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.

Village Voice Blog Coverage of Union Sq Park “Push Back Picnic”

Check out the Village Voice “Runnin’ Scared” Blog for additional coverage of Wednesday’s (7/2) Union Square Park Push Back Picnic. There are some great photos!

Parks For Sale: Business Improvement Districts and the Privatization of Our Public Spaces

Recycled Entry : Originally Published May 7th, 2008

The term Business Improvement District – in short, BID – sounds so benign. Businesses improving their districts ought to be a good thing, right? However, the BIDs, as artist and activist Robert Lederman explores in his piece below, don’t just stay on their side of the street. In CEO Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, their tentacles spread far and wide, amidst the roots of the trees, up through the dirt or concrete, and busting out into our public spaces.

In the last few weeks at Union Square Park, the street artists who display their art have been harassed by Parks Department police. When Lederman sat down with Parks Department officials to question them about this, the Parks Department said there was no change in policy towards the artists at Union Square.

Lederman writes, “This and anecdotal evidence … seems to indicate that it was The Union Square Partnership BID which was directly responsible for ordering the recent harassment, intimidation and attempted eviction of artists from USP. This makes sense since the Park Enforcement officers are paid by the BID and apparently, now take their orders directly from them.”

Lederman continues, “Here is a perfect example of the sinister nature of how privatization works:

A NYC Agency (The Parks Department) in charge of public property held in trust for the people of NYC (all the NYC Parks) turns over daily operation of each park to a BID (Business Improvement District). The corporate- owned media (which are leading board members of all the BIDs) cheerleads for this as a great service to NYC.

Unlike the officials who run NYC agencies after being appointed by an elected Mayor, the real estate and business interests that run the BID do not swear to uphold the Constitution; they have no interest in defending civil liberties; they are unelected and unaccountable. Unlike the Parks Department officials, (more…)

Events at the Squares – Washington Square Park (Saty 6/28) and Union Square Park (Wed. 7/2): Reclaim Our Public Space

Washington Square Park and Union Square Park are two of the great public spaces in New York City – each with incredible historical references and ideals. Public space – our commons – is being continually minimized and distorted in the interest of privatization and the ‘shopping mall’-ification of the city. Real estate interests and Business improvement districts (BIDS) rule and communities lose out in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York.

Come learn about and reclaim these two great NYC spaces.

Two upcoming events:

Washington Square Park * Saturday, June 28th(tomorrow!), 12 noon


A Guide to New York City’s Redesign of a Perfect Public Space

(Raindate Saturday, July 12th, 12 noon)

Meet Up at Washington Square Arch, Washington Square North @ Fifth Avenue ; $5

In the 1950s, Jane Jacobs helped keep cars out of Washington Square. But a new redesign – which will entail dismantling the fountain, removing the chess tables and cutting down decades-old trees – puts the beloved green space in jeopardy all over again. [WSP CID] leads this tour through WSP, which highlights some of the proposed ‘improvements.’” – Time Out NY 6/26/08

Trains: A,B,C,D,E,F to West 4th Street/Washington Square

Presented by Washington Square Park Blog and Washington Square Community Improvement District(CID)

Union Square Park * Wednesday, July 2nd, 6 p.m.

Celebrate this year’s national nativity party ye olde fashioned way…


Northern end of the Park, by the Abe Lincoln Statue

As the nation prepares to celebrate it’s 232nd Birthday, and the Union Square BID (Business Improvement District) prepares to privatize the LANDMARKED Pavilion building, come join the Community Improvement District (CID), along with your favorite radical heroes of Union Square for a radical auction action and more. Make a bid on your favorite national chain store franchise! Dance circles around stodgy, stogie-smoking, sell-out politicians! Marvel as the park pushes back against the greedy takeover artists!

Let’s push back the privatizers and keep Union Square a place for public gatherings, public rallies, and public play. PUSH BACK THE BID — UNION SQUARE IS NOT FOR SALE!

More info: Union Square Not For Sale

Watering the Dirt at Union Square Park Construction Site — All in a Day’s Work?

Jessica Alfieri writes:

“The project at Union Square … I’ll call it not merely inefficient, but wildly so.

But now, it seems all they do is dig stuff up, patch it back over, dig more stuff up, and move the dirt around the site. Not one place or another permanently, but back and forth. Dirt needs to be here, dirt needs to be there. And then sometimes they’ll load up a truck with dirt and send it away. Not all the dirt, mind you, just the right amount. Other times, they’ll order another truck back to the site, hauling different dirt, and add it to the growing, moving-target piles.

The kind of half-assed planning I’m looking at wouldn’t fly in the corporate world, so why should it suffice when taxpayers are funding it? (Oh, right, we’re only funding half of it, after anonymous donations.)**

What’s irking me today is the constant waste. Everyday, this guy’s morning job is to water the dirt.

And then we all watch as that precious summer water evaporates in the hot sun. I understand why they wouldn’t want to work in a dust bowl, but is it really necessary to Wet the dirt, only to see it Not Wet five minutes later?

Hey, I have an idea. Maybe it wouldn’t be so dusty if they stopped moving it around.”


