Adrian Benepe Discusses His Role As Parks Commissioner Of NYC
POSTED: 5:32 p.m. EDT June 30, 2003

It’s the 150th anniversary of Central Park. And for parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, this world-famous institution symbolizes the challenges ahead. He supervises 28,000 acres of parkland. At a time when budget austerity is the rule, he’s trying to maintain the health of the parks system. Among his challenges: finding lifeguards for the city’s beaches and pools, rebuilding park facilities shattered by decades of wear and tear, planting trees and flowers. In the vast parks system, there are playgrounds, ball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools and skating rinks. And Commissioner Benepe, who started his career as a teen-aged seasonal helper picking up litter and mopping locker rooms, became a student of horticulture. It’s a passion for that field that he brings to his work.

Announcer: From Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, this is a presentation from News Channel 4, Gabe Pressman’s NEWS FORUM. Now your host, senior correspondent Gabe Pressman.

PRESSMAN: Good morning, Commissioner Benepe, and welcome.

Commissioner ADRIAN BENEPE (New York Parks Department): Good morning, Gabe. Great to be here.

PRESSMAN: Over the years it–it seemed that the Parks Department is a scapegoat for budget cutters. Do you think that parks is taking a hit this year because it’s so easy to cut?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, it–we’ve taken a bit of a hit, but I think Mayor Bloomberg has publicly stated and recognized that parks has historically taken cuts. And, in fact, in the budget announced just a couple of days ago by the mayor and the speaker, our cuts have been largely restored, so that I–I feel great confidence going into this summer that out seasonal budget is intact and that e–even our tree pruning has been restored. So despite the severity of the city’s fiscal crisis, I think the mayor has recognized that these historic cuts that have happened in the parks can’t happen anymore, and we’ve been kept–we’ve been kept whole.

PRESSMAN: You’ve been bled white in a way.

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, we–in–in–in some ways yes, but in some ways no. We’ve been giving–given alternative tools to get the job done. A lot of the parks work doesn’t require a great deal of skilled labor. It requires a lot of labor, but doesn’t have to be skilled labor. So we’ve been able to m–make things work with a lot of–with welfare-to-work programs and with work-training programs, with volunteers, with non-profit partnerships. And really it’s a new paradigm.

Recently I met with the commissioners of eight large cities. They were here for a conference on the…

PRESSMAN: This week.

Commissioner BENEPE: This week. They were here celebrating the Central Park’s 150th birthday. And there was a car–a–a conference organized by the Central Park Conservancy and Project For Public Spaces. And we–I got a–a chance to ho–as they say, hobnob with my brother and sister wizards. And it turned out that we’re all experiencing a lot of the same problems, but in some ways, with the–with very few exceptions, New York it out ahead of the curve. We’re doing much better in terms of park management. We’re doing much better in terms of public/private partnerships. A lot of the other cities are struggling to catch up with where we are now. We’ve become somewhat of a bellwether for urban parks.

PRESSMAN: Is it partly because over the years, but going back, you know, beyond this administration, there’s no constituency that screams loud enough to protect the parks?

Commissioner BENEPE: I think that was historically a problem–I–I would agree with you there–except that has changed. There are now–this is a very engaged constituency for two reasons. One is the Partnerships for Parks, which is an effort that we do with the City Parks Foundation. We have 67,000 registered volunteers representing 4,000 different parks groups, most of them small neighborhood-based groups. They are now an engaged constituency. And then there are broader citywide advocacy groups like New Yorkers for Parks and–and others who advocate for parks.

And the–the climate has definitely changed. It used to be that only libraries had a vocal constituency, or only schools, but there is a vocal constituency for parks. And I think that Mayor Bloomberg, when he was a private citizen, was on the board of two non-profit parks groups, so I think he understands better than any mayor before him how important parks are, and I think it’s showed.

PRESSMAN: The growth of private volu–voluntary groups like the Central Park Conservancy–is there not a danger that in ceding financing and some power to such groups we’re advocating the public responsibility that City Hall has through you, through the commissioner, to manage what are essentially public lands owned by the taxpayers?

Commissioner BENEPE: I think there is in theory the danger. That’s why it’s so important that in all of these that there be agreements that carefully spell out what the limits of the power are. Now, for examp–example, the Central Park Conservancy for about 20 years did everything on a handshake. They’re increasingly taking on more and more of the care of the park. And a few years ago we signed a management agreement with them. We said, `Here’s what you’ll manage. Here’s how you’ll manage it. These are exactly the standards to which you’ll hold–we–we will hold you. But ultimately all of the policy decisions rest with me, with the park commissioner.’ And the park administrator, the Central Park administrator, Doug Blonsky, reports to me. He also reports to the board of the conservancy. But on all policy issues, the mayor and the parks commissioner have the final say.

