My Conversation with NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe. Part I: On Cutting Down Trees

I encountered New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe at Morningside Park in Upper Manhattan on Sunday, April 27th. (See previous entry on this event here.)

He had just finished a photo op “planting” a cherry tree in memory of 40 years ago when the community blocked Columbia University from building a gymnasium at Morningside Park.

We discussed several topics, mostly focusing on Washington Square Park and Union Square Park.

Part I: Trees

I asked Commissioner Benepe about the trees at Union Square Park and the fact that they were being cut down to build a restaurant. He replied, “You’re misinformed. The trees are being cut down for the playground. We’re planting new trees.” I said, “That’s not the same.” He stated, “The trees are dying there. They’d have to come down anyway.” I said, “That’s just what landscape architects say.” (A landscape architect told me, they like to “start fresh” [blank canvas] to work with their own design. Often that entails taking down existing trees.) Commissioner Benepe started relaying his credentials to me to prove he knows about trees.

The facts: The photo above shows the very clearly living trees at Union Square Park which Commissioner Benepe was referring to and wants to cut down. NYC Park Advocates’ Geoffrey Croft told me that one tree is scheduled to come down for the restaurant – so it’s not that the tree destruction is limited to the playground.

Croft remarked to me when I questioned him about this, “Why can’t they incorporate these really wonderful trees on the East side into the playground design?” — an excellent point.

14 trees are slated to be chopped down at Union Square Park if the City has its way. Presently, a restraining order from the recent lawsuit is in effect which prevents this from happening.

At Washington Square Park. 11 trees have been chopped down thus far.

In discussing this with Commissioner Benepe, he stated that the trees at Washington Square Park that were chainsawed were all “dead.” This was news to me. I said to him, “Four.” Not all. (According to the Parks Department’s own statements. And even there, they asserted that they were “unhealthy,” not dead.) He repeated back to me, “Four. Right.” Again, he responded: “We’re planting new trees.” I said, “I know that’s what you always say but that’s not the same. Those were mature trees.” Someone else standing near by said that they were 100 year old trees. He said, “They weren’t that old.” I commented that they were 40-80 years old. He nodded.

I’d never heard that the trees at either Washington Square Park or Union Square Park were “dead” or “dying” until my conversation on Sunday with Parks Commissioner Benepe. It seems a little too convenient how quick New York City’s Parks Commissioner is to state that trees are dead in our parks when that becomes an easy way to remove them.

More on this conversation on Friday.

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Photo: Geoffrey Croft, NYC Park Advocates