Jessica writes about her observations on random life things on her blog, amidst watching the construction at Union Square Park, and sometimes reporting on that. She’s been a great source for documenting the very tragic tree destruction from her window across from the park.

**I haven’t written about the anonymous donation ($7 Million!) towards the restaurant at Union Square Park in awhile and it’s been fairly quiet overall. More about that here.

Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) to counteract the far-reaching Business Improvement Districts(BIDS)!

Community Improvement District
It seems every district in New York City has a Business Improvement District, breezily referred to as BIDS. On the face of it, businesses wanting to improve their districts … it sounds so benign, right?

But as artist and activist Robert Lederman outlined in a previous entry Parks for Sale: Business Improvement Districts and the Privatization of our Public Spaces,” the BIDS don’t just stay on their side of the street. In Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, their tentacles spread far and wide, amidst the roots of the trees, up through the dirt or concrete, and busting out into our public spaces.

A new model, Community Improvement Districts(CIDS), works to protect, preserve and promote the well being of the community. The needs of the people are the primary concern, distinguishing the CIDS from the better known and financed groups known as BIDS, whose sole interest is to promote better business and an environment conducive to shopping.

At Union Square Park, the local BID, Union Square Partnership (co-chaired by restauranteur Danny Meyer), runs all the activities in the Park from clean-up to yoga! A significant down side is that they have unrestrained control over what happens at this public space (including cracking down on artists and free speech). Their latest plans to place a restaurant within the historic Pavilion have been met with community disapproval and outrage. It was design plans they initiated that led to fourteen old trees being chopped down for no reason, other than they were in the way of the design. (Apparently the idea of working them into the design was not considered). And our NYC Parks Department, under the aegis of Mayor Bloomberg, supports this, and further privatization of our parks.

It is part of a city-wide pattern. The city underfunds the park, pushes aside public funds and then brings in a BID and a few millionaire friends posing as saviors.

At Washington Square Park, the local BIDS(who have prominent positions on local Community Board 2), along with NYU and the Tisch Family, and with full support and implementation by Mayor Bloomberg and his Parks Department, have played a role in a redesign plan that is destroying the very heart of this beloved and historic Park.

The BIDS’ role in our communities needs to be lessened, not enlarged. The BIDS need to stay out of decision-making related to our public spaces. We need transparency and democracy. What we have in our city parks and public spaces is considerably removed from that at the moment. The Community Improvement District model works to change that and, instead of the well-being of Danny Meyer or NYU or Barnes & Noble, places the well-being of the community first.

Squirrels Against Privatization of our Parks

Photo: Miriam West, one of the wonderful street artist vendors at Union Square Park

Recap: * Union Square: Not For Sale * Yesterday’s Event

revbillypavillion 06-05-08Paul Robeson Hero of Union Square 06-05-08Crowd at Union Sq Gathering 06-05-08unionsqlinkingarms06-05-08Union Square Community Improvement District

Save Union Square 2008 gathering yesterday, Thursday, June 5th, at Union Square Park was quite the success!

Yes, there was a marching band! And a roving “Heroes of Union Square” walking tour featuring actors portraying George Washington, Paul Robeson, Emma Goldman, and Dorothy Day moving into different locations in the large space amidst the enthusiastic crowd gathered at the NorthWest corner of Union Square.

The Community Improvement District (the alternate version to how our communities can be imagined vs. the BID’s – business improvement district – “model”) table had a petition which gathered hundreds of signatures in a short time period. With marker, people wrote messages on price tags which were affixed to the construction site fence, such as “Not for Sale.”

The message:

Keep public parks public. No Private Restaurant in the Historic Union Square Park Pavilion !

Reverend Billy led the crowd with a spirited reading of the First Amendment several times to remind us – and our elected officials (like Mayor Bloomberg) – of our freedoms and rights.

City Council Member Rosie Mendez dropped by and spoke, defending her position of support for the restaurant, to a puzzled audience.

Towards the end, the crowd linked arms lining the north side and part of the west side of the fence surrounding Union Square, recited the First Amendment, and then festively marched over to the swank W Hotel, where the local Business Improvement District, Union Square Partnership (co-chaired by restauranteur Danny Meyer) was holding its annual self-congratulatory dinner. The Union Square Partnership has tremendous influence over Union Square Park and is the instigating force behind the proposal to place a private restaurant in the historic Pavilion.

It was quite an amazing scene to see people gathered around this upscale hotel with large-as-life, beautifully designed cardboard figures of George Washington and Emma Goldman, amidst the real-life actors portraying these noted figures, as well as the marching band, and raucous, impassioned crowd.

The spirit of the event was undeniable. The people inside the W in their evening attire sipping cabernet franc could not possibly have been experiencing anywhere near the vitality in the room that this diverse and dedicated gathering of people exhibited coming together to protect our public space.
Not for Sale

PHOTOS: #1, 4 and 6: Rebecca Major
#2, 3 and 5: John Quilty
#7: Deanna

Reverend Billy & Friends give Union Square Partnership and Mayor Bloomberg a message

Union Square Park Not for SaleReverend Billy & Friends give notice to the Union Square Partnership and Mayor Bloomberg that the historic Union Square Pavilion is NOT For Sale.

