The End of the Parks Commissioner’s Reign

updated 2:35 p.m.

Adrian Benepe at WSP Phase I Opening Ceremony 2009

In the news… big news, in the parks and public space domain: NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has resigned and will be leaving his position around Labor Day. Commissioner Benepe oversaw the controversial redesign of Washington Square Park and was caught in a web of … shall we call them… untruths at times. Rather than focus on items that might not be quite so media-worthy, such as proper maintenance of our existing parks, his calling, for the last ten years under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, leaned towards splashy redesigns and planting a million trees. These undertakings left out serious forethought as to how to maintain either aspect. The result? Continued and overwhelming dependence was shifted to private dollars with large disparities in the amount of money, love and attention given to ‘other’ parks across the five boroughs. (Oh, and a number of dead trees.)

From Mayor Bloomberg’s quotes yesterday (below), he is quite happy to continue that model with Adrian Benepe’s replacement, Veronica White, someone with no background in parks or public spaces — like many of Mike Bloomberg’s recent choices who are positioned at the helm of city agencies without related experience. (Ms. White gets some points for citing the position as her “dream job.”) Commissioner Benepe was appointed at the beginning of Bloomberg’s (seemingly never-ending) tenure and had already risen through the ranks of the Parks Department. Benepe will be going on to further the private-public model across the country, according to The New York Times, despite the problems found with the model.

From the NY Daily News, NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe to leave post he’s held for 10 years alongside Mayor Bloomberg

Adrian Benepe, one of the few top officials who has been with the administration since Bloomberg took office in 2002, is set to take a job at the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

He will be replaced by Veronica White, executive director of the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity.

“I’ve been joined at the hip with the Parks Department,” said Benepe, who got his first parks job as a teenager in the summer of 1973 cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash. “You never want to leave. But you can’t be emperor forever. Sometimes there’s the risk of overstaying your welcome. And there would have been no guarantees after next year [when Bloomberg’s term ends].”

The city has added 730 acres of parks under Benepe, including glitzy new spots like Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line.

White is set to take over around Labor Day. “It’s been my dream job forever,” she said.

New York Times, His Domain Transformed, Parks Chief Is Leaving:

At the Trust for Public Land, Mr. Benepe will promote the public-private partnership model, an environmentally minded infrastructure and wider access to parks to cities across the country.

Ms. White’s work at the economic opportunity center has followed the same mold. Mr. Bloomberg praised her record of “exploring innovative partnerships and attracting private funds,” skills that should serve her well as parks commissioner. …

Yet Mr. Benepe was not without critics. Some people objected to his turning to private sources for the money to pay for park maintenance, like the plan for upscale housing to underwrite Brooklyn Bridge Park and the twice-yearly fashion shows that take over Damrosch Park next to Lincoln Center.

Mr. Benepe also clashed with vendors and artists over the city’s efforts to rein in commerce in parks. And there have been complaints that the upkeep of the city’s many existing parks has been sacrificed for lavish expenditures on a few new gems.

“We’re classic victims of our own success,” said Holly M. Leicht, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group. “All the attention paid to the beautiful new parks has created a certain complacency about the state of the existing parks. There’s a disconnect between the capital investments and the depletion of the maintenance budgets.”

Village Voice, Adrian Benepe’s Resignation: Will Changes in Parks and Recreation Affect Artists?

DNAinfo: Adrian Benepe Resigns as Parks Commissioner & Meet the New Parks Commissioner, Veronica White

Wall Street Journal, Parks Chief Steps Down after 10 Years

Previous posts here at WSP Blog:

* A Quiz on NYC’s Parks Commissioner

* NYC’s Parks Department: 2/3 cuts in workers and endless privatization schemes

* Part I of II: NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe Responds to WSP Blog Concerns February 2, 2009

* Part II: My Response to the Parks Commissioner Regarding Washington Square Park Redesign February 13, 2009

* Privatizations, Concessions and New York City Parks

* Ribbon Cutting Ceremony at Washington Sq Park May 28, 2009

Other interesting background reading:

WNYC, Shake Shack $$$: Bad for City Parks? September 14, 2010

Next American City, The High Cost of Free Parks, award-winning piece by Patrick Arden

Park Slope Patch, Which Park is it, Anyway? by Johanna Clearfield on Commissioner Benepe talk at Museum of the City of New York

Photos: Cathryn

The City Council Member Vs. The Parks Commissioner

Last week, the New York City Council Parks Committee held a public hearing to discuss the Parks Department budget. The Parks Department is woefully underfunded and has been for at least twenty years, if not more. It has gotten worse under the Bloomberg Administration — the lack of funds is used as an incentive to encourage privatization of our public parks.

