Rumble in the park
The nonprofit group formed to operate and maintain Boston's Greenway is being threatened by a political fight over who should fund it
|Richard Davey, the state secretary of transportation, wants to wean the
Greenway off public funds.
state transportation secretary Richard Davey darts across Atlantic Avenue, lays down his umbrella, and settles under the roof of the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion. It’s a raw, wet day that feels more like March than June, but even with the raindrops and the grey skies, Davey can’t help remarking how good the park he’s standing in looks. The elevated Central Artery once rumbled over the spot where Davey stands; now, he looks admiringly at a lush green lawn.
On days when the sun appears, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is jammed full of people. Scores of office workers crowd the farmers’ market and food trucks across from South Station. Couples laze around on the grass. Kids screech as they run through the fountains. Trees and shrubs are filling in. Four years after it opened to derisive jokes about being little more than a glorified median strip, the Greenway is an unalloyed success. The place has never looked better.
The same cannot be said, however, for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the independent nonprofit group that runs the mile-long string of parks. The Greenway Conservancy combines public and private funds to pour more money into public, open space than a government agency ever could afford. It has its own management structure, and a horticultural staff dedicated to caring for the Greenway parks. But the Conservancy is now locked in a standoff with the state agency that owns the Greenway parks, and that must sign off on a new land lease to keep the Conservancy in business beyond next year. The showdown is threatening to blow the Conservancy to pieces.
MassDOT’s demand threw the Conservancy for a loop. The nonprofit, hobbled by state cuts and a cold fundraising environment, had been working to expand its budget by signing commercial property owners along the Greenway into a business improvement district, an organization that would help pay for park maintenance with voluntary contributions from nearby property owners. It had been wrestling with the details of a Greenway BID for more than a year, and it was finally closing in on a deal. The BID would allow the Conservancy’s annual budget to swell from $4.6 million to $6.2 million, with DOT, neighboring property owners, and private fundraising contributing roughly $2 million each. MassDOT’s ultimatum removed the Conservancy’s largest source of income, and it put BID negotiations on ice; the Greenway’s big commercial landlords were willing to supplement state funds, but they refused to stand in for public support. The Conservancy has frequently likened its public-private-BID funding model to a three-legged stool. Suddenly, the stool had no legs.
The Greenway Conservancy’s position looks increasingly tenuous. Conservancy leaders have gone out of their way to say they don’t know whether they can meet Davey’s request, putting them on a collision course with the state transportation secretary, who insists he means what he says about forcing the parks off state funds. At the same time, acceding to the state’s demands would financially gut the Conservancy. It would close the door to a BID and force the nonprofit to rely entirely on private fundraising efforts that have never hit the levels the group would need to survive on its own.
The Greenway has seen moments like this before. The 15-acre park system sits atop the Big Dig’s O’Neill tunnel in Boston, and the parks are the $15 billion highway project’s most tangible byproduct. Throughout its history, though, the Greenway has been a political orphan. The same questions that are now pushing the Greenway to the brink have been plaguing it for 20 years. The space has long been riddled with controversy over who controls the park, and how it’s paid for. The Conservancy was supposed to be the entity that would stomp those questions out, but they persist. Now they’re coming to a head.
Rick Dimino, CEO of A Better City, a group of Central Artery business interests that originally organized around the Big Dig, has watched with increasing dismay as things have come undone. “It’s a physical asset most cities would be dying to have,” he says. “And we’re arguing about who should cut the grass.”
Shelter an orphan
If it were only a simple matter of mowing the lawn, the Greenway standoff would be easy enough to resolve. But the Conservancy has developed an expensive showpiece park, complete with elaborate lighting displays, public art installations, a high-maintenance array of three fountains, each with its own intricate subterranean controls, and finicky, high-end vegetation, all sitting on the roof of a busy interstate highway tunnel.
For all the park’s modern-day features, the entity charged with its oversight was conceived in a scene of decidedly old-world political deal-making. James Aloisi, a longtime Massachusetts Turnpike Authority lawyer who would later become state transportation secretary, remembers the day well. He was sitting in the office of his old East Boston pal, Senate President Robert Travaglini. Aloisi’s meeting had just wrapped up, but Travaglini asked him to stick around because of his knowledge of Big Dig history. In walked former Senate president William Bulger, Gerry Doherty, a longtime confidante of Sen. Ted Kennedy, and Kennedy’s father-in-law, Edmund Reggie. They told Travaglini that Kennedy was concerned that “the park is named for his mother, and no one was figuring it out,” Aloisi says. Kennedy would be playing a major role in the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and he didn’t want to have to explain to party heavies that Beacon Hill couldn’t figure out who was in charge of his mother’s park.
