Recycled Entry: NYC Parks Department- No Oversight? Out of Control

I’ve been out of town but Washington Square Park Blog will resume with new entries tomorrow.


Originally published on March 3rd, 2008.

When we hear the word ‘parks,’ we think of people picnicking on manicured lawns… We envision those overseeing City parks out there riding around on golf carts checking on malfunctioning water fountains (except when they are mowing down and killing seagulls and pigeons but that’s another story – unfortunately a true one).

In NYC, a much more deviant version exists within our Parks Department. Under Mayor Bloomberg, Parks are looked at as playgrounds for the corporate elite, vehicles for privatization, and places to further an agenda for a sanitized version of New York in which the gritty, the bohemian, the diverse is airbrushed away.

Some examples of what has transpired under Mayor Bloomberg’s administration with his Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe:

*Union Square Park Reduction of Public Space and Tree Destruction – Recent plans put forth by Commissioner Benepe include reducing the popular Green Market and chopping down 14 trees to make room for a high end restaurant. (In an Oedipal note, it should also be noted that Benepe’s father founded the GreenMarket.)

*Denial of Health Concerns of Artificial Turf – Ten years ago, Adrian Benepe began pushing artificial turf to replace grass and has placed it in 77 fields in Parks and Recreation areas across the city. While health and environmental concerns have increasingly been brought to light, Benepe insists it is safe. (In Newark, NJ, the city government declared one of its synthetic turf fields to be a “public health hazard” after three times the approved level of lead was found in the dust there.)

*Randall’s Island Privatization Proposed – Instead of making this a unique public space for the benefit of all, Benepe and Bloomberg were hoping to privatize this 273 acre park and give the majority of its access to 20 private schools within New York City.

*Yankee Stadium Deal leads to Destruction of two Parks in the Bronx — In the Bronx (which desperately needs parks) destruction of parts of McCombs Parks and John Mullaly Park as well as death to 300-400 trees in a deal to build Yankee Stadium.

*Ripping Up Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park for Water Filtration Plant – The City had been attempting for ten years to put in a water filtration plant in this spot. Despite having an alternative, more favorable location to turn to, Mayor Bloomberg was able to buy favor with State legislature and rip up nine acres of Van Cortlandt Park disrupting the park usage for this under-served neighborhood, giving nothing back in return.

*Brooklyn Bridge Park Private housing – Bloomberg argues that this park needs to be “self-sustaining” (i.e., make money) and plans are moving forward for private real estate interests and hotels to be built within this Park.

*Washington Square Park — Plans include: Reduction of 23 % of the public space, manicured lawns and “plazas” which destroy the historic nature of this Park as a political and social gathering spot, “aligning” the famous fountain with the Arch (despite the fact that noted original architect Stanford White purposefully placed the two unaligned over a century ago), corporate naming rights of the fountain being given to the Tisch Family, cutting down of 11 trees thus far, and more!

We have to wonder where is the oversight? Where is our City Council?
The Parks Department being a City agency that reports to the Mayor, the City Council takes mostly a ‘hands off’ approach.

I’ll venture into the ineffectiveness and apparent duplicity of City Council Member Alan Gerson in relation to what is happening at Washington Square Park in another post. However, as the City Council Member who represents the Washington Square area and is also a member of the Parks & Recreation Committee, he could initiate hearings on the Parks Department and the issues above.

Contact City Council Member Alan Gerson at #212/788-7722 or gerson at


New Posts Resume Tuesday, April 15th.

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    Union Square Park has a long and venerable history as a location for First Amendment protected activities. These include protests, union rallies, artists displaying their work and musicians. In recent years it has also become home to a wonderful Greenmarket providing fresh organic produce to thousands of New Yorkers.

    Unfortunately, the Parks Department’s agenda of privatizing public parks now threatens to eliminate or seriously diminish many of these activities. A wealthy board member of the Union Square Partnership BID, who is also a personal friend of the Parks Commissioner, plans to build a big restaurant in the North end of USP. This plan will result in the Greenmarket permanently losing much of the area it has occupied.

    The restaurant and the thousands of daily customers it expects to have will also take space away from the playground, eliminate the area where most large protests have traditionally been held, diminish the number of trees and displace many of the local residents who now use the park for recreation. Considering that the area around USP has more restaurants than any in NYC and less open green space, there is no reason to locate any restaurant there.

    Many local residents are communicating their disapproval of this plan to the Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, whose own father, Barry Benepe, founded the Greenmarket. A lawsuit to stop it is in the works. You will also notice that street artists are displaying signs and protesting about this planned restaurant/park renovation.

    The Parks Department has temporarily relocated the Greenmarket to the South side of USP. They have also attempted to illegally evict all the artists from the park.

    In 2001 members of A.R.T.I.S.T. won a Federal lawsuit, Lederman et al v Giuliani, establishing their right to sell art in any NYC park under First Amendment freedom of speech. Please note that this Federal ruling protects the sale of visual art in the form of painting, prints, sculptures and photographs. It does not protect the sale of general merchandise such as jewelry, batteries etc.

    The park privatization agenda is partly due to the Mayor deliberately under funding Parks. The Parks Commissioner is forced to seek other means of raising money to make up for this, which he does by selling space in NYC Parks to restaurants, allowing huge months long “Holiday Gift Markets,” and corporate promotions by companies such as Disney, Sony and BestBuy, and by completely turning the operation of parks over to private corporations such as the Union Square Partnership BID, the Central Park Conservancy and the Bryant Park Conservancy. These corporate Business Improvement Districts or BIDs are run by the city’s largest real estate interests. They privatize our public parks, hire private security guards to patrol what they consider “their” private property, take a big cut of the multi million dollar permit fees for corporate events and gradually eliminate the public’s right to use the parks for free expression, relaxation and play.

    Public parks are not the same thing as real estate or other private property. They cannot, or at least should not, be bought and sold like any other commodity. They belong to the public, and are held in trust by elected officials. When those elected officials privatize our public spaces, they are violating the public trust.

    The artists who sell in USP are members of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics). We urge you to help us defend the entire public’s free expression rights in this and every other NYC park. We also fully support the continued operation of the Greenmarket, which is one of the best things ever done in any NYC Park. Help us defend your public park.

    A.R.T.I.S.T. website:
    Contact the Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe at: The Arsenal Central Park NY, NY 10021
    Tell him No Privatization of Union Sq. Park!


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