Barry Benepe—an 80-year-old urban planner and founder of the Union Square Greenmarket—and his son Adrian, New York City’s 51-year-old parks commissioner, had been writing each other emails for weeks.
Each email staked out more territory in a dispute that kept their correspondence curt and professional. No mentions were made of family get-togethers or Father’s Day dinners or fishing trips with the grandkids. Instead, the two men were debating an issue that had been dividing them for years: the future of Union Square.
On February 27 at 11:17 a.m., Adrian answered the latest email from Barry. His response defended part of the city’s plan to renovate Union Square—a plan that Barry opposed. It read, in part:
The extra trees we will be adding throughout the north end will also make the park friendlier for wildlife.
Barry wasn’t satisfied with his son’s answer, and dashed off a harshly worded reply:
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.
Two days later, Adrian wrote back to his father, working to strike a more conciliatory tone:
That’s a great idea. We will do a line of trees across the street too, unless there are vaults under the sidewalks that front of most of those commercial buildings [sic]. I suspect there are, which may be the reason there have never been any trees there. There will be plenty of room for public gatherings in the north plaza, with some of the area pleasantly shaded by trees.
The two were talking, as usual. But they weren’t getting any closer to an agreement on the issue that had divided them for months, if not years.
In a city known as much for its vast open spaces as for its shimmering towers, the role of parks commissioner—first held by notorious master builder Robert Moses—has always come with equally vast measures of power and controversy. In 2007, Mayor Mike Bloomberg committed the city to an overhaul of its infrastructure for greater sustainability. Part of the overall plan includes an estimated $3 billion for parks. Bloomberg’s stated goal: By 2030, every New Yorker would live within 10 minutes of a park.
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.”
But when the parks department turned its attention to renovating Union Square Park, the clash between the community and city officials hit home for Adrian Benepe when his father spoke out publicly against his own son.
Since the 1970s, Barry Benepe has been a fixture of Union Square, universally credited with playing a major role in the area’s revitalization, as well as paving the way for major retailers, like Barnes & Noble, to open there. Last year, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Barry the first Jane Jacobs Medal for Lifetime Leadership, with a $100,000 stipend attached. Barry is proud to have been cited as a “pit bull” in his “commitment to making New York City a more habitable place.”
But with the dispute over Union Square has come a clash that has turned hidden family fissures into open wounds. Although neither one will acknowledge it, the public record of the Union Square battle speaks to a war of words between two generations of Benepes, each one believing he has the answer. In the end, only one will win.
The north side of Union Square Park has been fenced off. Tractors and men in yellow hard hats dig up sediment and use dynamite to blow apart rocks many feet below the sidewalk level. The old pavilion building there, which housed filthy public bathrooms where the city’s homeless often slept, is being renovated at the same time.
At the heart of the debate between father and son over Union Square, some say, is the future use of the pavilion—a 78-year-old open structure. The city wants to convert it into a private restaurant—for many years, it had been the home of Luna Park—and has largely turned the space over to the Union Square Partnership to design and build it, as well as to help find a future tenant. But community activists—Barry included—have fought the restaurant plan on the grounds that it misuses what should be strictly public space, available to everyone.
A community coalition has filed suit against Adrian Benepe and the parks department; in May, a State Supreme Court justice ruled that renovation of the pavilion could continue, but no construction of a restaurant can take place until the court has time to review the proposal. That has amounted to a temporary victory for Barry, in a public battle that began early last year.
“Cafes enliven parks, and they give you a way to eat al fresco while you’re not choking on exhaust,” Adrian told the Times in January 2007. “In my lifetime, Union Square Park was Needle Park, a place to walk across as fast you could. The success of the park today depends on the liveliness of its activities.”
In the wake of his son’s Times interview, Barry Benepe sat down to write an op-ed piece for the Times, the first he had ever attempted. He believed the success of the park depended less on his son’s 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.
“The Parks Department has been diverted by a contentious proposal by the Business Improvement District to convert and enlarge the Palladian pavilion at the north end of the park to accommodate a private restaurant,” wrote Benepe, alluding to his son’s own plan.
But the op-ed piece was never published in the Times. The night before it was set to run, an editor called Barry to say he had learned of the father-son connection between Barry and the parks commissioner—and said the newspaper felt it was necessary to note that fact alongside his name.
“If you’re going to do that, I’m going to pull it,” Barry told the editor—and he did. The piece was eventually published in Westview, a community newspaper covering the West Village.
But Barry hasn’t stopped speaking out against his son’s plans for Union Square, even while trying to avoid the appearance of a family feud.