Reggie, a courtly retired Louisiana judge, brokered a deal agreed to by the Turnpike and Gov. Mitt Romney, who were engaged in a nasty turf battle, and Boston Mayor Tom Menino. The plan, announced at the Democratic National Convention, established the Conservancy to run, and raise private funds for, the Greenway parks. The agreement committed the Turnpike to financing construction of the parks, and shouldering the Conservancy’s startup costs. The authority put $5 million in seed money into the Conservancy, and agreed to put as much as $20 million more into the nonprofit’s endowment.
Prior to the Kennedy team’s intercession in 2004, the governor’s office was at war with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the quasi-public agency that oversaw the Central Artery/Tunnel project; each laid an ownership claim over the new Greenway parks. Meanwhile, the state feuded with the city of Boston over land use control along the Greenway corridor, and over who would foot the bill for policing and snowplowing the new space. The city studiously avoided making any financial commitments to the Greenway parks; according to several sources close to the Greenway, Menino didn’t want to be seen by vocal neighborhood residents as showering funds on a posh downtown park that would benefit wealthy developers. The Greenway Conservancy wasn’t created just to act as a single-minded caretaker for the Central Artery parks. It was also a structure for managing the tangled rivalries that created it.
Kennedy’s work in muscling the Conservancy into existence underscored something that has been at play from the park system’s inception right up to the current debate over its financing and management: The Greenway is an elaborately manicured park, but the space has always been defined by highly charged, politically contentious clashes. It took years of political wrangling to strike a deal over who would control the new parks organization, and who would fund its work. The current standoff over state and BID funding for the Conservancy is a continuation of these old battles.
The Greenway looks the way it does today because of a run-in between the state and the city of Boston that dates back to the late 1980s. In the Big Dig’s early days, then-state transportation secretary Fred Salvucci was tossing around ideas about what would replace the elevated Central Artery, which had formed an impassable wall between Boston’s downtown and its waterfront. Salvucci’s architects were fiddling with sketches showing new commercial developments, built to match the scale of the North End, filling the gash where the highway ran. Steve Coyle, then head of the Boston Redevelopment Agency, caught wind of what Salvucci’s staff was working on and strenuously objected to state transportation bureaucrats making land use decisions in downtown Boston.
Coyle commissioned four teams of architects to sketch out differing densities for the post-Artery land, settling on a scheme where 75 percent of the acreage would become open space. Salvucci asked state regulators to write that land use mix into the Big Dig’s environmental permits, locking the scale and scope of the Greenway parkland into place. “The rewritten, false history is that the park was an afterthought,” Salvucci says. “It was written that way because that’s what the city wanted, and it became an obligation of the Big Dig.”
The notion of a conservancy took hold in the late 1990s because no one agency, from the city or from the state, had taken ownership of the future Greenway parks. Planning and park design were largely the result of citizen-led volunteer efforts. Activists working in this political vacuum began calling for the creation of a strong, new organization to run the Greenway parks. “We wanted an entity to wake up every day and have the care, quality, and future of the park space be their core mission,” Dimino says. The grassroots call for a standalone entity to oversee the Greenway meshed with public agencies’ reluctance to take control of the new parks.
The first serious stab at financing Greenway operations would have required the parks to operate without annual state appropriations. In 2002, then-House Speaker Tom Finneran lined up Menino and then-Gov. Jane Swift behind the so-called Millennium Greenway Trust, which would have been financed by a graduated assessment on commercial properties lying within a quarter-mile of the new parks.
Finneran’s office wanted to guarantee a significant revenue stream for the Greenway that stood outside the volatilities of the state budget. In that way, Finneran correctly anticipated the budget battles now gripping the parks. At the same time, he proposed creating a powerful new quasi-public state trust to manage the parks. The entire plan sank amid broad opposition to the trust’s management, which critics assailed as a distant, unaccountable patronage haven in the making.
