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Downtown View: Two Greenway Matters

The Greenway Conservancy is much maligned these days. Bloated salaries, ham-handed relationships with neighbors, advocates and meeting attendees, an aura of secrecy and a haughty attitude are some of the criticisms lobbed at this five-year-old organization charged with developing and maintaining the Rose Kennedy Greenway on top of the Big Dig. Maybe some of the criticisms are true.

But we should compliment the conservancy on two efforts: bringing the carousel to life and holding fast in insisting on state funding. It’s in Boston’s best interest to follow the conservancy’s lead in these matters.

A lot of griping, a tried and true Boston habit, has been heard about the carousel. It’s too expensive. There is already a carousel, albeit a rented one, there. That one’s good enough.

But the new carousel, scheduled to open next summer, has attributes we should insist on when creating and caring for public spaces. It is first class, imaginative, entertaining and well crafted. It celebrates the public arena. It’s not a cheap, second-rate object with which the masses can make do.

A prediction? In another decade the carousel will be like the swan boats and the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge—an iconic image in the beauty shots of Boston.

The carousel didn’t come from a public outcry of “let’s build a carousel on the Greenway,” but from one woman’s desire to give a gift of such an object. She paid for a significant portion of the cost. That’s the way some things get built in the public sphere. You can’t take the money she wanted to donate and use it for something you’d prefer.

Perhaps the carousel will bring in enough money from ticket sales to offset its cost to the Greenway, but if it doesn’t, so be it. Surely we can decide to publicly fund an attraction that gives pleasure to so many people.

Public funding is another matter that the Greenway has right. State funding should always be part of the Greenway Conservancy’s budget. Otherwise, such public spaces are at risk of private interests calling the shots. That doesn’t mean that the private building owners and businesses that overlook the Greenway shouldn’t participate in a Business Improvement District or another mechanism that ensures their contribution to a setting that enhances them.

Some business and building owners contend they already pay more for their Greenway location, since their property taxes rose as the Central Artery was lowered. But the city gets those extra funds, not the state or the Greenway. Some problems just can’t be solved.

It’s a particularly bad idea to roll the Greenway into the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, as some legislators would have it. DCR can’t take care of the 450,000 or so acres of parkland it has now.

I’m not the only one, of course, to hold these views on these subjects. State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz shepherded a bill that passed the legislature last week that changes the make up of the conservancy’s board of directors and makes it subject to open meeting laws. While the bill didn’t solve the financing problem, Michlewitz believes the Greenway should receive public funding. “It’s a public park,” he said.

And A Better City, the organization that represents owners and businesses around the Greenway, says that business financial support will occur only if the state stays on as a financial partner.

Besides a general hostility to the Greenway Conservancy that festers under all these matters, a few unspoken attitudes are in play that cause trouble for the Greenway.

Bostonians have trouble getting used to a park full of activities. For years and years, many park advocates here have extolled the virtues of “passive enjoyment.” Not for them the rowdiness of the Hudson River parks in New York or the myriad features crammed into the parks along Lake Michigan in Chicago. The 15-year-old Boston Common Management Plan addressed the balance of programmed use and passive enjoyment in the common and the public garden, and the public garden, except for the swan boats, is entirely passive.

But the Greenway, struggling with its role as a median separating a wide, divided city street, can become a place of passive enjoyment only in a few locations.

Another undercurrent is the envy and sense of unfairness that other parks suffer from a paucity of funding while the Greenway gets it all. Again, things are complicated.

Unfortunately, it’s not that the Greenway is funded too much—it’s that we’ve funded our other parks too little. And we’ve underfunded our roads, bridges and public transit too. MassDOT officials threaten to withdraw the Greenway’s funding, maybe as a scare tactic to the legislature, which needs to figure out how to repair the roads, and expand the T and make it work better. Finally, the Greenway attracts complaints from people outside of Boston who believe the capital city takes too much away from the hinterlands.

The lame cry, “we can’t afford it,” whenever the subject of adequate public funding comes up, is often emitted by people who themselves are living lavishly, working in well-appointed offices, wearing aspirational wrist watches and driving status-cementing German cars. So don’t listen to them.

A well-maintained and funded public realm, whether it is in parks or transportation infrastructure, is critical to the quality of life we enjoy and the prosperity of our region.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and can be reached at karen@bostoncolumn.com.

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One Reply to “Downtown View: Two Greenway Matters

  1. Karen makes an excellent point on the obligation for the State to fund the Greenway’s public parks … an issue that I testified at the State House to support earlier this year.

    I disagree on the “end justifies the means” rationale for the new carousel. There is little doubt that the custom, hand-crafted $3 million carousel (partially funded with public money on public land) will be extraordinary and receive rave reviews. At least by adults … I’m not sure the kids will care as long as it lights up and goes round. The Globe and “renowned” pundits will write articles glorifying the “vision,” helped in part by the Conservancy’s three PR firms.

    I wrote this commentary post in 2010, back when it cost only $1 million: http://wp.me/p2wCFs-CK

    In 10 years, no one may care about the lack of governance, public process or transparency at the Conservancy that commandeered this public land to satisfy the whim of very few persons. Nor may they care how it was simply decided behind closed doors without any type of public discussion, other than if you want a grasshopper or muskrat instead of a horse.

    Three million dollars can buy pretty things. I get that. It can also buy restrooms, gardens, a playground, a dog park … and it can probably even help cover a highway ramp. But none of those things, among other ideas, will come to pass. Instead, get out your $3 for a 2 minute ride on the glorious new carousel. Just don’t come on my street when you or your kids need a bathroom because there are none on the Greenway.

    That’s the thing with carousels … no matter how pretty they are, you still end up where you started.

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