Location: What’s the value of living near a New York City park?
Benepe: I think it’s the crucial factor for many people when choosing where they live and where they invest their money and develop. Soon after I became parks commissioner, I noticed in the real-estate sections, increasingly, how many of the ads focus on a park that is nearby or across the street rather than the building that they’re advertising.
When you see these ads where developers are advertising high-rise condos near parks, is this something that excites you?
Absolutely. When people use their money and market their investments based on the accomplishment the city has made in improving its parks, that is an affirmation that it is money well-spent.
The Empire State Development Corporation recently removed the head of the planned Brooklyn Bridge Park, Wendy Leventer. What’s going on there?
Replacing a Wendy Leventer is sort of a common thing that happens when you change governments. Wendy was appointed as part of the Pataki administration, so it was probably inevitable. I think Wendy did a good job, but she was in somewhat of an untenable position because, no matter what she did, there were some people in the community who were against the plan.
Does her removal have anything to do with the fact that there are people against the plan?
No, it has nothing to do with that. I think it has to do with Governor Spitzer wanting to have his own team running ESDC, and he has every right to do that.
What is the timetable on the park?
I think a complete build-out is probably four or five years away. It’s a very complicated project. Anytime you build along the waterfront, it is very complicated and very expensive. And it will be very expensive to maintain.
A lot of that budget is going to come from the luxury condos that are going to be inside the park.
Well, I’m going to differ with your description a little bit here. Right along the edges of the land—which is not parkland—there will be two very small and discreet locations where there are some towers put up that will generate all the income needed to take care of the park.
Opponents say, “You’re building towers in the park.” It’s not quite a fabrication, but it’s an exaggeration. They are building some towers in a currently industrial area at the edge of what will become a fine park. The same way they built Riverside Park and Riverside Drive—a whole swath of real estate was developed along their edges.
But it will be within the park. Is that something you feel you need to defend?
Oh, absolutely. I think it’s fantastic. First of all, it will not be in the park; it will be on the edge of the park …. Not so long ago, the parks were abandoned by the political leaders. This is a way to make sure that the parks will never slip back, and also to make sure that they are not a burden to the rest of the city.
Do you think this is a good model for future parks?
The answer is: Only on a very limited basis.
I think it doesn’t work in most areas. I think it works only in areas where there is a strong likelihood of successful developments.
So the model should be where there is a potential for successful development?
I think the models will work when there is a need for it, and where the city can’t otherwise—there have to be a lot of factors to it.
Within 25 years, the Mayor wants every New Yorker to be within a 10-minute walk of a park. How plausible is that?
That’s totally plausible. Already, three-quarters of New Yorkers live within a 10- minute walk of a park. We are continuing to build new parks.
How often are you in competition for an area—a parcel of land in Brooklyn, say—where that land might be available, but you’re competing with some private developers?
Well, not developers—the competition is often with city agencies. A lot of people will tell you that the most important thing that they should be doing is developing housing. So there’s a piece of city-owned land in central Brooklyn: What’s more important—building affordable housing, or building a park? That’s what you call a Hobson’s choice.
You could argue—and very cogently—that affordable housing is more important. We would argue that a neighborhood that doesn’t have parks is not livable.
If you could wave a magic wand and you could just get the land, where would you build more parks?
Central Brooklyn. Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, Borough Park—there are almost no parks there.
When we talk about the new parks—Fresh Kills Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park—why the increase? Why is there such an emphasis placed on parks right now?
Parks make the city livable. New York City without parks is not a livable city. People want parks and want to live near parks …. We are currently undergoing the biggest expansion since the 1930’s. We’re going to cut a ribbon on a new park four times a week every week this year.