The Conservancy’s framers wound up modeling the nonprofit after the groups that run Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. “We knew we needed an outside entity to raise funds, because the city, the state, whoever was in charge of it, wouldn’t be providing enough money to program and take care of the space,” says Robert Brown, an architect who served on the Mayor’s Central Artery Completion Task Force. Notably, the 2004 deal that created the Conservancy didn’t include any funds from businesses along the Greenway. The Conservancy’s framers made a conscious decision to structure the nonprofit as a public-private partnership, with the private end of that equation coming from philanthropy, not fees on developers. “The park doesn’t exist because the private sector asked for it,” Aloisi argues. “If it becomes solely and exclusively the domain of the private sector, it loses its inclusiveness.”The Conservancy’s creators anticipated giving the new organization a long runway—until 2012—to build up its endowment. Dimino’s group claimed the Conservancy’s initial $20 million endowment target was half what would be needed to fund annual expenditures it pegged at between $4 million and $6 million per year. Peter Meade, the Conservancy’s first chairman, said the nonprofit needed to raise $50 million. But in 2008, with less than $10 million in the bank, House Speaker Sal DiMasi pressed the Conservancy into action.
DiMasi pushed through a bill that instructed the Conservancy to take over Greenway operations from the Turnpike in the spring of 2009. He also fundamentally altered the nonprofit’s financing model, moving it from one that relied on its endowment to one that depended on annual appropriations from the state. He seeded the nonprofit with $2 million, and promised annual Greenway funding of up to $5.5 million per year.
On paper, the state is committed to funding half the Greenway’s annual operations and maintenance costs. In practice, the state’s financial contributions have been much more fluid. The initial $2 million in DiMasi’s 2008 legislation was borrowed from a state budget surplus that never materialized. The state’s annual payments to the Conservancy were supposed to be drawn from the interest on a highway trust fund, but that fund has never generated the kind of revenues DiMasi’s bill anticipated. As a result, Greenway appropriations that were structured to be paid from found money have instead weighed on MassDOT’s own strained budget. MassDOT has responded by repeatedly trimming its payments to the Conservancy. And now it’s demanding that the Conservancy prepare for a future with no government cash at all.
Into the open
Georgia Murray doesn’t work when she’s on vacation. She doesn’t take phone calls or check her email. She unplugs. So when Murray, the chair of the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, flew back into Boston on the night of January 24, after five days abroad, she had no idea what sort of firestorm was awaiting her.
The messages to Murray came pouring in. The Boston Herald had been hounding the Conservancy’s executive director, Nancy Brennan, about her salary. Brennan had fired off an email to the organization’s PR flak, asking whether Brennan should ignore the requests, respond to them, or call back after the Herald’s deadline. She wound up stonewalling the paper. But she also mistakenly sent the email asking about the wisdom of ignoring the Herald to the Herald, which was a far bigger gift than a returned phone call. The tabloid could only run so far by reporting that Brennan’s current salary was close to what’s already been reported in the tax forms that all nonprofits have to file publicly. But a misfired email laying out a ham-handed strategy for brushing off a hungry tabloid? That’s the stuff brutal front-page hits are made of.
|Nancy Brennan, the Conservancy’s executive director, became the center
of a storm over her handling of media inquiries about her salary.
The Herald story savaged Brennan and the Greenway Conservancy, and the blowback was severe. The day of the Herald’s front-page splash, Davey fired off a stern letter to Brennan, saying he was concerned the Conservancy’s lack of transparency “undermines our efforts to promote the park as a marquee attraction in downtown Boston.” Brennan’s handling of the tabloid brought into the open discontent with the Conservancy that had been simmering in private. It hardened the attitudes of developers along the Greenway who didn’t trust the Conservancy with their money. Meanwhile, community activists, who viewed the Conservancy as an aloof organization, sat on their hands; the muted public defense of the nonprofit was glaring. Davey chose this moment to publicly announce the state expected the Conservancy to become self-sufficient.
It’s notable that none of the criticisms have been about the quality of the park space, how the green part of the Greenway has been cared for. “Nobody is complaining that it’s not properly maintained,” argues Robert Beal, the prominent Boston developer. “Nancy has done an outstanding job. Everyone enjoys the Greenway.”
Brennan gets paid to run a world-class park, and she assumed that if she focused on that goal, things would turn out fine. The problem is, the Greenway Conservancy was as much a political creation as it was a horticultural one. The Conservancy ignored the politics behind the space, and because of that, it’s now getting eaten alive.
Davey has bigger problems than the Greenway on his hands. He just emerged from an MBTA fare hike and service cut tour, yet the T’s budget for future years remains deeply out of balance. The state’s roads and bridges face several billions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs. MassDOT hasn’t been able to shake the awful habit of paying employee salaries with bond funds. Running a park in downtown Boston probably isn’t in the top hundred things that keep Davey up at night.
