Museum Fights to Keep View Out of The Shadows

LOOKING out from the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, a small jewel of an 18th-century landmark on New York's Upper East Side, one gets an impression of vast sky and light above the low-rise buildings across the street. The vista may not be there long: A developer's proposal for the block across from the museum calls for a large mixed-use hotel, condominium, and shopping development that includes two 50-story towers. Last year the city granted a zoning change that opened the way.

``We're accused of being naysayers, but we just want reasonable planned development,'' says museum director Ralph Sessions. ``We understand we have to sacrifice some of our open space. This would be taking it all away - like a wall of towers across the street.''

The museum is one of four civic groups that have sued the city through the Urban Law Center, challenging the adequacy of the city's environmental review of the project. The groups contend that added traffic near the heavily traveled Queensboro Bridge, air pollution, and loss of open space deserve more attention. They want the zoning decision reversed and the proposal put on hold until a new plan for land use of the neighborhood is developed.

Displacement of many middle- and low-income residents in this densely populated neighborhood is another concern. ``This project is going to be luxury, luxury, luxury,'' says Mr. Sessions. ``It's part of the trend to upscale everything so that no one can afford to live in the city except the very, very wealthy.''

``We're all kind of banding together in New York on overdevelopment,'' says Marcia Fowle, vice president of CIVITAS, a citizens' coalition also involved in the suit. ``If we win at this level, it means that the state environmental laws in effect ... are strong. If we don't win, it means the laws aren't taken seriously.''

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