“[Union Square] is a very special historic public place and it should get a design that reflects its history. And the current design for the plaza is arbitrary and comical,” Barry said recently. When asked why he thought his son had given control of the designs of the north end of the park, including the restaurant he opposes, to the Union Square Partnership—which is funding much of the renovation of the pavilion—Barry explained: “Because [Adrian] feels their architects are doing a good job, and he likes what they’re doing.”
Barry paused. “That’s where we disagree,” he said.
Barry Benepe says he is pretty sure his son was born in 1955, but he isn’t completely positive. The sprightly man with a distinguished shock of white hair has had five children with two different wives and currently lives with his third wife.
Barry met his first wife, Jagna Sharff, a Polish archeologist, and also a political activist, at a protest in New Rochelle in the early 1950s. The two bonded over their belief that the government’s recommendation to hide under desks was a silly way to think about war. Adrian was, in fact, born in 1957; and Jagna later gave birth to a daughter, Jennifer. In a recent interview, Barry described his earliest memory of Adrian being a toddler, just barely having learned to walk, hobbling up the neighbor’s back-porch steps, and quietly accepting a cookie. (Adrian Benepe declined repeated requests for an interview for this article.) Soon after the kids were born, the couple moved back to New York City and to the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
But the marriage didn’t work out; his parents divorced when Adrian was 4 years old. Barry spent a couple of years in Europe, working as an urban planner in London. He then returned to New York and the Upper West Side with his second wife, Morag, a Scottish woman with whom he had three more children. Barry admits being an absent father when his children were small—a “weekend father,” as he puts it, throughout those early years. When he did spend time with Adrian, they often walked together through nearby Central Park.
“Central Park was such an important feature in our lives because the entire concept of Central Park was country in the city,” Barry Benepe recalled recently. “And so this was our countryside, and we valued it a great deal.”
But by the time he was 10, Adrian was caring for his siblings, cooking and babysitting for them.
“He was the father of five kids,” Adrian told the New York Times in 2002, recalling his relationship with Barry, “and a lot blew past him.”
Around that time, Barry cemented his reputation as a New York City urban planner and activist of some significance. In 1966, the young father became a pedestrian advocate with a mission to banish cars from Central Park, and he founded Transportation Alternatives in 1973 to promote the cause. Adrian, meanwhile, was finishing up high school at the prestigious Horace Mann School in Riverdale, although he has since acknowledged a lack of devotion to schoolwork.
“I was a classic underachiever in high school, scruffy, messy hair,” Adrian was quoted as saying in a 2004 alumni newsletter published by his college alma mater, Middlebury College in Vermont. At age 15, Adrian spent a summer working for the parks department, collecting trash and mopping locker rooms.
When it came time to consider college choices, Adrian traveled to Vermont to visit Middlebury with a friend. “I remember it clearly,” Adrian told the alumni newsletter. “It was like the Thomas Mann novel, The Magic Mountain. There was two feet of snow, and we went from room to room and met so many great people. Everyone was playing cards and having parties. Middlebury is isolated but has a great deal of appeal.”
Far from New York, and surrounded by mountains and snow, professors there recall a student who embraced a new range of interests. He became involved with theater, took studio art classes, served in student government and played sports. “One of the many things I love about Middlebury was that you could do anything you wanted to do because it’s small,” Adrian has recalled. He experimented with activism, even climbing up on a table in a dining-hall room to protest an injustice involving non-functioning fire alarms.
Adrian made lasting impressions on his professors. One of his favorite teachers, English professor John Bertolini, recalled in a recent interview: “We hit it off right from the first day. He liked my theatrical way of teaching and I liked his manner in class. He was droll, wry.”
Barry, meanwhile, was opening his first, second and third Greenmarkets. Barry moved his office to a few blocks away from Union Square and soon after, the farmer’s market began its climb to success. His vision for Union Square, at first focused on the farmer’s market, grew to include the entire park—an open space that encompasses nearly four acres of land
In 1978, Adrian graduated from Middlebury with a degree in English and a girlfriend he had met his sophomore year, and one who would eventually become his wife. He encountered great writers at Breadloaf like John Irving and Mark Strand. He also established what some recall as an outsized personality; once he showed up to class in a gorilla suit. Bertolini, his Shakespeare professor, has maintained a friendship with Adrian and his family and describes them as totally “normal” and positive—a view apparently shared by Adrian Benepe himself.
“My children have a structured home, a very different childhood,” Adrian told the New York Times in 2002. “They do all their homework, and they’re into sports. I ran track in high school and college, you know, and I think I was saved by being part of a team.”
