Plush park

Plush park

Maintenance of the 13-acre Greenway is
expected to cost $3.2 million a year.

Like the Big Dig that gave birth to it, there’s nothing low-budget about the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The park, which snakes for more than a mile through the center of downtown Boston, cost more than $50 million to build and will probably take tens of millions more to fully complete. The annual tab for upkeep is expected to be $3.2 million, which, on a cost-per-square-foot-basis, would make the Greenway one of the most expensive parks to maintain in the nation.

The hefty price tag reflects the high ambitions for the park. The expectation is that the Greenway will be a signature feature of the city and state, a common ground for Boston residents and a destination point for tourists from all over the world.

Even the 2004 legal document creating the management structure for the Greenway drops the dense legalese when it comes time to describe the park. “A first-class public space and civic resource,” the document says, “one that is le meilleur des meilleurs [the best of the best] in every respect.”

Richard Dimino, president of A Better City, a business group that was heavily involved in the development of the Greenway, says he envisions a day when Europeans will hear about the park and want to come to Boston just to see it.

“This is a renaissance opportunity for the city of Boston,” he says. “We want this park to be an icon of Boston, to help make it a destination city.”

As anyone who has walked the Greenway knows, it will take time and a lot more attractions to fulfill that vision. The park is young and has tremendous potential. The city’s residents are just beginning to discover its many intriguing nooks and crannies. But the Greenway is very much a work in progress. It’s not an easy park to manage. From the air, it looks like 12 small parks surrounded by streets on all sides. The Greenway is a pleasant place in which to walk, read a book, or have lunch — as long as the sun isn’t too intense — but it’s not a destination park, at least not yet. At the end of August, the Boston Globe Magazine selected 18 great walks in the area; the Greenway wasn’t among them.

The Greenway is at a crossroads of political interests. It is located in Boston but owned by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which is about to turn over the reins of day-to-day management to a private conservancy that will receive half its budget from state taxpayers — up to $5.5 million a year through at least 2012.

The combination of private management and public funding effectively creates a two-tier park system in Massachusetts, one in which the Greenway is lavished with state tax dollars and personal attention while other parks are treated in cookie-cutter fashion.

The estimated cost of upkeep for the Greenway is a third of what the city of Boston spends on maintenance for all its 2,200 acres of open space, including parks like the Boston Common and the Public Garden. The maintenance tab for the 13-acre Greenway is also about the same as the state’s entire budget for the 869-acre Charles River Reservation, which includes the Esplanade.

Katherine Abbott, a former commissioner of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and currently executive vice president of the Trustees of Reservations, which preserves scenic land in Massachusetts, says taxpayers are getting what they paid for. “They are implementing a model park,” Abbott says of Greenway officials. “That’s not what we’re used to around here. They’re creating a Lexus where we’re used to a Hyundai.”

Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition, a group supporting the 485-acre, Frederic Law Olmsted–designed park in Boston, says the generous support for the Greenway reflects the political clout of the downtown business crowd. “I’m furious because there’s not any money going to parks that everyday Bostonians are using,” she says. “The Greenway is a median strip, a wide one. It’s got some residential neighborhoods around it, but mostly it’s for tourists and businesses.”

Unique features are costly

The cost of maintaining a park is driven by its use, its design, its location, its shape, and its level of programming and security. In almost every category, the Greenway scores extremely high.

The Greenway has benches manufactured in England, granite from Georgia, and paving stones from Colorado. There are multiple lighting systems and five different fountain systems, all of which are required to spurt out water of swimming-pool quality. The ring fountain at the center of the Greenway has so many proprietary parts that it is being maintained by its developer, Wet Design of Sun Valley, California. Greenway officials say most problems can be diagnosed and remedied remotely, but at least four on-site visits will be required each year.

The Chinatown section of the Greenway
features fan-shaped paving stones and
other unique features.

The Chinatown section of the Greenway features fan-shaped paving stones on the ground that are expensive to produce and tricky to install. The bamboo growing in the Chinatown section is surrounded by custom-designed metal frames, and the red gate at the entrance is painted in a custom hue. “You can’t go to Home Depot and get this color,” says Anne Gorczyca, the Turnpike Authority’s manager of park construction.