PRESSMAN: Now undoubtedly some people would call them the fat cats who’ve financed the conservancy or the other voluntary groups. They’re–they’re the ones who, you know, help Bryant Park and Central Park…

Commissioner BENEPE: Right.

PRESSMAN: …the rich parks. What about the poor parks? What about the overwhelming majority of parks, the little parks, the neighborhood parks? There’s not much money going from private sources to them, is there?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, there–there’s two answers to that question, Gabe. First, the–the model for the conservancy for a park was started here in Central Park in the same way that Central Park when it was first created was a–a–a something that had never happened before in an American city, in fact in the world, and that led to the creation of public parks across the world in the same way the restoration of Central Park in a public/private partnership has now become the model across the country. And again, there are people from conservancies across the country who sort of look to Central Park as a model.

That model did two things. One is it engaged more private money in supporting parks, which is a good thing. If we’re spending primarily private money in Central Park, that frees up public money to be spent in neighborhood parks.

PRESSMAN: Would you like to organize philanthropists to start spending money on neighborhood parks?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, that’s already happening. There’s a–a great group who’s a–one of our principal partners, the City Parks Foundation, which raises about $6 million a year for programming in parks, primarily–their primary focus is in small neighborhood parks, the parks that don’t have a–a wealthy conservancy supporting it. Additionally, New Yorkers for Parks has talked to us about some kind of–a neighborhood park-based program where they’d leverage a little bit of–of private funds and then seek to add public funds to that through City Council members, and that’s something we’re very interested in.

But what’s–what’s really happened is that, to use the old expression, a–a rising tide lifts all boats. People see Central Park, which, don’t forget, was an embarrassment 25 years ago–it was a–a national embarrassment; it was the subject of late-night television talk show jokes–people see that improved across the board, not just in the w–in the wealthy downtown neighborhoods but also uptown next to Harlem, and they say, `We want our park to look like Central Park.’ So as a result, there–there’s a group fighting for Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, and then there’s a–a group, the Harlem congregation’s community improvement work on Jackie Robinson Park.

PRESSMAN: So do you see–do you see a chance to enlist private philanthropy in a–a mass–a massive effort to rehabilitate neighborhood parks?

Commissioner BENEPE: I–I think that the–the massiveness of it is yet to be determined, but certainly there is already significant private philanthropy happening in neighborhood parks. Bette Midler has a group, the New York Restoration Project. They concentrate their efforts in upper Manhattan (unintelligible) parks.

PRESSMAN: Would you like that to be the hallmark or one of the hallmarks of your administration?

Commissioner BENEPE: It’s certainly–it’s certainly a great model and we’re pushing it very hard. I’m pushing to get private money at the parks. But I think you can’t say there have to be significant public support, and the mayor believes that, the City Council believes it. And at the end of the day these are public parks; they have to be supported by the public. And I think as we see the economy turn around that you will see more public money flowing to the parks. Our capital budget has remained generous. We’re–in the most recent fiscal year that we’re in now we’re spending $350 million–it’s an all-time high–for park improvements. If the economy turns around, I am convinced and believe that this mayor will see more money going into parks, and I believe for the first time parks will get more money rather than less.

PRESSMAN: And so the economy will determine really the future of the parks system.

Commissioner BENEPE: I think the economy determines the future of the city.


Commissioner BENEPE: We’ll–we’re beholden to that, and we’re–we’re more dependent on Wall Street than we have been in the past. But I think smart decisions–people understand that if you don’t have good parks you don’t have quality of life, and there are no real estate values without good parks.

PRESSMAN: The 95 percent, it’s been estimated, of parks that don’t get–that only get government support, that don’t get foundation support, those parks are hurting, parks like Coleman Park on the Lower East Side where half the site is used for construction vehicles, the many small parks that don’t have toilets or water fountains and they have dirt ball fields. They are hurting even as we have such a magnificent park like Central Park, which, of course, is flowery.

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, it’s–it’s–it’s a relative thing. Re–again, we have to remember that 20 years ago during our–or 30 years ago during the last fiscal crisis, that’s when everything went downhill. In the interim, we’ve invested $1 billion in capital overhauls in many of the parks, so that the average neighborhood park is at least acceptable if not good. And–but there are still–we won’t be satisfied till they’re all good, and we want to have one standard of parks. That’s why we have the nation’s strongest and best park inspection program.

