Keeping the public in parks

State shouldn't abdicate its responsibility

FUNDING PARKS has long been a low priority of state government. While the state budget has increased by 3.7 percent since 2001, the share devoted to environmental programs, including parks, has decreased from 1 percent to 0.57 percent. How much lower, one has to ask, is bearable? Gov. Patrick may now give us an answer with two fateful decisions on the role of government in controlling and maintaining its parkland.

One relates to the state abdicating responsibility for a showpiece park that is an integral part of the $22 billion Big Dig highway project, the largest public infrastructure project in US history. The other deals with giving a private college exclusive access to a state park along the Charles River in Brighton in return for money to be used for capital improvements and maintenance of the park.

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, the mile-long ribbon of parkland running atop the now-submerged Central Artery highway in downtown Boston, has quickly become a crown jewel of the city’s open space. Its fountains draw throngs of children, while benches and tables along an arcade near the North End are filled with couples picnicking on summer nights. But less than five years after opening, the Greenway is on life support.

Richard Davey, the state transportation secretary, inherited a culture that shrugged off the park atop the Big Dig as an expensive bauble. Funding for the oversight, management, and care of the Green­way has been shaky from the start, with a succession of state agencies jockeying to avoid being left holding the bill for an expensive stretch of parkland. No one, it seems, considered turning it over to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) or, for that matter, to the City of Boston. The attending problems are now coming to a head.

Davey, contending with a massive shortfall for transportation needs, now wishes to cut off all state money for the Greenway Conser­vancy, a step that will virtually assure the park’s deterioration. In response, the Con­servancy, a private nonprofit organization established to operate the 15-acre Green­way, has proposed a three-part funding scheme with contributions from the state, private sources through Con­servancy fundraising, and creation of a Business Improvement District, or BID, which collects payments for upkeep of public space from nearby commercial property owners. Such a public-private funding model is used successfully across the country, but it is getting a cold shoulder from the Patrick administration, which seems set on offloading all costs for the park.

No one imagined eight years ago, when the Conservancy filed articles of organization with the state, that the group would be hung out to dry on its own. Its original stated purpose was “to assist the Mass. Turnpike Authority [the entity then overseeing the Big Dig], the City of Boston, the Common­wealth of Massachusetts, and any other public agencies with jurisdiction over aspects of the Greenway or neighboring areas, with the creation, enhancement and funding of the Green­way, pursuant to contracts and other arrangements.”

The Artery Business Committee (ABC), a nonprofit organization formed by downtown business leaders to help keep Boston moving during the below-ground construction phase of the Big Dig, took on a broader mission following the project’s completion when it morphed into A Better City. ABC is now focused on enhancing the region’s economic competitiveness and quality of life through sound policies on transportation, land use, and the environment. The organization supports the creation of a Business Improvement District to funnel money to the Greenway, but is firm in refusing such assistance without a similar funding commitment from the state. Right now, it’s a stand-off.
Meanwhile, at Daly Field in Brighton, DCR Com­mis­sioner Edward Lambert is authorized by legislation approved last August to grant Sim­mons College exclusive use of the park at prime times in exchange for $5 million of capital improvement spending by Simmons on the sports fields there. At Daly, as in many parks, there is a persistent, unmet need for funding of capital improvements and ongoing care. But the loss of public access in return for private help is a price too high and is a precedent we should not establish.

The Central Park Conservancy in New York City is often invoked as a model for Boston. It differs from any Boston park organization in its size and scale, its prominent location, and in its structure, but the analogy holds. Since it was founded in 1980, the Conservancy has raised more than $400 million for restoration and enhanced maintenance of the park’s 843 acres. Its work to reverse the years of neglect and deferred maintenance is not yet done. A recent gift of $100 million from a devoted neighbor and frequent user is to be divided between park projects and increasing the endowment. New York City retains policy control over the park and pays 15 percent of the Conservancy’s annual expenses. The city has accepted major assistance without shedding its oversight and its governmental responsibility to the public. The Conser­vancy, for its part, has not sought private use of the park or exclusion of the public at any time. No doubt its donors enjoy its improved condition, but their gifts are for the enjoyment of all.

The preservation of Boston’s parks has always depended on a working partnership, public and private. How much each contributes financially may vary from time to time, but oversight and responsibility have remained in governmental hands. For over 40 years, the Friends of the Public Garden has joined with the city’s parks and recreation department in restoring the Boston Common, Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall. There have been vicissitudes along the way, but the agreement has held for the Friends to carry out projects of care and the city parks department to determine administration and use. This pattern has proven successful as well for other groups and parks throughout the city.

A continuing problem, however, now more evident than ever, is the unpredictability of government support. Trees cannot live with periodic neglect, nor can private groups raise money with sporadic city or state commitment. The solution does not lie in curtailing public access, as contemplated for Daly Park, or in leaving a private organization to fend for itself in the care of a public space, as now proposed for the Greenway.

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Gov. Patrick could establish a noteworthy legacy if he reminded his agencies of the reason we have public parks. They are for the use and enjoyment of all the public, not a limited public. He also could lead the way toward attaining a desired world-class park by building on the Green­way’s success so far under the partnership of the Conser­vancy and the state transportation department. The High Line in Manhattan and Millennium Park in Chicago have created prosperity, acclaim, and tourism because they are exceptional parks. Why not here in Boston?

Keeping the Greenway the source of pride and beauty it should be will require an assured stream of state funding along with the private contribution of the Conser­vancy, and the capturing, whether by BID or a variant, of the increased real-estate value of those properties adjacent to an attractive and vibrant green space. Gov. Patrick should not miss this opportunity to lead.

Eugenie Beal is on the board of the Boston Natural Areas Net­work, which she helped found in 1977, and is a longtime board member of the Friends of the Public Garden. She was the first chair of the Boston Conservation Commission in the 1970s, and the first director of the Boston Environment Department. Henry Lee was president of Friends of the Public Garden from 1970 to 2011.