Robert Pirani, who has studied park operating costs closely for the Regional Plan Association in New York, says customized features make a park appealing, but they can increase maintenance costs dramatically. “There’s a price to be paid for that uniqueness,” he says.

By virtue of its central location, the Greenway gets a lot of traffic. Yet the space is not easy to maintain because it’s long, narrow, and cut up into island parcels by cross streets. There are no maintenance sheds on the Greenway, so equipment has to be stored off-site at satellite locations and brought in as needed. Trash has to be picked up and hauled away.

Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Greenway Conservancy, the private nonprofit preparing to take over day-to-day management of the park, vows that maintenance standards will be very high. She says the park must look good 12 months a year, day and night. She says graffiti must be removed within 24 hours, dead rodents even faster. Fallen tree limbs can’t linger. Cigarette butts have to be picked up quickly and sticky substances on tables removed. Trash has to be picked up often, maybe twice between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on nice-weather days.

No pesticides will be used on the plants and grass. “We’ve spent billions cleaning up Boston Harbor. We don’t want to contaminate it any more,” says Brennan.

About the only area where the Greenway has skimped is bathrooms. With the highway tunnels underneath the park so close to the surface, Brennan says bathroom pipes could not be installed. Visitors who need a restroom must find one in one of the adjacent buildings.

Maintenance tab among highest in nation

For a public trying to come to terms with a Big Dig that cost roughly $20 billion, the $3.2 million-a-year maintenance bill for the Greenway doesn’t sound like much. But it is probably higher than any other park in Massachusetts and exceeds on a per-square-foot basis all but the most expensive parks in the nation.

“The design, visibility, and civic mission of the Greenway will make it a world-class space: they also will make it costly to operate,” says the Greenway Conservancy’s business plan.

The business plan envisions the Greenway spending roughly $3.2 million a year on maintenance, $1.4 million a year on programming, $1.4 million on administration, $935,000 on marketing and fund-raising, and $635,000 on capital projects. The total annual budget is expected to be $8.6 million, of which half would come from the state.

The Greenway’s actual park space totals 13.2 acres, so an annual maintenance cost of $3.2 million works out to $5.57 a square foot. And that’s an estimate. “We’ve made some assumptions, but we won’t know for sure until we can run the place,” Brennan says.

The privately operated Norman
Leventhal Park in Post Office Square.

Ben Welle, assistant director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C., said the cost range envisioned by the Greenway Conservancy would definitely place it in the top tier in the country. “In terms of maintenance, they are looking to be one of the elite parks in the nation,” he says.

The Greenway Conservancy’s business plan compares the cost of maintaining the Greenway to the cost of maintaining the Norman Leventhal Park in Post Office Square, the Public Garden, and the Battery Park City Parks in New York. The cost of the Greenway is 50 cents higher on a per-square-foot basis than the Leventhal Park and more than a dollar per foot higher than Battery Park City Parks, although the Battery Park figure does not include security costs.

A direct comparison with the Public Garden isn’t possible because the city of Boston doesn’t break out its costs by individual parks. Still, a comparison of manpower devoted to the two parks provides a stark contrast. The city assigns five workers to work exclusively on the Public Garden; the Greenway Conservancy is planning to hire 12 maintenance workers.

The Massachusetts Port Authority operates three parks, two in East Boston and one in South Boston. The three parks are all maintained at a high level, but none comes close to rivaling the cost of the Greenway on a square foot basis. Piers Park is $3.67 a square foot, while Bremen Street Park and South Boston Maritime Park are below $2 a square foot.

The state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation operates three parks — Paul Revere, North Point, and Nashua Street — created as mitigation for the Big Dig. The department pays a contractor 39 cents a square foot to handle annual maintenance duties on all three parks, but that figure does not include charges for electricity, water, and trash removal.

Nationally, comparisons are even more problematic because of differing park configurations and weather patterns, but it’s clear that the Greenway is in elite company financially. Tax records indicate the Greenway, for its size, is planning to spend more on maintenance than several signature city parks, including Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis, Discovery Green in Houston, Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, and Bayfront Park in Miami.