“It’s a beautiful park and they do a phenomenal job, but some day it’s quite possible the state won’t have the resources to fund it,” Davey says. “It’s prudent to encourage them to really step up their fundraising activities, so they no longer have to rely on annual appropriations from the Legislature and the governor.” He adds that, across state government, agencies and contractors have been asked to do more with less. Unlike those others, Davey says, the Conservancy has “the ability to raise money outside the state budget.”
A weaning strategy?
Davey has put the Greenway Conservancy in a precarious spot, since the secretary has conditioned its new lease on a business plan that gets the park off state funding by 2018. But the Conservancy has responded to Davey’s demand with a cocksure, almost confrontational tone. CommonWealth spoke to several sources with an interest in the park’s upkeep who had been led to believe that Davey didn’t actually mean what he said about winding down the Conservancy’s public funds. (He did.)
Murray and Brennan say they can’t yet commit to ramping down the Conservancy’s state revenues. In conversation, they frequently defer to a business plan the Conservancy will unveil later this summer. “We’re pretty clear about our expenses,” Murray says. “We need to know where the possible revenues are. Until we know that, it’s impossible to know what level the state will be in at.”
That stance puts the Conservancy fundamentally at odds with MassDOT. Asked whether the Conservancy’s business plan will meet Davey’s request, Murray replies, “The secretary would like a plan that says that’s possible. But he’s a smart, realistic man, and he knows some things are possible and some things aren’t, so he’s willing to take a look at the study and see what that says…. Over a long term, it’s possible the state funding could become more and more de minimis. I think it’s unlikely it would be de minimis by the end of five years, but we’re willing to see what the study says and what’s possible.”
Brennan readily allows that the state budget “is under tremendous stress,” but she underscores the fact that the Greenway is a public park, saying, “I don’t know if there’s another piece of public land that is not funded or supported in some way by public support.”
The Conservancy is counting on $2 million annual contributions from the state, BID members, and philanthropy, but those three revenue streams aren’t equal. State revenues form the foundation for the other two. “It’s fair to say the majority of [commercial owners along the Greenway] have been clear that it’s a state park, and they’d like to see the state at the table as a financial partner,” Brennan says. Beal, one of the leaders of the BID effort, says landlords along the Greenway are “pressing hard” for continued state funds for the park. Jonathan Davis, another downtown developer, says it was “a struggle” to get abutters to the point of being willing to shoulder the portion of Greenway expenses outlined in the BID plan. “I’m extremely skeptical that you could get abutters to pay a meaningfully larger share of the costs,” he says.
Commercial owners are already paying a premium to own property along the Greenway, even without paying into a BID. That premium goes into city coffers, in the form of elevated property taxes; the Greenway, however, doesn’t see any of it. It took a year of cajoling to get most abutters to the point where they were willing to pay, in effect, two surcharges for owning along the Greenway, but they’ve drawn the line at paying for the park while the public sector walks away. Business improvement districts are, by definition, groups that pour private funds on top of a baseline of public support.
Thus, the prospective BID would likely collapse in the absence of state funds, throwing the Conservancy’s finances into a shambles. Because of this, many along the Greenway doubt the Conservancy’s ability to survive without significant infusions of public funds. At the same time, there’s ample fear about the fallout that would ensue, should the Conservancy tell MassDOT they can’t go without state revenues.
“I’d much rather hear that they’ll push to get it done, and if, after year five or six, they can’t get it done, we could revisit things,” Davey says of his call for the Conservancy to move to become completely self-sustaining. “I am not willing to accept at the outset a declaration that this can’t be achieved.”
From the time of its conception, the mile-long Greenway was held up as the crown jewel of the Big Dig, the big payoff for surviving 15 years, and $15 billion, in road construction. Instead, it’s been passed around like a secondhand coat. When the highway project was in full swing, it easily could have absorbed $50 million or $75 million to fund the parks—a required piece of environmental mitigation—in perpetuity. But the project’s managers didn’t fund the parks then, and when Washington capped its financial exposure to the project and walked away, the state was left scrambling for places to cut costs. It created an outside entity, the Conservancy, to shoulder much of the cost of maintaining the parks above the Big Dig tunnels, and then promised to fund the parks with dedicated revenues that never materialized. And when that illusory revenue stream failed, an agency with no expertise in parks and a budget crisis of its own was left holding the bag. The Greenway has been open for four years, the parks have existed on paper for 20, and there’s still no long-term plan for how to pay for them.“If there’s a study that says the park maintenance can be done for less, I haven’t seen it,” Murray argues. “So if you say the park looks good, if you say no one can do it for less, my question, what’s the big problem? Can somebody explain to me the problem we have here?”