Adrian returned to New York City to get a graduate degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; he then took a job at a paper in New Jersey but left after six months. “I missed being part of a large organization,” Adrian told the Times. “I missed the structure of public service.” That’s when Adrian returned to work at the parks department, becoming a full-time park ranger in 1979. From there, he went on to direct public relations for the department; by 1996, he had become the borough parks commissioner for Manhattan, where he had grown up and where he now lived with his own children.
Meanwhile, Barry had since moved to Jane Street in Greenwich Village, only a short walk to Union Square.
The Union Square Community Coalition—which Barry Benepe helped found in 1980—had grown, alongside the park itself. From the birth of the Greenmarket in 1976 to the mid-1990s, the neighborhood had witnessed a total transformation of Union Square. That had begun with the 1985 opening of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café—quickly recognized as one of New York’s top restaurants—along with nightclubs like The Palladium and hip hotspots like Coffee Shop, a late-night restaurant frequented by models and celebrities. Thanks to the commercialization of the area, young New Yorkers flocked to the neighborhood to live and work; Spy magazine moved its offices to Union Square, as did Atlantic Monthly Press. A baby boom brought with it a huge influx of kids to Union Square’s playground and its many grassy areas.
Barry’s group continued to meet monthly with the goal of ridding the neighborhood of “druggies,” as one retired member put it. “Most people found it depressing in the 1970s and run down,” Barry said recently. “During my childhood it was a place where winos hung out.” Over the next copule of decades, Barry would be part of every change to Union Square Park. He advocated the cobblestone on Union Square West, and the extension of the park on 14th Street, putting in an oval-shaped path on the parks edge, narrowing Union Square West, which gave Greenmarket more room.
“We worked a lot together to make the park better,” recalled Robert Walsh—the current city commissioner of the department of small business services—of his time as executive director of Union Square Partnership (and at times Barry’s opponent on matters related to the park). “I remember him being forceful…If he wanted to pressure you on an issue, he did. He had a tremendous amount of influence. He had a right to be at the table. In many ways [Union Square] was his baby.”
While Barry continued to focus his attention on Union Square, Adrian kept his eye on the ultimate prize: the job of running the city’s parks department. By 2002, Adrian Benepe struck many as a natural to inherit the job of parks commissioner. He had not only spent almost two decades climbing ranks of the parks department but also considered Henry Stern, the former parks commissioner, his longtime mentor.
“Adrian added a practical dimension to his father’s idealism,” Stern told the New York Times in 2002, after Adrian got the post. “But as Adrian moved up in the system and became well respected, he sometimes seemed embarrassed to see his department and his father on opposing sides.” Stern continued, “He would officially recuse himself from debates, but I think he just didn’t want to argue with his father.”
In March, Adrian took his clearest aim yet at his father’s Greenmarket when he told Governing 21 magazine: “People say the café is a privatization of public space, but that the Greenmarket is not. So I say,
‘What, you want your vegetables raw but not cooked?”
Barry sent his son an email on April 1 responding to those remarks, pointing out to Adrian that a restaurant differs significantly from a farmer’s market. At the end of the day, Barry explained, farmers fold up their tents and leave.
Barry concluded the email to Adrian with this simple declaration:
The restaurant is a fixed and very expensive capital investment owned privately but paid for publicly.
Later that month, the community coalition filed a lawsuit against Adrian Benepe and the parks department, as well as against the Union Square Partnership. Barry’s name was not on the lawsuit, but his fingerprints were everywhere.
Although the construction of a restaurant has been put on hold by the courts, Barry suspects that construction has continued in spite of the ruling.
“Everything is really restaurant driven, even though they want to pretend it’s not,” said Barry on a June afternoon, standing on the other side of the tall chain-linked fence and peering into the giant excavation that will be the foundation for what he claims the kitchen of the restaurant.
On June 17, while cranes kept digging holes in the disputed north end of Union Square, Barry sent yet another email to Adrian:
Attached below are some thoughts on Union Square. Sorry to wait until the last minute. Judith has already faxed some accompanying documents. I will try to get the London photo to you separately by fax as well. Let me know what you think.
That email (which Barry said his son requested) formally explained Barry’s vision of Union Square’s potential as a public gathering ground. Barry entitled the email, “Building a Great Public Space,” and sent it off to Adrian.
It read, in part:
Think of the Piazza Navona in Rome, the Campo in Sienna [sic] or Newburyport in Wales….
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. Below are some suggestions on how to accomplish this.
…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.
To date, Adrian has not yet responded to his father.
—Additional reporting by Matt Elzweig.