We manage by objectives. We send out inspectors to inspect 5,000 sites a year. We’re very harsh graders. The–the newspapers and the comptroller have said–have tested us and said: Are we, in fact, measuring ourselves properly? And the answer is: We are. We’re our own judges, and we’ve got the best management system in the country. And other–these other park commissioners now want to learn from us. How do you hold accountable your managers and supervisors for the condition of a playground and how do you measure that condition, and we have figured that out.

The challenge now is let’s get those comfort stations fixed, let’s get those drinking fountains on, let’s get some beautiful flowers into a playground that for 50 years has been gray and asphalt, let’s turn an asphalt field into an artificial turf field. That’s our challenge. And I think we should not have low expectations. We should have high expectations. For too long there have been low expectations.

PRESSMAN: And let’s talk about some of those challenges ahead after this.


PRESSMAN: And we’re back here with parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

Over the years, we’ve done a few stories about the City Parks Foundation and the possibility of abuses in the collection of money for that. Actually, a couple of people were indicted and, I guess, convicted down at the Asaleve Center on the Lower East Side…

Commissioner BENEPE: Right.

PRESSMAN: …for pocketing contributions that were made to the foundation which were required to use that facility, the fitness center there. Have you taken precautions against that happening again?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, there’s–there’s been tremendous changes as a result of those things. First, I have to say the City Parks Foundation is under completely new leadership. There’s a new chair, Jean Troubh, who’s a great civic-minded philanthropist, and a new executive director, Dave Rivel, who I have a long history with, and they’ve taken a whole new program direction.

But the main thing is they no longer take donations for special events or anything. All special-event money comes in–to the city, to the city’s coffers, and the same thing with the recreation centers. The City Parks Foundation is no longer involved in–with collecting money, and the moneys–we now have fees. There are no longer donations at the recreation centers, and the city collects them, and the fees are used to pay for the staff at the recreation centers, which was a nice thing that the mayor–that Mayor Bloomberg allowed us to do was–instead of that money being siphoned off to the city’s general fund, it comes back to us and we hire the staff for the centers so that–and even with the special event-fees, that’s also coming back to the city. We have a–a special…

PRESSMAN: Special events like concerts or other things you have.

Commissioner BENEPE: Concerts, marketing events, things that are more corporate in nature or more commercial where somebody wants to use the park as a backdrop for an event. We collect the fee for that.

PRESSMAN: What about some poor person who wants to use the fitness center and doesn’t have the $25 fee or whatever it is?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, the–there are six centers primarily in neigh–neighborhoods where there’s–defined as a certain poverty line where we receive a federal funding and there are no fees for those. In fact, we eliminated the fees at all the centers in–in lower-income neighborhoods that have the federal funding, so everybody has something. And in–in the other centers the maximum membership is $75 a year, which is a pretty good deal for a full-service center.

PRESSMAN: From my own experience, I remember the reign of Robert Moses as parks commissioner which went on for a very long time, 1934, I believe, when La Guardia appointed him, to 1960. I guess he was the longest-serving parks commissioner in history. And I recall that Moses very jealously guarded the trees and the green spaces, and then along came Mayor Lindsay in ’66 and he–he was very interested in opening up the parks to the hoards…

Commissioner BENEPE: Right.

PRESSMAN: …the millions of people who use them for concerts and for other things. And I wonder what your philosophy is as compared to Moses and Lindsay.

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, my philosophy is that the–the parks should be protected from inappropriate uses, but by contrast we’ve always learned that good uses drive out bad. The more people you have doing positive things in a park the less you’re going to have things like drug users or vandals or something like that. So we want to fill the parks with people. We want people to come to the parks. We want people to feel–invest in the parks and be volunteers of the park and–and be park wardens. We want to bring the people out to the waterfronts. For the last 370 years, since the Dutch came in, the waterfronts have been places for commerce only and you were shut off from the waterfront. And Mayor Bloomberg’s highest priority in this campaign now is–and this mayor is to create greenways along the waterfronts, and we’re–we’ve got a full…

PRESSMAN: Where are we in that? The–the greenway wou–would extend along the border of the waterfront all around the island of Manhattan I understand.

