Greenway is no secondhand coat

‘We ought to be so much better than this’

RECENT NEWS THAT state and city officials are attempting to devise new funding mechanisms for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy prompts a reflection on how the Conservancy came into being, and what the expectations were about how this urban gem would be funded and sustained over time. Let’s take a short trip down memory lane, because it’s important to understand how we got to the current construct of managing and funding the Greenway.

It was 2003. I was sitting in the office of my friend Senate President Robert Travaglini. I don’t remember why I was there or what we were talking about, but I remember vividly what happened at the end of our discussion. “Jimmy,” he said, “can you stick around. I’ve got some people coming in who want to talk about this Greenway thing and you probably know more about it than anyone here.” (Trav is one of the few people who can get away with calling me “Jimmy,” but that’s another story.)

I remained in the room, and watched with amazement as three men walked in and sat at the long oval conference table in the president’s office. I knew two of the men – former Senate president Bill Bulger and Charlestown lawyer and longtime Kennedy confidante Gerard Doherty. I did not know the third, a genial fellow whose charming demeanor belied a steely determination. It was Edmund Reggie, Ted Kennedy’s father-in-law. Bulger spoke first. They were there at the behest of then Sen. Edward M.  Kennedy, who was concerned about the lack of any movement by the Legislature or executive branches to sort out how the Greenway would be managed and funded.

An act of the Legislature had previously designated the Greenway as the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a brilliant move by the then House Transportation Committee Chair Tom Cahir to ensure Kennedy’s investment in the success of the enterprise. But the Greenway wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen, it was being neglected, and there was no plan, no consensus, regarding the governance and funding of the 15 acres of open space and parkland that would remain when the old elevated Central Artery was torn down. Incredible as it may seem today, by 2003 – as the old elevated Central Artery structure was approaching final demolition – there was still no plan regarding how to operate, manage, maintain, or fund the Greenway.

The outcome of the meeting was a directive, cast as a request, from Travaglini to me: As outside counsel to the Turnpike Authority, would I talk to the authority’s chairman and CEO and find a way to jump-start the effort? I agreed, and Travaglini agreed to have his own discussions with the governor’s office to express his interest in seeing genuine movement on the Greenway governance and funding issues. Soon a working group of lawyers representing the Turnpike Authority, the Commonwealth, and the city of Boston were meeting regularly to craft what became the initial memorandum of understanding creating the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. We understood that the Greenway was a unique public asset, one that deserved the security of a proven governance and funding structure, so we looked to examples that had been set in New York City, both at Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, as guides to our work.

Judge Reggie was a constant presence, a critical link between our working group and Sen. Kennedy. Reggie was a smart and strategic thinker who understood the political tensions among the principal stakeholders, and his unique skill set – the ability to keep the parties focused on their mutual goals while using good humor to bridge the gulf that separated our respective public clients — helped us advance our discussions. Our work was completed in time for Sen. Kennedy to announce the historic agreement during a celebration held during Boston’s 2004 Democratic Convention.

The construct we designed was informed by a deliberate decision to structure the Conservancy (following the New York examples) as a public/private partnership, with private funding coming primarily from philanthropic and or self-generated entrepreneurial sources, rather than from abutters with special interests. It was also designed, in part, to remove the Greenway from the vagaries and shifting ideologies of public sector funding, but it was never the intent to completely wean the Greenway off some measure of stable funding from the Commonwealth.

In 2008, at the urging of then-House Speaker Sal DiMasi, the Legislature and governor enacted a Greenway governance law that altered our initial approach in a fateful way. DiMasi’s efforts were well intentioned but unfortunately they were not based upon realistic assumptions about his preferred funding source. In the intervening years state transportation leaders under governors Patrick and Baker have pushed back on state funding for the Greenway, no doubt under the influence of gubernatorial pressure to squeeze out scarce dollars for other uses. The fundamental issue that continues to plague Greenway funding was captured five years ago by former CommonWealth writer Paul McMorrow, who wrote that the 2008 enactment:

“…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.  .  .  . 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.”