Daniel Biederman, who manages Bryant Park in New York City, says he spends $1 million an acre, or roughly $22.95 a square foot. But he says that figure includes all of the park’s expenses, not just maintenance. Public filings from 2006 indicate maintenance expenditures are close to $7 a square foot.

Whatever the figure, Biederman is not shy about spending money. A couple years ago he dropped $200,000 refurbishing Bryant Park’s bathroom, which he says is a bargain when you consider 600,000 people use it a year. “Women all over midtown Manhattan stop by because they know it’s a restroom they can trust,” he says.

Officials at Millennium Park in Chicago say they spend $6.56 a square foot on maintenance, which is more than a dollar higher than the Greenway. Most of the difference can be traced to security costs. Millennium, with its sculptures, exhibits, and free public events, devotes a fifth of its maintenance budget to security. The Greenway, by contrast, relies on the Boston Police Department for the bulk of its security needs and plans to hire four of its own security employees.

Parks are often described as public benefits, but there is growing evidence that they can also pay economic dividends. For example, Bryant Park hosted Fashion Week in September, drawing designers and glitterati from all over the world. Chicago’s Millennium Park has also become an economic engine. An economic impact study done in 2005 projected that, by 2015, Millennium would generate $1.4 billion in new residential development near the park and somewhere between $1.9 billion and $2.6 billion in gross sales from visitor spending.

“The park is wildly successful,” says Edward Uhlir, who helped design Millennium Park and now works as a consultant to the private group that supports it financially. Uhlir says artist Anish Kapoor’s 110-ton, stainless-steel Cloud Gate sculpture, which everyone calls “The Bean” because of its shape, is known all over the world. “We couldn’t pay for the amount of advertising we’ve gotten from that,” he says.

Privatizing public spaces

Public management of park space is the norm in Massachusetts, but private management of city-center parks is commonplace nationally. To see why, one need look no further than the popular Norman Leventhal Park in Boston’s Post Office Square, which opened in 1992. The 1.7-acre park is operated by a for-profit company that uses parking revenues from a below-ground garage to pay for park maintenance. The city of Boston collects $1.4 million in taxes from the park operator and contributes no money to the park’s operation.

As the Greenway began to take shape, public officials were intrigued by the idea of offloading park operations to a private entity, while private sector officials liked the single-minded focus a private group could bring to a park. “If you have a privatized group, there’s going to be more focus on the cleanliness, how it’s going to be maintained,” says Robert Beale, president of the Beale Cos., a Greenway abutter who was active in the park’s development. “It was our feeling that this was the way to go.”

City and state park agencies weren’t eager to take control of the Greenway because it was likely to consume an inordinate amount of their resources. “We have to serve all the community, not just the downtown,” says Antonia Pollak, the commissioner of Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department. “Would I like more resources? Yes, but I’d like them for all our parks.”

Richard Sullivan, commissioner of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, says it would make no sense for his agency to manage the Greenway. “It’s kind of a higher-end specialty facility and better off with somebody focused in that specialized area,” he says.

The problem was funding. Unlike the Post Office Square park, the Greenway has a tunnel underneath it, not a cash-generating garage. The original hope was that fund-raising would bring in enough money to cover the cost of Greenway operations. But after reaching its initial fund-raising target of $20 million, the inflow of contributions has slowed. Officials blame a weakening economy and the dearth of companies headquartered here, but even firms located along the Greenway were tepid in their enthusiasm.

Of the $20.3 million raised so far, the biggest donation came from the Turnpike Authority ($5 million). Other big donors include Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Raytheon Corp., State Street Corp., the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, Bank of America, Boston Scientific, John Hancock Financial Services, National Grid, and Liberty Mutual. In all, 76 donors contributed more than $1,000 and 439 contributed under $1,000.

Only 14 percent of the contributions, or $1.85 million, came from abutters, those who stand to benefit the most from the Greenway’s creation. Abutters missing from the contributor list include Delaware North Co., owner of the TD BankNorth Garden, the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel, and the InterContinental Hotel.

