New York Press: The father-son dynamics of (GreenMarket founder) Barry and (Parks Commissioner) Adrian Benepe face off over Union Square

Union Square GreenMarket

Union Square GreenMarket

New York Press’ cover story this week provides a revealing look into what’s going on behind-the-scenes at Union Square with an article by Kimberly Thorpe entitled, “Does Father Know Best? New York City’s parks commissioner squares off against his father over the future of Union Square.” It’s a very much revealing piece about Parks Commissioner Benepe and his father Barry, a well known figure in the city who is an “80-year-old urban planner and founder of the Union Square Greenmarket.”

The plans at Union Square, among other controversial items (i.e., installation of a restaurant in public space and destruction of 14 mature trees), call for a lined row of trees in front of the Pavilion on the northern end of the Park. The senior Benepe is quite concerned about this ruining the potential for this area as a public gathering space. He writes in an email (one of several printed in the article) to his son: “Why did you not put the trees on the outer perimeter of the square? You would have gotten far more trees and left the square itself unencumbered for public gatherings as all great squares in the world are. You would have tree shaded sidewalks for cafes where they should be, surrounding the park, not in the park.”

Some background from the article:

The task of executing the Bloomberg initiative by improving the multitude of parks and public spaces has fallen to Adrian Benepe, who had been appointed commissioner by the mayor in January 2002—and who has since been criticized by park activists for his willingness to let private enterprise dictate the direction of his plans. Most recently, under fire from neighborhood leaders who took him to court and lost, Benepe pushed through a $16 million renovation of Washington Square Park. In that somewhat dubious project, the main goal was to move the historic fountain there over by roughly 20 feet, just so the famous landmark would better align with the Washington Square arch.

Still, Adrian Benepe has moved forward in the face of criticism and even lawsuits, often belittling those who stand in the city’s path.

“People have the luxury to care about, worry about and get vociferous about parks these days,” he told Governing 21 magazine in March. “There’s time to worry about small things, so it can be a matter of great debate whether you plant petunias or tulips.”

Adrian Benepe refused requests to be interviewed for the NY Press article. But, talk about being snarky and dismissive while ignoring the very heart of what the issues are. “Parks activists” would wish that the arguments were about planting petunias vs. tulips. The issues are – across the city, including Union Square Park and Washington Square Park – of privatization, reduction in public space, abuse of history, mass destruction of mature trees, abuse of public trust, lies from public officials, etc.

Then there is also the issue of that pesky restaurant that the Union Square Partnership (the local BID, business improvement district, led by restauranteur Danny Meyer) wishes to place in the historic Pavilion. Senior Benepe believes that — despite the court ruling to stop work on any restaurant (which after talking it up all over town, Parks Commissioner Benepe told the court that the restaurant was never a done deal) — work on the restaurant has been continuing. Barry Benepe states, “Everything is really restaurant driven, even though they want to pretend it’s not.”

Barry Benepe’s belief is that “the success of the park depended less on his son’s vision (WSPB note: vision?) and more on making each part of it work together—and restoring it to its once-regular role as a central meeting place for rallies, as it had been in the 19th century.” He states that “the current design for the plaza is arbitrary and comical.”

The article goes into the Benepe family history – Adrian Benepe was one of five children from two wives and his father was not very involved in his life in his childhood years – and Adrian Benepe’s rise to Parks Commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg.

Barry Benepe’s wish is to influence his son’s view on Union Square Park and its potential to be one of the great public spaces. He writes in an email dated June 17th: “Generally, the entire square must be conceived as a room into which pedestrians and cyclists enter with joy and anticipation and through which vehicles pass slowly and carefully, a handsome and beautiful room open to the sky inspiring delight and wonder. …It is important that the park be the major landscape statement in the heart of this public place and that its design not be muddied by attempting to extend the park into the square.”

It does not surprise me, that, despite a solid back-and-forth up to this point, it was at this juncture that his son, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, stopped responding.