Fast forward to today. The Boston Globe reports that a deal is being brokered to create some sort of special assessment and taxation district, and to sacrifice the environmental impact issue raised by the proposed Millennium project at Winthrop Square (specifically its impacts on Boston Common shadows) to enable the city to use a small portion of the development revenues toward a new, modest Greenway endowment generating $250,000 annually. Setting aside the propriety or wisdom of such a deal, a quarter of a million dollars annually is not nearly sufficient to satisfy the unique operation and maintenance needs of the Greenway. The series of parks that comprise the Greenway are unusually expensive to maintain.

With the singular exception of the parcel that now is occupied by the Armenian Heritage fountain, the entirety of the 1.5 mile long Greenway was designed by the state after many meetings with, and much input from, neighboring communities. As a result, the look and feel of the Greenway changes dramatically from one end to the other. The fountain feature near the New England Aquarium was designed by a California company called WET, the same company that designed the famous waterworks at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The fountain’s operations, which delight all onlookers, are operated by proprietary software and systems. This is the sort of feature that everyone delights in, but is expensive to operate and maintain. There is also no uniformity in the lighting features of the Greenway, another factor driving up costs.

The Greenway wasn’t designed or built on the cheap, which was the right approach given what it means to the city and region. It cannot be managed and maintained on the cheap.  Unlike the first-rate (but comparatively tiny) Leventhal Post Office Square Park, which can tap into the robust underground parking garage revenues for its operation and maintenance needs, the Greenway has no similar dedicated revenue stream that can properly sustain its significantly larger (and more structurally diverse and complex) footprint.

There is also one stubborn fact that needs to be understood: The Greenway is decidedly a state asset. It began as an outgrowth of a critical component of the environmental permitting required to build the Central Artery Tunnel project. The Greenway was designed and built by the Central Artery Tunnel Project. It sits on land owned by the state. It is built over transportation assets owned by the state.

Questions abound.

Is there a moral obligation that the state continue to fund a significant portion of Greenway maintenance, since it remains state property, and it was the state, with civic input, that designed and built the expensive and eclectic systems and spaces we enjoy today?

Should the state, as owner and a principal stakeholder, be obligated to support the Greenway with annual funding at a level at least equal to its current contribution?  Note: This funding need not come directly from MassDOT – the Commonwealth can find other ways to make these payments.

Is there a civic obligation for the city to share a significant portion of the premium in real estate taxes it receives from Greenway abutters, whose property is worth more as a consequence of the massive public sector investment?

Can the private sector be engaged as a reliable funding source without sacrificing any public (as represented by both community and advocacy interests) interests in the use of the Greenway?

Once again I find myself writing about our civic values. What do we care about as a community? Do we value public assets like the Greenway and if so do we agree that a meaningful measure of public funding support is both appropriate and reflective of those values? Is it wise to trade building development rights and shadows on the city’s oldest public park in order to provide a modest and inadequate endowment for the Greenway?

Meet the Author

The Rose Kennedy Greenway ought to be a focal point of great civic pride. And yet from the very beginning, it has been treated by many political leaders as a nuisance or headache, or worse.  CommonWealth’s McMorrow wrote in 2012 that the Greenway had been “passed around like a secondhand coat.”  I’ve never understood why that was the case then, or remains the case today.  I’ve never understood the reluctance of certain civic and political leaders to fully embrace the history that informs the Greenway, or the values it represents with regard to the Big Dig’s commitment to active and first-rate open space. And I’ve never understood the stubborn reluctance of the Commonwealth under both recent governors to commit to funding the Greenway at levels that befit its outsized role in the economic success and quality of life of the capital city and region.  We ought to be so much better than this.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group and a member of the board of TransitMatters.

  • MotherNecessity

    In terms of civic values, while the Greenway should be properly maintained, how much limited public funding should be diverted to the Greenway to the detriment of public parks across the Commonwealth, including in lower income neighborboods that don’t have access to private funding sources and the interest of the well-connected?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Perhaps the Greenway can’t be managed and maintained on the cheap but should it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre each year to manage and maintain?