Commissioner BENEPE: Ultimately, yes. There’s some tricky parts. But we’re going to this summer or fall open a th–a 32-mile interim greenway most of which will be on the waterfront, certain portions of which will be inside on the streets because we have construction projects happening on bridges, for instance, in Harlem, but you will be able to make a continuous ride from the Battery all the way up to the–past the George Washington Bridge with just a–a brief on-street segment around…

PRESSMAN: A ride? You mean a bicycle ride.

Commissioner BENEPE: Bicycle ride, roller-skating, a jog. We’re–we’re getting people back to the waterfront at Hudson River Park, at Brooklyn Bridge Park. And I think that’s what the–that’s the hallmark of the 21st century in parks is taking unused areas, use–areas used for commercial areas, brown fields–the Bronx River is going to come back as a vast new greenway with waterfront parks and–and–and paths. The–the future of New York City parks is in the underutilized areas, the places that have been used for industry or despoiled over the years, and recapturing those.

PRESSMAN: There’s–you mentioned earlier something about the pruning appropriation for the parks. That was–that was taken away during the budget negotiations.

Commissioner BENEPE: Right.

PRESSMAN: There are lots of homeowners in Queens who are quite exorcised about trees, branches falling down hurting people or at least obstructing their property. Is that going to be taken care of?

Commissioner BENEPE: Th–from what we understand, the budget restoration includes a restoration for pruning, so it looks like we’ll be in fairly good shape in tree pruning. Pruning is very important. You’ve got to get rid of the dead wood, and trees ideally should be pruned about once every seven to 10 years, and we’ve been on that cycle. We’ve gotten back on that cycle after years of not doing routine pruning.

PRESSMAN: So you–have anything to say to the people of Queens, the homeowners who have been vexed over the years? They were vexed from Lindsay from not cleaning up the snow and…

Commissioner BENEPE: I sa–I say to the people of Queens be patient. The trees produce a lot of value. Everybody knows the expression a tree-lined street implies a nice neighborhood. They provide oxygen, they provide shade, they lower the ambient temperature. We’ll get to your–we’ll get to your tree eventually. And if it’s dangerous, just let us know. Call 311.


Commissioner BENEPE: Yeah.

PRESSMAN: …is the magic phone number. Do you–we did some stories a few years ago about employees in Rockaway on the beaches there who forced a homeowner to make contributions to the parks foundations. Have you done anything to stop that from happening…

Commissioner BENEPE: Oh, yes. I…

PRESSMAN: …that sort of free-lance kind of operation where, I guess, these guys thought they were making points by simply collecting the money i–even though they didn’t use it for themselves?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, they thought they were doing the right thing. And we can’t have that. We–we now have a very strict matrix of fees. There are set fees. People should know what they’re getting into. And we don’t collect fees for letting people get by for violating the law. That’s not what it’s there for. It’s strictly there for when somebody uses a park for commercial purpose or for private events. Using public lands should command a fee, and we think there’s value there.

PRESSMAN: There’s been a major dispute over ceding part of Van Cortlandt Park for the building of a water filtration plan, a pur–purification plant underground…

Commissioner BENEPE: Right.

PRESSMAN: …and a portion of a golf course there in Van Cortlandt Park is–is at issue. The governor is still deciding whether or not to sign the bill that makes it possible for this purification plant to be constructed.

Commissioner BENEPE: Right.

PRESSMAN: How do you feel about it as the commissioner who’s sworn to uphold the integrity of the parks?

Commissioner BENEPE: I feel good about it for two reasons. One: As a New Yorker, what we all have to understand is this city did not become a great city until we built a great water supply system in the 1840s. It took great courage and vision to do that. The federal government is now saying, `You must filter the water’; otherwise, two things happen. One is you can get diseases or in the effort to purify the water you add so much chlorine that that also endangers your health. There’s no doubt the environmental groups support the notion that the water must be filtered. Then then question is: Where does the filtration plant go?

Our history as a parks system–we’ve been joined at the hip with a water supply system and we–and it has worked to our advantage. I can show you many parks that were created because of the–the w–or partnership with a water supply system. Bryant Park was first a reservoir, then it became a park. The great lawn in Central Park was originally a renevoir–reservoir, then that became a park. We’ve–we’ve g–gained about 1,000 acres of parkland through the water supply system.

