NY Supreme Court Dismisses ULURP/SEQR Challenge to American Museum of Natural History’s Gilder Center Project

In a decision dated December 10, 2018, Hon. Lynn Kotler of the New York Supreme Court, New York County, dismissed in its entirety litigation challenging the legality of the American Museum of Natural History’s  Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation for failure to comply with New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (“ULURP”) and City Environmental Quality Review (“CEQR”), New York City’s process for implementing the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”).  The Gilder Center will, inter alia, expand and modernize the Museum’s educational facilities, create immersive exhibits that better display more of the Museum’s collections, and use new technologies to reveal groundbreaking scientific research to the public. A group composed of nearby residents brought the lawsuit against the City of New York, the City Department of Parks and Recreation and its Commissioner, and the Museum. Sive, Paget & Riesel, with the assistance of DLA Piper LLP, represented the Museum in the litigation.

The petitioners first argued that the Gilder Center’s minimal ¼-acre expansion into Theodore Roosevelt Park (the “Park”) was subject to ULURP because it allegedly constituted a “site selection” or a “disposition of property.”  The resolution of this claim turned on an 1876 statute directing the Parks Department’s predecessor to enter into a lease with the Museum for what the Court described as the “then-existing and as-of-yet constructed buildings within the Park,” and the subsequent 1877 lease, which the Court found “grants the Museum the right to construct an appropriate building anywhere in the Park.”  The Court held that ULURP was not required, based upon the plain language of the statute and the lease as well as controlling legal precedent, which had determined that the 1876 statute and 1877 lease constituted the site selection and disposition of property for the Museum’s buildings in the Park.

The Court also rejected the petitioners’ argument that the Parks Department’s final environmental impact statement (“FEIS”) violated SEQRA as administered pursuant to CEQR. The petitioners claimed that the FEIS did not take the requisite “hard look” at the project’s potential impacts with respect to hazardous materials, construction noise, and traffic. The Court found that there could be “no dispute that the FEIS met the Park Department’s obligation under SEQRA,” noting that the project site contains contaminants common to construction projects in New York City and that the FEIS “sufficiently outlines various mitigation protocols.” The Court also held that “the proposed measures to deal with [noise and construction activity], akin to measures used in typical city construction sites, are rational and otherwise sufficient.”  The Court therefore denied the Article 78 petition in its entirety and dismissed the proceeding.

The petitioners have appealed.

For more information about the Court’s recent decision, please contact David PagetKatherine Ghilain, or Sahana Rao.

SPR wishes to acknowledge the significant contributions of SPR alum Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz to the briefing on this case.