By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
As of Labor Day, the city will have a new parks commissioner — Brooklyn-born Veronica M. White, the founding executive director of the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity who has more than two decades of high-level public administration experience.
She replaces Adrian Benepe, parks commissioner since 2002, who will become a senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land. Under Benepe’s tenure, several “big-ticket” developments have taken place in Brooklyn parks, including the beginning of construction at the new Lakeside Center in Prospect Park (including replacement of the old Wollman Skating Rink), reconstruction of the Parade Ground and a new Prospect Park tennis center, and renovation of the long-shuttered McCarren Park Pool in Greenpoint.
White, who told NY1 that she learned to learn to ride a bicycle on Shore Parkway in Bay Ridge, has no direct parks experience. She earned a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD degree from Harvard Law School, and practiced law with several law firms before serving as a deputy commission at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
She founded the Center for Economic Opportunity in 2006. The center works with city agencies to design, implement and evaluate anti-poverty initiatives. Under White’s direction, according to the Mayor’s Office, the center launched 50 new programs and won several awards, including the Harvard University Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government award in 2012.
Councilman Steve Levin (D-Brooklyn Heights/Williamsburg), who has worked with White as part of his interaction with city government, called her “a consummate professional with two decades of administrative experience in numerous posts who is sure to do a good job.”
However, Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Parks Advocates, a watchdog group that is often critical of the Parks Department, said, “I’m afraid she could be another Cathie Black [the unpopular, short-lived chancellor of the Department of Education who had no education experience]. The difference is that because it’s the Parks Department, no one cares.”
Benepe was a member of the inaugural class of Urban Park Rangers in 1979 and has had a lifetime career with the Parks Department, serving in such posts as director of arts and antiquities and manager of public affairs before being appointed commissioner by Bloomberg in 2002.
Regina Myer, president of Brooklyn Bridge Park, said, “Adrian Benepe has shown tremendous leadership as a member of Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Board of Directors. His support of our partnerships and guidance in developing the park phasing plan and our park maintenance and operation plan has been invaluable.”
Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6, praised Benepe for his support of local community parks, such as Cobble Hill Park, Carroll Park and the Valentino Pier. He also commended Benepe for maintaining close ties to “friends” groups that contribute to the upkeep of such parks.
Emily Lloyd, president of the Prospect Park Alliance, said, “Adrian has been a terrific Parks Commissioner and a stalwart friend to Prospect Park, and we will all miss him enormously.”
Levin called Benepe “a class act” who treats people with respect, is easy to work with, and has made New York City’s parks his career.
Levin, however, admitted that “we have had our differences” over the lack of progress on Bushwick Inlet Park and 65 Commercial St. Park, two small parcels of land that were supposed to be developed into parks as a result of the 2005 rezoning of the Williamsburg waterfront. Still, he ascribed much of the blame to the Bloomberg Administration, which he said didn’t appropriate sufficient funds, rather than Benepe.
Croft of NYC Parks Advocates criticized Benepe for installing artificial-turf fields at Cadman Plaza and the Parade Ground. “On a really hot day like today, temperatures for these plastic fields can reach 170 degrees,” he said.
Borough President Marty Markowitz praised both Benepe and White. “Along with longtime Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Julius Spiegel and, most recently, Kevin Jeffrey, Commissioner Benepe has made everyone else ‘green’ with envy by overseeing the renovation of more than 200 playgrounds and parks in Brooklyn,” he said. “And my office looks forward to working with Commissioner White as we continue to transform the green spaces of Brooklyn and New York City into ‘urban emeralds.’”
The Trust for Public Land, where Benepe will be working, is a national non-profit organization dedicating to preserving urban open spaces. In New York City, it is best known for saving scores of community gardens from destruction. Most of its Brooklyn gardens are in Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brooklyn.