwhelming a neighborhood already strained by the museum’s presence. But to other neighbors, the video is another sign of just how bizarre and driven the Met’s opponents have become.

“A lot of people are fed up with this,” said another resident of 1016 Fifth Avenue. “It’s overkill. The museum has a lot of problems. It’s the gem of New York. I feel that this is hitting a guy when he’s down. Try telling a kid from the South Bronx that he should feel sorry for people in 1016 Fifth Avenue who think that their life is being disrupted and the value of their property is going down.”

But the Met’s opponents are unrepentant. They are seeking to stymie the Met’s goals, or at least to reach some sort of negotiated compromise, because new vehicular and pedestrian traffic could erode the neighborhood’s quality of life.

While the plan’s foes have talked about lawsuits before, only to see their plans fizzle, they have hired a new lawyer, and even museum officials acknowledge that the Met may be facing a protracted legal battle.

The fight concerns a complex two-stage renovation and expansion that could take a decade. The first phase, which had been underway but stalled after the economic downturn that followed 9/11, includes the construction of new galleries and office space and the possible enlargement of an entrance near 81st Street. The second phase is an underground expansion whose future, at present, is uncertain.

Construction on the first part could resume as early as November, but it’s not entirely clear just how the resumed construction will affect nearby residents. Met officials maintain that the new office and gallery space won’t result in an increase in visitors, and they also say that views of the park will remain virtually unchanged.

Any efforts to hold up construction may be complicated by the growing backlash among Fifth Avenue residents who support the museum and are fed up with the expansion’s vocal and well-heeled foes. These Upper East Side residents, who are largely agnostic on the question of the expansion, charge that the Met’s opponents care nothing for the benefits that an expanded museum will bring to the city.

Tense Building

The tensions are most palpable in 1016 Fifth Avenue. Some residents say that the opposition is largely driven by two members of the board of directors who live on upper floors: Ms. Nicholson, the author of the fund-raising letter and president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Historic District Coalition, the main opposition group; and Brooke Barrett, a hotel executive who is the board’s president and resides in one of the building’s 16th-floor penthouses.

“I believe what they are doing is wrong,” said Mr. Walter, the retiree who has been living in the building for five years and has differed with the board on separate matters. “The people doing all the objecting are the ones with high-level apartments. Because they feel that their view may be impaired slightly, they are willing to deprive thousands of people of further learning and education.”

Several residents are so irate with the opponents that they’ve taken the treasonous step of forwarding the opposition’s mail directly to David McKinney, the museum’s president.

A few residents of 1016 Fifth are particularly irked by the fact that the board is dipping into the building’s collective funds to help finance the legal action. Ms. Barrett, the board president, circulated a letter in May informing building residents that the board had voted to pledge $10,000 from the building’s funds to support a likely lawsuit. (Ms. Barrett didn’t return calls.)

Ms. Nicholson disputed the idea that her group was driven by a minority of penthouse dwellers. “We’re more than 600 families,” she said. “We represent pretty much every building along Fifth Avenue from 79th to 85th streets, and on the side streets as well. This is not about fixing a view. We oppose the whole process that put the plan in place.”

As for her battle with the museum, Ms. Nicholson added that she felt reasonably certain that her group would soon amass the $300,000 in funds necessary to mount an effective legal assault. “I feel confident that we’ll be able to reach that mark,” she said.

But Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met, brushed off her threat: “It’s hard to conceive of what the legal argument would be, because we’ve followed all applicable laws.”

The fight over the museum’s growth has been dragging on for a generation. The last major expansion, launched in 1971, was stymied by opposition for years and was finally completed in 1993. The current expansion plan, museum officials have long maintained, will provide a much-needed reconfiguration of galleries and storage space. Museum officials promised the Parks Department, which is the museum’s landlord, that the building wouldn’t expand its footprint. For that reason, officials envisioned a two-stage goal: first, to complete the now-stalled construction of gallery and office space within the structure’s upper stories, and second, to excavate two stories beneath the museum to create underground storage space.

Some locals have long argued that the plan violates a long-standing agreement between the Met and the Parks Department that restricted expansions beyond those completed in 1993. “There has never once been an environmental or traffic review of how the Met’s plans affect this neighborhood,” Ms. Nicholson said.

But Mr. Holzer maintained that the Met has been more than receptive to community concerns: “The Met is doing the best it can to serve all of its public-its neighbors, city residents who rely on the museum for enlightenment and education and visitors from all over the world.”