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The opening of New York City’s first public observatory is in jeopardy due to last-minute regulations

The opening of New York City’s first public observatory is in jeopardy due to last-minute regulations

Red tape has derailed plans for the city’s first free public observatory in a Bronx park, and organizers now worry they may have to halt the project.

The Grand Dome in Jerome Park, near the Bronx High School of Science, was scheduled to open this spring. But in recent months, the city unexpectedly asked the Society of Amateur Astronomers, which is leading the project, for $5 million in public insurance coverage before it could open. The group was also recently informed that the Legal and Building Department would need to review the project.

“We’re putting a tin can a little bigger than a potty on a piece of grass that no one is using,” said Bart Freed, executive vice president of the Society of Amateur Astronomers. “It shouldn’t take two and a half years to get back to where we were two and a half years ago.”

Meanwhile, the organization’s donors are wondering about the disruption.

“We started getting questions from people who donated money. Like ‘What’s the situation like?’ What’s going on here? ‘I gave you good money,’” Fred said.

Originally estimated to cost $100,000, the project would have achieved the society’s long-standing goal: opening the first entirely public stargazing facility. The 9.5-foot-tall, 6.5-foot-wide metal dome was housed at Nassau Community College until 2019. The structure will have a sturdy Celestron EDGE High Resolution Telescope Capable of presenting views of our solar system, including comets, asteroids, the Sun and all the planets including the dwarf planet Pluto. The society plans to staff the observatory seven nights a week, with special programming for Bronx Science University students.

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“We are working with the association in good faith to finalize an agreement and will continue to follow the city-mandated processes that must be completed before the contract can be finalized,” Parks Department spokesman Greg McQueen wrote via email.

This was a marked change from in January, when McQueen wrote to Gothamist that the agency expected construction on the project to begin in the spring, after an agreement was finalized and a contractor was selected.

But in March, park staff asked the Astronomical Society to provide information about programming and operations, which they said it had provided more than a year ago.

Earlier this month, Fred received a draft of a 35-page parks management agreement with the association that handles the operation and maintenance of the structure. It will take another two months to finalize this document, according to Farid.

The agreement calls for requirements that came as a surprise to Freed, including a review by the city attorney. The parks department is also asking the Amateur Astronomers Association to increase insurance coverage from $1 million to $5 million. Fried said the association hopes to negotiate a compromise on that number.

“We haven’t had a lawsuit in 97 years!” Fried said, adding that he had previously been told the project would be implemented quickly.

The Parks Department is also seeking a building management review. According to the Special DOB estimates, a project in the Bronx takes approximately nine weeks on average to receive approval. Fried said such a review seems unnecessary, given that the observatory can be easily moved.

“It’s held together with a couple of screws. And there’s no utilities. We can take it apart, pick it up and move it off site on a whim,” Fred said.

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Fried said it would be a miracle if they broke ground in the fall. The most serious consequence of this delay is that they cannot obtain funds from the project’s largest donor, the Jay Pasachoff Foundation, until the agreement with the parks department is finalized.

The association was frustrated, but committed to completing the project – even if it meant finding a different location.

“I’m not going to die until this thing is built somewhere in this city,” Fred said. “Then I could get hit by a bus. I don’t care.”