Downtown Bostons Greenway is still up in the air

INTRO TEXT

By the time this article appears, an agreement may finally be in place about how to govern and maintain the 27 acres of downtown land now opening up in Boston as the steel cloud of the Central Artery disappears. Then again, maybe not. The complicated mix of public and private parties that for nearly 15 years has been unable to agree may still be haggling. Welcome to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which, as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has said, “has a potential even Paris would envy.” And welcome to a lesson in how business does–or doesn’t–get done on major projects in Massachusetts.

RENEE DEKONA
Out with the old, in with the
new: making way for the Rose
Kennedy Greenway.

“There was a huge time frame when [the various players] were caught up in whether the space would be used for parks or buildings,” says Patrice Todisco, executive director of the Boston GreenSpace Alliance. “Now those issues have been largely resolved. Everyone, including the business community, sees this as parks and open spaces, with structures that support those uses. So why can’t people move the ball forward? Everyone has multiple agendas and all of these groups are so interwoven that’s it’s not as simple as going from A to B to C. People just haven’t learned how to share the glory of creating this thing.”

They’ve certainly long understood the glory. An official City of Boston document filed as part of initial Big Dig approvals back in 1991 put it this way: “The centerpiece of the plan for the Central Artery is a park system…whose effect on the quality of life in the city will be as dramatic as that of the Esplanade or the Emerald Necklace.”

The problem lies in overlapping jurisdictions and dueling missions. The Greenway lies in the middle of Boston. But it is owned by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. The city wants a controlling say in how the land will be used, but it has been unwilling or unable to pledge the funding to take care of it. The turnpike authority is willing to maintain the new parks, at least for five years, but as a transportation agency, its primary responsibility is to the very expensive road beneath the Greenway, not to the open space above it. The Legislature has shown occasional interest, and the Romney administration says it has its own plan, but to date it has only said that it would take over the parkland after the authority’s five-year run. (Further complicating matters is that Romney now has Matt Amorello, chairman of the turnpike authority, in his crosshairs.) And literally in the middle of it all is a range of private and public abutters.

So as years ticked by and the Big Dig got dug, the Greenway turned into the legacy everyone wanted but no one quite owned, politically or otherwise. But now that the turnpike authority has issued a request for design proposals for the Wharf parcel, the last and most contentious of the Greenway pieces, the once-distant future is here.

“Until the steel started coming down, the reality had been remote enough that no one had to make the tough decisions that are necessary for the politics to come together in the right way,” says Rebecca Barnes, chief planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The ticking clock will push the players toward agreement, she hopes. But if not? “We’re in default territory now,” says Barnes. “In the absence of something else, the Turnpike will run and operate these parks.”

Amorello is prepared to do so. “If we don’t reach [a governance] agreement–and I think we will–the turnpike authority is fully capable of maintaining park parcels in cooperation with the city as something we do in the course of our regular operations,” he says, noting that the authority has open or under design 300 acres of downtown Boston parks, including 125 acres on Spectacle Island and smaller parks in East Boston, the North End, and elsewhere. “I know there’s concern we won’t do it right, but we have the talent and we have hired a world-class firm to design these parks.”

But who will pay for it all? Amorello is pushing for a nonprofit foundation modeled after those that run Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City. The city and the turnpike authority would appoint the board of such a Boston conservancy, which would depend upon donations to run the parks.

Meet the Author
A conservancy proposal died in the Legislature two years ago after being opposed by a range of interests, including the Artery Business Committee. While ABC president Rick Dimino praises Amorello “for grabbing the ball and moving it forward,” he also thinks it’s time “to think simpler. A public agency should have the primary responsibility for being the custodian for the Greenway. The Turnpike owns it now and unless there’s some intervention to change that–which I don’t quite see on the horizon–then it’s incumbent upon all of us to work with the Pike to help it become an enlightened owner and developer of the Rose Kennedy Greenway and to push for more money for them to do so.”

Noting that Boston is not New York City, Barnes also has doubts about the foundation approach. She also worries that a key city priority is getting overlooked: what the new park will be used for. “Many people who work with public space understand that good programming and the social character of the park is just as important as good operation and maintenance,” says Barnes. “In Boston, we haven’t talked much at all about that part of the responsibility.”

So can these parties even agree on the i’s and t’s, let alone dot and cross them? Or is it just human nature to wait until the very last minute to reach agreement? “It’s human nature in the Boston context,” says Barnes. “It’s so familiar in terms of how we do business here. We do get stuff done, but it’s with many strongly held points of view until everyone has to decide that they are getting the best deal they can possibly get.”

Phil Primack is a freelance writer in Medford.