And in this case there will be some temporary inconvenience, and that’s where we’ve gone through the whole issue of alienation while we dig this hole, but we’ll put the golf course back on top of it, and in the interim there will be $250 million, $1/4 billion, in park improvements for the parks in the Bronx. That’s never happened before. There have been lots of projects in parks in s–in Silver Lake Park on Staten Island where things have happened and the park’s gone back on top, but there’s never been $1/4 billion in mitigation. I think that Commissioner Ward and Mayor Bloomberg have been very courageous to set a new standard that says, `We will spend a lot of money to make the park system whole if we need to use a park for something,’ and we–the parks have been used but never had that kind of mitigation before.

PRESSMAN: Some more about your personal philosophy and history after this.


PRESSMAN: Again, with parks Commissioner Benepe.

Christo, the very well-known artist, internationally known artist, and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, have won an agreement from the city to decorate Central Park in the winter of 2005, February of 2005…

Commissioner BENEPE: Right.

PRESSMAN: …with all these metal gates with che–I guess, chefron…

Commissioner BENEPE: Saffron-colored nylon curtains.

PRESSMAN: Saffron–yeah, with curtains.

Commissioner BENEPE: Yeah.

PRESSMAN: Miles and miles of these gates for two weeks. Ho–is the city going to pay anything for this?

Commissioner BENEPE: No. Not only will the city not pay a penny for this, but they’re–they’re going to provide $3 million to the city and the Central Park Conservancy to be used for improving the parks. They’ll cover all the expenses including extra security and all the installation and removals. They’re going to insure the whole thing. It will be a great happening in the park for two weeks at a time when it’s normally very quiet.

PRESSMAN: Isn’t it kind of wacky to put all these gates up with these things flying in the middle of the winter and then tear them down again?

Commissioner BENEPE: On–once in a lifetime. It’s like Halley’s Comet. It’s–that’s a–there–their art is the ephemeral. It appears–if you’re lucky enough to see it in your lifetime, you see it and then it’s gone. And if you don’t like it, it’s gone, too.

PRESSMAN: But is it art?

Commissioner BENEPE: I think it’s art. There’s no question their–their–their works are one-of-a-kind. They’ve done it, and it’s been all over the world. It’s been a big success.

PRESSMAN: The summer is just starting. You need lifeguards, don’t you?

Commissioner BENEPE: We–we do need lifeguards. If you can swim, let us know. But we’ve been very lucky. We’ve–we’ve recruited from around the world. The first mission is to make the beaches and pools safe, so we’ve got lifeguards coming in from Poland and perhap–perhaps Australia.

PRESSMAN: How many lifeguards do you need?

Commissioner BENEPE: We need a total of 1,100. The pools have just opened. The beaches are open. We finally got some hot weather. But what–the beaches and pools will be open and safe. We’ve got more lifeguards now than we’ve had in recent years.

PRESSMAN: How many do you have?

Commissioner BENEPE: We’ve got probably close to 1,000.

PRESSMAN: And you need about 100 more or 200?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, we’d like to–ideally we’d like to have 1,100, but the–the number that we have is adequate to do the job.

PRESSMAN: You wrote recently: `When I was 15, I got my first official job in parks, a summer job mopping up the locker room at the Szold Pool on East 10th Street, picking up beer cans in East River Park.’ This became a real lifetime obsession with you, didn’t it?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, it absolutely did. And part of that was my father, who was a city planner and architect. He used to take me for walks in Central Park. And my mother was an anthropologist and taught me about, you know, the love of people. But the parks–I grew up in the parks, and the parks are really in my veins, in my soul, and I love the parks.

PRESSMAN: But in the meantime, you di–attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia…

Commissioner BENEPE: I did. Got a degree in journalism. So I learned how to…

PRESSMAN: …which was my alma mater. So what–what made you go into journalism and then get out of it?

Commissioner BENEPE: Well, I would–journalism–what I realized was I was spending a lot of time writing stories about people doing things. I missed the actual doing of it. And so I said, `Well, let me give it a try.’ And I came back as a park ranger, one of the first park rangers in Central Park, and then did lot of different jobs, natural resources, monuments. I worked my way up. And I think–I–I wouldn’t be park commissioner but for a guy like Bloomberg who didn’t owe any political favors. He could give the job to a professional, which he’s done across the city.

PRESSMAN: And what do parks mean in your life?

Commissioner BENEPE: Parks are–the–they–parks mean to me–these are the places where I grew up, where my kids grew up. It’s where you learn sports. It’s where you hear music and appreciate nature. And New York couldn’t exist without the parks. Parks are the defined quality of life in New York more than any other city.

PRESSMAN: Thank you, Commissioner Adrian Benepe, for joining us today.

I’m Gabe Pressman. Good day.

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