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Getting snapped at by the smug Peter Meade, Chair of the Conservancy’s Board, was the highlight of my night at the Greenway’s Annual Meeting held downtown on Tuesday, September 1st. In the public comment period, I summarized my comments on their proposed improvement and development protocols, imploring the Conservancy to incorporate basic conflict of interest language in their guidelines to stop a slippery slope that has already raised ire in the community. As a private organization, the Conservancy has a financial need to generate revenue. Developers and interested parties are more than happy to “donate” in exchange for Conservancy support. This creates a significant incentive for the Conservancy to favor projects that help their budget rather than the Greenway parks or the public interest.

Conservancy officials dance at Chiofaro's event to promote his Harbor Garage Redevelopment proposal. Note the large stage with live entertainment and balloons (which are prohibited on the Greenway). Click image for more photos at Boston.com
Conservancy officials dance at Chiofaro’s event to promote his Harbor Garage Redevelopment proposal. Note the large stage with live entertainment and balloons (which are prohibited on the Greenway). Click image for more photos at Boston.com

The most contentious exchange at the meeting was about the Conservancy’s cozy relationship with the Chiofaro Company, the developer that has proposed an oversized two tower development at the Harbor Garage site. (See “What is the Quid Pro Quo between the Conservancy and Chiofaro?”). Mr. Meade sees no problem with the Conservancy’s renting out the Greenway’s public parks to a developer for a promotional event designed to gain public support with flyers, t-shirts, live music, stages and free food. This event on the Wharf District parks was held in mid-July during the public comment period for the project.

How could the Conservancy say no? After all, Chiofaro is a huge contributor to the Conservancy’s stretched budget, mostly through his gift of free office space since their inception that is valued at over $400,000 per year. Is this how the Conservancy is going to “independently” review development proposals along the Greenway? Obviously, Mr. Meade and I went to different ethics classes.

Besides Chiofaro’s towers, perhaps Mr. Meade is concerned about the Raymond Company, a large client of his PR firm. He works as managing director for Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, the PR firm for the Raymond Company’s Government Center Garage redevelopment, another Greenway abutter. (See the Boston Herald’s “Shadows over Greenway, Conservancy chairman works for builder’s PR firm.”) There is also speculation that the Conservancy is receiving some type of contribution from the developer of the Dainty Dot building in the Leather District. The list goes on.

The Conservancy was further perplexed by my request that their protocols encourage projects that enhance “free and public use” of the parks rather than their stated goal of enhancing “event capacity.” Regular readers will remember the debate on event guidelines earlier in the summer. While there were some modest improvements in that document toward public use, the guidelines still read like a brochure for event planners so the Conservancy can generate revenue by renting the parks through unlimited large-scale, sponsored events. (See “Greenway Conservancy Revises Park Guidelines; Little Improvement for Public” and the Boston Herald’s “Rent-A-Park Plan“.)

The other major point of my comment letter on their improvement/development guidelines is to include the relevant neighborhood groups in their analysis and review process. There are several proposals on the drawing board for parcel improvements such as a Harbor Islands Pavilion, a potted tree parcel near the North End, among many others to come. The introduction of their documents generally start with glorious language about how they want to integrate the parks with the surrounding environment. But the process leaves out any requirement to communicate with the neighborhoods, the backbone of the Greenway community. I hope they change that.

I was no match in the debate with Mr. Meade, a former radio host, that has perfected the use of ridicule to gain ratings. My favorite technique was how he used his superior public speaking skills by cutting me off and then when I tried to respond, accusing me of interrupting so he could divert the discussion. However, the audible reaction of the audience in the room signaled distaste for such tricks and actually encouraged folks to stand up and support my comments. I also gave the Conservancy my comments in advance; perhaps a strategic mistake on my part as they were well-prepared to rebuke my remarks.

Developers Ready to take a Hatchet to the Greenway
Developers Ready to take a Hatchet to the Greenway

Let’s remember this is not about winning a debate. It is about protecting our public parks and having an above-the-board process to review development that is coming in droves on and around the parcels. Fortunately, many folks spoke up with similar and other constructive comments. After a while, even Mr. Meade seemed to realize there was a consensus among the community that actual or perceived conflicts of interest will take a toll on the Conservancy’s effectiveness to satisfy its mission.

Just so you don’t read this post being as overly cynical, let me point out some rays of hope:

  • The public seems to be waking up to the reality of what it means to have this private, non-profit running our Greenway parks. Attendence was high at last night’s meeting with many outspoken participants. With some better communication from the Conservancy, transparency can only increase from here.
  • I am impressed with several of the members on the Greenway Leadership Council. The GLC is the governing body set up by legislation to oversee the Conservancy. Several members seemed to genuinely care about ‘doing the right thing’. Although their power is largely advisory, I hope they will have the courage to question the power figures in and around the Conservancy.
  • Nancy Brennan, Executive Director, had some thoughtful responses to last night’s public comments, though it is difficult to separate the style and substance of her remarks. She has some difficult decisions coming her way and I wish she would translate her broad statements into the details that make up the Conservancy’s written guidelines and protocols. It will be important to watch how she communicates with the neighborhood groups.
  • The Conservancy is finally giving up its offices at Chiofaro’s International Place and moving to 185 Kneeland Street. I am surprised this was not announced last night but it appears nearly final. This is one less conflict we need to monitor.

“Trust” always seems to come up in the Greenway meetings. I try to keep an open mind, but I would feel a lot more comfortable if we could rely less on verbal promises and more on documented processes that result in transparency. It’s been a shaky start and I hope they learn from their mistakes. The public paid so much and waited so long for these parks. We need to make sure they know we are watching.

The Conservancy is asking for comments on their capital improvement and development protocols by approximately September 10th. More information is available at www.rosekennedygreenway.org/docs and comments can be emailed to comments@rosekennedygreenway.org. The next GLC meeting is on September 23rd and the issue of ‘conflicts’ is on the agenda so it should be interesting. The location is still to be determined, but check the Calendar for updates.

Coming soon: “Fun facts from the Conservancy’s Annual Report”.

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