“As the value of the land surrounding the Greenway increases, I would hope we would see more enthusiasm from the abutters in the future,” says Charles Baker, a Greenway Conservancy board member and the chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

In the interim, the Greenway has turned to state taxpayers for help. In July, the Legislature approved a bill pushed by House Speaker Sal DiMasi that puts the state on the hook for half the Greenway Conservancy’s budget — up to a maximum of $5.5 million a year — through 2012. Dimino, head of the business group A Better City, says there is every expectation state funding will continue beyond 2012.

“For the Greenway to be successful, there needs to be a good balance between public and private funds,” he says.

Pressure on Brennan

Nancy Brennan ran Plimoth Plantation before coming to the Greenway Conservancy. She oversaw a roughly $9 million budget and a staff of 150 full-time and 60 seasonal workers at the recreated 1600s-era community. Those skills are coming in handy in her new job, but she also has to develop new ones. Her position at the Greenway Conservancy, which pays $165,000 a year, requires the diplomacy of a politician and the vision of an artist. She is working with a blank canvas as scores of powerful stakeholders watch her every move.

One challenge is to protect the park from encroachments by abutters, the very same people her fund-raising operation is targeting. Developer Don Chiofaro, for example, is planning a major new development at the site of the parking garage in front of the New England Aquarium. Can Brennan make sure the new building doesn’t block out the park’s sun even as her Conservancy staff works out of donated office space in Chiofaro’s One International Place on the other side of the Greenway?

Brennan’s vision for the Greenway is still evolving. The park had a coming-out party in early October, but many important park pieces have been eliminated or remain up in the air. Gone is the planned “garden under glass” proposed by the financially struggling Massachusetts Horticultural Society. A proposed New Center for Arts and Culture, with galleries, a theater, and a café, has been delayed and scaled back. The Boston History Museum, proposed originally for a section of the Greenway just south of the North End parcels, is moving to a Turnpike-owned parcel on the other side of the Surface Artery. Museum officials say the Greenway parcel was too expensive to build on. They estimate it would have cost $56 million to cover on-and-off ramps on the parcel, far above the $31 million the state has set aside to cover the on-and-off ramps on that parcel and two others.

Without museums in place, Brennan is searching for ways to attract people to the Greenway. She is considering a winter skating rink and a summer movie program. She shows a visitor sketches of colorful tarps that could be erected along the Greenway next summer to provide shade for park visitors until the trees grow taller.

Biederman, the manager of New York’s Bryant Park, and Uhlir, the designer of Chicago’s Millennium Park, have both visited the Greenway recently and come away concerned by the absence of crowds. Beiderman’s conclusion: “People are getting turned off because no one is there.”

Uhlir calls the Greenway a passive park, not a destination park. Biederman suggests that the Greenway needs more amenities that would increase what he calls the “dwell time” of visitors to the park. He says services such as WiFi, restrooms, and food, none of which the Greenway has, would boost the amount of time patrons spend in the park. And he warns that the Greenway needs attention now. “It needs a retrofit that brings in a lot of activity and life,” Biederman says.

Shirley Kressel, a landscape architect and urban designer who moonlights as a Greenway watchdog, isn’t so concerned with the design of the park. Her concern is with a private group, backed by downtown business interests, operating what is supposed to be a public park. She says she fears the private managers will pursue policies to benefit their financial supporters and not the public. “On top of that, they’re going to be using public money to do it,” she says.

Henry Lee, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, says private managers often do a great job running parks, but he is philosophically opposed to putting them in charge of public spaces.

“City or state government should not relinquish control over public space,” he says.

Lee also marvels at the size of the Greenway’s budget. “Most people feel it’s more than is really needed,” he says, quickly adding that his comment may reflect jealousy more than anything else. “Who am I to say it’s excessive? But it does dwarf the resources available for parks in other parts of the city.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Eugenie Beal of Jamaica Plain, the chairwoman of the Boston Natural Areas Network and a longtime park activist, says she favors public management of public spaces. She says private management of the Greenway came to the fore because the park had too many cooks, none of whom could agree on who should run it. “Nothing better turned up,” she says.

She also agrees the park’s budget is big, but adds that it’s time for Boston to recognize the value of its parks and the need to support them strongly. “We need to raise our aspirations,” she says. “Boston Common’s condition is a disgrace. It looks scruffy but everyone is used to it.”