A scene from last night, Wednesday, June 4th, atop the fenced-in Pavilion on the North side of Union Square amidst the construction.

The Union Square Pavilion is at the moment the site of a battle between those pushing a privatization agenda (specifically, the local BID: Union Square Partnership, led by restauranteur Danny Meyer, and Mayor Bloomberg who would like to insert a private restaurant there) and those who call for free speech, and demand that our history and our common public spaces be honored and preserved.


We must inform the Tisch Family, the Danny Meyer’s, the NYU’s… that our Parks are Not for Sale. While also passing the word along to NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe, the New York City Council, and Mayor Bloomberg – the ones who are selling them off.

These are our treasured public spaces – our commons – and they need to remain that way.

Come to Union Square NorthWest corner (17th Street & Union Square West) TODAY, Thursday, June 5th, at 5 p.m. and join in on the fun as the Union Square Partnership celebrates itself (their annual self-congratulatory dinner is being held this evening at the W Hotel), we will celebrate and revel in our public space at Union Square Park.

* Expect marching bands, a “Heroes of Union Square Walking Tour,” community visioning sessions, and soapbox preaching.

* Expect surprises and spectacles and a glimpse of what the city CAN be.

* Come out and meet your neighbors in the square and defend the public’s right to public space.


Some history of the Pavilion: George Washington and the Continental Army gathered at this spot in 1776. The Union Square Pavilion site was built as a stage for public assembly and democratic gathering. The first Labor Day Parade was held there in 1882. This is where our American conscience erupted in the songs of Paul Robeson, the shouts of Emma Goldman and the prayers of Dorothy Day. The 8-hour workday was born at Union Square and crowds surged before that reviewing stand in the tens of thousands. After September 11th, we gathered there instinctively in our grief and calls for peace.

What you can do NOW: Sign the petition.

Union Square Not for Sale; Business vs. Community Improvement Districts; Gathering Thursday, June 5th 5 p.m.

Union Square Park Not for SaleWhy is a Business Improvement District (BID) in charge of a City Park anyway? At Union Square Park, the Union Square Partnership – the local BID – is in charge of basically everything that happens in that park.

There’s an ad in New York Press this week for “Summer In the Square” presented by Union Square Partnership with their big logo at the top: “Kids’ Programming, Yoga, Live Music and More! Union Square Park.”

At the bottom of the ad, it states: “EAT. SHOP. VISIT. UNION SQUARE.” The tying in of commerce with our parks and public spaces is representative of the Giuliani morphed into Bloomberg Era.

We counter this with the idea of the Community Improvement District. Now, it’s important to mention that if the Parks were properly funded by our City Council, conservancies and BID’s would not be able to exert the control over our public spaces that they’ve been handed over.

At Washington Square Park, the park has not been properly maintained, so the city swoops in with their big redesign plan, the community wants the park to be fixed but not made over, and next thing you know you have the Tisch Fountain aligned with the NYU Arch.

Remember when the Central Park Conservancy stopped a large anti-war protest from occurring at Central Park’s Great Lawn because it would hurt the grass? Despite allowing the Metropolitan Opera the same privilege? Of course, Mayor Bloomberg and NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe – no pillars of free speech – supported this. A judge last year ruled that they could not do this but the act had already occurred.

What is the Community Improvement District?

The needs of the people are our primary concern, distinguishing us from the better known and financed groups referred to as Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) whose sole interest is promoting better business and an environment conducive to shopping.

The BID in this area is known as the Union Square Partnership. They are responsible for the plan that is destroying the very heart of Union Square Park.

The Union Square Partnership, led by celebrity chef Danny Meyer, plans to turn the pavilion on the north side of this park into an upscale restaurant. They are pushing around the Greenmarket and the artist vendors, cutting down 80 year old trees, ending the day-care resources, driving out local residents and making it harder and harder for us to enjoy our own park.

This park is being privatized.

It is part of a city-wide pattern. The city underfunds the park, pushes aside public funds and then brings in a BID and a few millionaire friends posing as saviors.

We don’t need saving. We need transparency, a real democracy, and a public park.

  • We want to know who donated 7 million dollars to “buy” the pavilion and who will profit from the planned restaurant?
  • We want to know why 17th street needs to be four lanes instead of two, and why the Farmers Market, artist vendors and park lovers were sold out for a fancy Chardonnay restaurant?
  • Union Square is a national Free Speech landmark, the pavilion was built as a stage for public assembly and democratic gathering. This is where our American conscience erupted in the songs of Paul Robeson, the shouts of Emma Goldman and the prayers of Dorothy Day.
  • The 8-hour workday was born at Union Square and crowds surged before that reviewing stand in the tens of thousands.
  • The first Labor Day Parade took place here in 1882 and after 9/11 we gathered here instinctively just like George Washington and the Continental Army did in 1776.

Join us Thursday, June 5th 5 p.m. NorthWest Corner Union Square as we gather as the Union Square Partnership celebrates itself and all its success privatizing the Park, we will reclaim the space as public space.

Full details in previous post here.