Will the North End Parks be rented out for large events?
Will the North End Parks be rented out for large events?

At issue during the last Greenway Leadership Council (GLC) meeting was how the Greenway Conservancy will handle events, from small-scale community/school activities to large private/corporate convention-like events. This meeting on June 25th was the first without the Conservancy and dedicated to reviewing draft guidelines for the parks. The draft guidelines will cover pretty much everything that goes on the Greenway from hours of operation (11:00 pm closing) to large-scale events. The GLC has posted the guidelines online at www.rosekennedygreenway.org/docs and is welcoming public comments through July 15 via email at: comments@rosekennedygreenway.org.

Creating public use guidelines is a task required by the legislation that created the GLC and gave it oversight responsibility of the Conservancy. The guidelines will be reviewed at the end of the first year and again at the end of 2010. The Greenway parks are State land so the guidelines were based on other State parks. A linear park presents a unique challenge and eliminates many activities such as organized sports. In addition, there is no space on the Greenway dedicated for bicycle paths, so biking is prohibited on the Greenway, as is skateboarding. Notably, alcohol is also prohibited on the Greenway.

The most controversial subject area in the guidelines relates to special events, such as large-scale private/corporate events and festivals. The Conservancy is planning on charging fees of $250 for a small non-profit event up to $5,000 for a large for-profit event. (Ed: I wonder what it cost to hold a large corporate-sponsored event under a tent in NYC’s Central Park? $10,000 at least?) The sliding scale gives discounts to non-profit and community/school based programs. Organizers will have to go through the regular City special permitting process. Free speech is preserved under the US Constitution, although the guidelines provide suggested areas for stages and protests. Draft information for event planners, including fees charged by the Conservancy is available here (pdf).

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Demand is very high to use Greenway property for events and the Conservancy is already working with companies such as Disney and Life is Good, the T-shirt company. Officials indicated that organizations from around the world want to hold their events on the new Greenway. Because no alcohol is allowed on the Greenway, weddings are unlikely to be held in the parks, although the pre- and post-wedding functions may be held under tents. Hotels are likely to use the parks to enhance their functions and conferences.

As can be seen from the draft guidelines, the structure of the document with graphical exhibits is custom-made for event organizers. The Conservancy is also providing a checklist for organizations that want to use the Greenway for events.

Comments from the audience were mixed. Most participants agree on giving community and school groups easy access for educational and non-profit programs. However, there was spirited debate regarding for-profit events. I spoke up that turning the Greenway into a convention center with large-scale events would put a toll on the Greenway and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Vivien Li from The Boston Harbor Association, suggested some revisions that would limit the commercialization of the Greenway. Community activist Shirley Kressel stated that this park was “born with a silver spoon in its mouth” and criticized the Conservancy’s budget. Although the 2009 operating budget of approximately $5 million does not rely on tax dollars, the Conservancy maintains a substantial reserve that originated from public dollars upon its creation. Kressel is also concerned about corporate branding that will be presented to children during events. Tom Palmer, former Globe reporter, spoke in favor of allowing the market to determine programming priorities.

Another issue is whether event organizers should be allowed to charge fees for events. Some school and non-profit programs may need to charge participants to cover costs, so should companies be allowed to charge for entry to a tent during a Greenway event? Should they be allowed to rope off areas such or tents for private use if they are paying the Conservancy for an event?

Ann Thornburg, Chair of the Greenway Leadership Council, responded to audience comments by indicating a desire to balance the desire to bring people to see the Greenway through events while protecting it and the surrounding areas. In response to the funding questions, she answered that the GLC is accountable for the public funding that has been allocated to the Conservancy and pledged transparency.

My thoughts: I believe there should be language in the document to prevent the Greenway from being used as an outdoor convention center. My concern is that the guidelines allow (and even encourage) an unlimited number of large scale events. There is a huge difference between a children’s story-telling hour and a corporate-sponsored event with thousands of attendees.  While it may be desirable to have 1 or 2 large events per year, there should be a limit to the number of events with over 200 attendees. The Greenway should not be another Esplanade where sponsored events are scheduled almost every weekend during the season. The North End and Wharf District parks should be primarily, if not exclusively, for public use.

I am encouraged by the GLC and Conservancy’s statements to be as transparent as possible during these early stages of the organization. The posting of guidelines for public review is a good start. I believe all their meetings should be open to the public and closer to the neighborhoods they are representing. The meetings so far have been held on Sleeper Street near Fort Point Channel at 8am on weekdays. This is not a convenient place or time for most residents.

I am preparing more comments to the draft Guidelines and will post them. I encourage others concerned about the issue of events on the parks to email their comments to: comments@rosekennedygreenway.org by July 15.

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