Curb Appeal

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced plans to renovate the plaza that extends in front of its building from East 80th to 84th streets. But, before actually beginning construction, the museum must navigate a maze of zoning, planning, cultural and environmental agencies, seeking approval from each. And, based on opposition in the past from the institution’s wealthy neighbors, nothing is guaranteed.

Indeed, the Met’s Fifth Avenue face-lift–pushed and paid for in part by trustee David Koch–is already something of a consolation prize. The new plan is considerably less ambitious than a multimillion-dollar expansion envisioned earlier in the decade. That plan called for excavating beneath the plaza to carve out additional space the institution badly needed. (The Metropolitan can’t expand its footprint sideways because, technically, it’s in sacrosanct Central Park.)

The expansion was met with a blistering response from just a few residents, but they were vocal. An incendiary letter sent to Fifth Avenue homeowners area in the fall of 2003 read, in part, “If the Museum goes ahead, it will own our lives until at least 2015. … We have a window of opportunity to act now, before the first jackhammer bursts or the first blast shakes.” The letter went on to call the Met “arrogant” and directed opponents of the plan to send checks to Pat Nicholson, a resident of 1016 Fifth Avenue, to fund legal opposition. A coalition went on to sue the museum and the city contending that construction would disrupt their lives and drive down property values.

In 2004, the State Supreme Court dismissed their lawsuit on a statute of limitations matter, but the judge cautioned that an appeal based on the merits stood a good chance of success. The museum backed off. (Emails seeking comment from Mr. Nicholson and the neighbors’ coalition have not been answered.)

This time around, the Metropolitan’s ambitions are more modest, but the approvals process still include presentations to Community Planning Board 8, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the Public Design Commission. Plus, the Met’s fountains are designated landmarks, so alterations must be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Apparently cognizant of how delicate the matter may be, the Met has enlisted its diplomatic and well-liked president, Emily Rafferty, to lead the outreach effort for the project. (She met with the Community Board in September.) “We want, hope and expect to rally our neighborhood and our city around this effort,” she said in a statement. A Met spokesman noted that the current plan is on a smaller scale than the one of several years ago and confirmed, “We are not making plans to build beneath the plaza.”

Philadelphia landscape architects OLIN, whose past work includes the renovation of Bryant Park, were picked earlier this month to design the makeover. The museum has not yet set the budget, but Mr. Koch has pledged $10 million.

How disruptive will construction, scheduled to last from about 2013 to 2015, be? A statement by the museum’s director, Thomas Campbell, gives something of a clue. “We are proud to launch this monumental project,” it reads.

Curb Appeal