On Thursday, March 22nd, at the public hearing – note: the “public” hearings are always minimally publicized (which is basically, not at all) – NYC Council Member James Oddo had a heated exchange with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. This was covered over at A Walk in the Park Blog which reports that Council Member Oddo (whose district encompasses parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island) at one point called Commissioner Adrian Benepe “arrogant, cavalier and disgraceful.” Benepe told Oddo to “have a nice day.”

An excerpt from A Walk in the Park Blog:

Staten Island City Council member James Oddo and Parks Commissioner Adrain Benepe provided some fireworks during a Council Parks and Recreation budget hearing this afternoon.

Oddo said it was no ‘Act of God’ that lead to flooding dozens of people’s homes six months ago when Hurricane Irene hit – it was a lack of maintenance from the Parks Department.

The pond in Willowbrook Park overflowed, flooding nearby streets, cars and dozens of homes.

The cause, according to the angry council member, was a culvert that was blocked by plastic bottles and errand softballs from nearby fields that had not been properly maintained by the Parks Department.

Adrian Benepe did not agree. He repeatedly said the flooding was caused by Hurricane Irene, not an “Act of God” and refused to acknowledge or take any role or responsibility for the damage.

Many people in the Willow Brook/Bulls Head section of Staten Island suffered huge loses in property damage and personal belongings due to the damage. The four streets that were flooded are adjacent to Willowbrook Park.

Oddo said some residents had eight feet of water in their basements.

If Rudy Giuliani were mayor, Benepe “would have been canned a long time ago, ” the councilmember said.

Oddo said he couldn’t wait until the remaining days of this administration were over and Benepe was gone.

“I’ll tell ya, I can’t wait for the 650 days to be up,” he said. “I can’t wait till we get someone in there who treats all five boroughs equally.”

“I appreciate your passion,” Benepe said condescendingly to the visibly upset Oddo.

(I was wondering how many days were left in Mayor Bloomberg’s term. Really? That many?)

In August, Washington Square had its own flooding and Parks Department maintenance problem:

August 2011

Previously at WSP Blog:

Privatization, Concessions and New York City Parks October 8, 2010

NYC Parks Dept.-2/3 cuts in workers and endless privatization schemes April 25, 2008

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe on Performance Crackdown At WSP — What he said… What he meant…

In last week’s Clyde Haberman column in the New York Times “A Word to the ‘Wise and Honest’ on Washington Square Park” which addressed the performance crackdown, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was quoted as follows and we’ve interpreted his comment for you here at WSP Blog

What he said:

The commissioner of parks and recreation, Adrian Benepe, in a ’60s music moment of his own, said the balance was between the performers and those who go to the park to “enjoy the sounds of silence or the trees blowing in the wind.”

What he meant:

Adrian Benepe, in a 60s music moment of his own, said the balance was between the performers and those who go to the park to “enjoy the sounds of silence” (except for police vehicles driving through and the crash of construction machinery) “or the (dead and dying) trees blowing in the wind.”

Blog Musings…

There are many things I would have liked to have covered over the summer here on the Washington Square Park Blog, but, alas, could not … such as:

*the unnecessary and cruel killing of the resident Canadian geese (and Mayor Bloomberg‘s role in it) rounded up from many parks across New York City;

*the Mayor’s re-election campaign for that third term and his spending on it – many interesting articles on this;

*NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who has some spirited challengers for her re-election campaign as City Council Member in Yetta Kurland and Maria Passannente- Derr, and who, uh, won’t commit to support the Democratic candidate for Mayor (which is code for … how can she not support Mayor Michael Bloomberg with whom she has a co-dependent relationship …? they need each other at this point. The other option being discussed is that she just won’t take a position on endorsement vs. backing him.) and Council Member Alan Gerson also running for re-election (and, whose name, last I checked, didn’t make it on the primary ballot because of an error on his petitions)*;

*The High Line Park opening ;

*The sad demise of many Central Park trees because of an intense storm a couple of weeks ago.  (There were some interesting comments in articles from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe who, on the one hand, has such an attachment to trees, but, on the other, is so quick to chop them down if he has some fancy design plan in mind that might raise his profile…)

I had to focus a bit less on this blog and a bit more on some other life things so these things were not covered here on the blog.

And what about Washington Square Park…?

