Parks commissioner leaves city after successful tenure

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From the time I was a child when I realized there were seasons, the fall has always been my favorite time of the year. “Autumn in New York,” as the 1934 Vernon Duke song glorifies it, is true.

Spring in New York can be an in-and-out kind of thing. You never know about winter or summer, but the fall is usually glorious and makes you realize how fortunate you are to live in the greatest city in the center of the universe.

But, this year, with the joyful expectations for fall, there is something of a sad note. Shortly after Labor Day, we will be losing one of our great public servants. And, yes, dear reader, if corporations are people, governments are, too, and many of them are outstanding.

Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the city Parks Department since 2002, will be leaving for San Francisco to undertake a newly created position with the Trust for Public Land, a highly regarded national conservation group. He will be helping to establish parks in urban areas throughout the United States, using the public-private partnership model which has been such a success in New York.

I have known the commissioner since his days as an Urban Park Ranger, one of the first of that group which was established more than 30 years ago. I do not recall how we met, but in those days, in my job with a large corporation in Manhattan, I was involved in many environmental and educational projects, so this new unit of Parks would be a natural for me to look into.

Over the years, I followed his career and he and I have met a number of times. As he rose in rank in the department, he was always gracious to an aging retiree. Our last meeting, if I recall correctly, was when he was overseeing the planting of shrubs and bushes along Grand Central Parkway in the Jamaica Estates area a couple years ago.

Benepe was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., but his life from the time he was a young child has been in New York City. At the age of 16, he was a season intern, helping keep parks clean and safe during his summer break. After graduating from Middlebury College, he returned to a paid position with Parks and, aside from some years working on projects with the New York Botanical Garden and the Municipal Art Society and getting a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism, he has been a “parkie” to his fingertips.

Benepe is smart, witty, hardworking and dedicated to his work. As he has said, “What separates a great city from an OK city are great parks and public spaces.”

His work has been part of continuing to make New York the great city it is. He has had fine support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

There are 29,000 acres — 730 added during his tenure — and nearly 5,000 properties, including more than 1,000 playgrounds, 660 ballfields, 550 tennis courts, 63 swimming pools, 35 recreation centers, 14 miles of beaches and more than 2.5 million street and park trees that come under the jurisdiction of Parks.

More than 10,000 employees have carried out the largest program of park improvements and renovations since the 1930s. More than 65,000 volunteers put in more than 1.7 million hours a year and the department works with more than 400 civic organizations and 1,800 community groups.

Our loss will be our country’s gain.

Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect, is buried in his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The Latin inscription is brief and ends with these words: “Lector Si Momumentum Requiris Circumspice.”

If you want to know how effective Benepe has been as our Parks commissioner, the translation of the above says it all: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”

Posted 10:32 pm, August 22, 2012
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