I will definitely write when I find out more about plans for Phase II – which unfortunately, to date, the Parks Department Press Department has been less than forthcoming about.  What DID that accepted bid come in at for Phase II? Rumor is work will begin around mid-September. I still strongly believe the work should be done in two parts so that the Eastern side of the park and the Southwestern portion are not unnecessarily gated off all at once, closed to all.

Next blog post Wednesday, September 9th!  See you then!

** Check back for this post to be Updated later this week because I’ll try to add other links and sources for you to find out more about all of the above. **

* To read more about Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn’s roles in the redesign of Washington Square Park, scroll down to Categories on the right sidebar and click “Gerson-Quinn.”

More from the NYC Parks Commissioner! — On Washington Sq Park and WSP Blog Concerns

A follow-up letter from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to me in response to my letter of February 13th. We’ve had a bit of a back-and-forth. It’s true that the Parks Commissioner and I are most likely never going to agree on many aspects of the redesign – and the history of the redesign – of Washington Square Park. I have a few thoughts in response to this, but first, his letter which I’ve posted below:

**********************************************************

April 7, 2009

Dear Ms. Swan:

Thank you again for your correspondence about the renovation of Washington Square Park. It seems there are a number of points where we will have to agree to disagree. We may never come to an understanding on what is or is not public space (I would argue the entire park is public space), how to define a renovation versus a “spruce up,” a spear versus a ball and whether or not the Parks Department has been responsive to community concerns.

Many aspects of the renovation you wish to “come to an agreement” on were settled long ago. In fact, your request to change aspects of the renovation that have already been completed or that are currently under construction is nearly impossible to grant at this point. The fountain plaza is very close to completion and the fence is already installed. After the February 4th Washington Square Park Task Force meeting, the Parks Department made additional changes.

When Washington Square Park is completed I am confident that it will continue to be a vibrant, eclectic gathering and performance space for Villagers, students and visitors and I truly believe you will enjoy the restored park.

Thank you for your support and interest in Parks.

Sincerely,

Adrian Benepe

NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe Wants to Hear from You!

Parks Department logo Coney Island/Brighton Beach boardwalk

Parks Department logo Coney Island/Brighton Beach boardwalk

The NYC Parks Department is doing a public survey and would like your input.

Visit here to complete the survey.

There is an opportunity to comment along the way and primarily at the end. Some ideas for improvement in the way Parks Department operates would be:

1. Stop privatization of our public spaces. If the Parks Department would focus on maintaining the parks and not have to do splashy pr-photo op-overhauls of these public spaces, money would go to maintenance and repair. When parks are elaborately overhauled, they then require additional maintenance. This is when the Parks Department pushes for privatization of the space and it’s a vicious cycle. Then a private entity becomes the arbiter of the space. Our public parks must remain public.

2. Stop the reduction of our public spaces. (Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, and Yankee Stadium Parkland all come to mind).

3. Keep parks maintained and repaired vs. overhauling them. (Relates to #1.) At Washington Square Park, pathways are cracked and uneven, the bathrooms needs repair, the lawns had not been tended to for ages. If these things had been done, the Parks Department would have never gotten away with its plans for an unnecessary and extensive redesign (not a “renovation”) with costs upward of $25-$30 million. The Park could have been repaired for $6-$7 million, thereby saving the city money that — particularly during this “financial crisis” — could be applied (still) to keeping jobs and sparing cuts from our necessary city services, such as sanitation, police, education, libraries.

4. LISTEN to community input and work with community members on any redesigns of parks. (See: Washington Square Park where community members have been ignored as well as at Union Square Park, Yankee Stadium Parkland in the Bronx, Randalls Island, Tompkins Square Park, Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir on the Brooklyn/Queens border, more.)

5. Work existing trees in our parks into any redesigns of parks. (See Washington Square Park – 14 trees cut down thus far; Yankee Stadium Parkland, formerly Macomb Dams Park and John Mullaly Park – 400 trees sacrificed; Union Square Park – 14 trees chopped down; Randalls Island – perhaps 1000 trees axed; East River Park – 105 trees murdered.) It’s somewhat hypocritical to say you want to plant a “million trees” while destroying wonderful, mature trees that are part of the urban landscape.

6. Place value on parks and public spaces as community gathering spots, as places for expression of art, of politics, of music, as opportunities to connect with people they just might not otherwise. The survey does not address this at all. This is the great value of our public spaces and needs to be placed first ahead of business and corporations and real estate values and “sponsors” (see Chanel, Central Park). The importance of these spaces as locales for free speech and democracy to flourish must be nurtured and recognized.

So go forth and complete the survey!