Since 2009, we have been talking about how to fund the Greenway. Marking its eighth year managing the parks last month, the non-profit Greenway Conservancy and its stakeholders have yet to find a business model that is not under constant risk of having the rug pulled out from under it.
With the Greenway lease up for renewal in June 2017, the State is once again threatening to pull the “public” part out of the public-private partnership by phasing out its $2 million of annual funding. The State contribution represents 40 percent of the ~$5 million Greenway Conservancy annual budget. Through its transportation arm, MassDOT, the State owns the parks that make up the top of the O’Neill Tunnel. The other 60% of the budget comes from the Greenway Conservancy’s own operations (food trucks, carousel rides, etc.) and private donations. Once viewed as a potential source of income, surrounding property owners have repeatedly balked at supporting the parks. Money from developers and surrounding buildings only add up to ~3% of the budget.
Outside of its troubled finances, the Greenway parks have significantly evolved since they emerged from the Big Dig / Central Artery project. For today’s residents and visitors, it would be difficult to imagine downtown Boston without the Greenway (if you want to remember, see this video). The Conservancy cites nearly 1.4 million visitors in 2016, a new record that includes event attendees, carousel riders, food truck patrons and users of its free wi-fi service.
The Conservancy’s funding cause is not helped by its perceived excessive spending on public art and executive salaries that are well in excess of State and City park managers. In our review of the 2016 budget, the Conservancy’s board approved an increase of Executive Director Jesse Brackenbury’s compensation from $180,000 to $210,000. The highest official at the State’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) made $172,000 and Boston Parks Commissioner makes little more than half of what the Conservancy’s top job brings in. Last year, an anonymous quasi-whistleblower report took aim at the Conservancy’s overbudget spending on the $2.6 million Echelman Project. The colorful aerial net was privately funded and well-received, but nonetheless, very expensive.
Mayor Marty Walsh believes in public funding for the Greenway. That is, as long as it comes from the State. The city obviously benefits from the tax value-boost that 17 acres of green space brings to the downtown corridor. Walsh is correct, however, in saying that the State promised Boston residents funding for the parks after decades of Big Dig construction. Carrying the torch, the North End’s State Rep. Aaron Michlewitz is a vocal advocate in the State House for Greenway funding.
The latest speculation that the State is considering pulling its funding could be a negotiation tactic. Calls to wean the GC entirely from MassDOT’s State funds have subsided in recent years, including a turnabout by none other than former Transportation Secretary, Richard Davey, who once threatened to pull the plug, but now favors continuing the state subsidy.
In a Commonwealth Magazine article, the former Transportation Secretary says:
“WHETHER ONE BELIEVES THAT the state SHOULD SUPPORT THE PARK OR NOT, THE REALITY IS THAT THE PARK IS OWNED BY MASSDOT, SERVES AS THE ROOF OF THE O’NEILL TUNNEL, AND WAS A KEY PROMISE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CENTRAL ARTERY/TUNNEL PROJECT. THE STATE CANNOT WALK AWAY FROM ITS OBLIGATION TO KEEP THE TUNNEL IN A STATE OF GOOD REPAIR, AND THAT INCLUDES WHAT SITS ON TOP OF THE TUNNEL.”
In our own discussions with stakeholders, there is a growing consensus for the Conservancy to pursue new income streams while encouraging abutting real estate owners/developers to help support the parks. The latter would likely require MassDOT and other public officials to wrangle cash from the private developers/owners that surround and benefit from the Greenway parks. Unlike waterfront development, however, there is no overriding legislation such as Chapter 91 to make this happen. It is notable, however, that Governor Charlie Baker was one of the original Greenway board members.
Conservancy leaders often reference the 3-legged stool, meaning the ultimate mix should come 1/3 from the public, 1/3 from private fundraising and 1/3 from surrounding property owners.
There has been talk of creating something like the Downtown Business Improvement District where a tax-like system is in place. A formal Business Improvement District, like Downtown Crossing, could take years to form and requires the difficult task of securing voluntary long-term commitments.
To date, the existing towers and burgeoning development projects going up throughout the Greenway corridor have not helped support the parks in a consistent, meaningful way. These development projects represent billions in real estate value that receive substantial benefits from having the Greenway outside their doors. The public space forms the front lawn for a myriad of current development interests, including the Government Center, Harbor Garage and Hook Lobster projects.
NorthEndWaterfront.com has closely followed the Greenway’s financial situation from the very beginning in 2009 when the Conservancy first took over operations of the parks. We also were the first publication to raise attention to increasing tension between the State and Conservancy management in 2010 when questions were being asked about the use and transparency of taxpayer funds. [See State Demands Greater Accountability From Greenway Conservancy.]
In 2012, MassDot the State regulator, threatened to cutoff funding completely, raising the larger question of the public/private partnership and whether State parks should be managed without public funding. Would the Commonwealth reverse its commitment to support the Greenway, despite promises made during the long Big Dig construction process? In response, State legislators led by Representative Aaron Michlewitz introduced reform legislation that opened up the Conservancy’s books through the Open Meeting and Public Records laws. The legislation also gave voting board seats to the Greenway neighborhoods to better link the priorities of the surrounding communities to the Conservancy.
Local residents now have a significant influence on how the Greenway is managed. Of the 21 volunteer board members at the Greenway Conservancy, five are North End residents and several others live downtown and around the waterfront. Each neighborhood group has one representative and others are appointed by local officials. The North End / Waterfront Residents’ Association (NEWRA) board representative is Robyn Reed and the North End / Waterfront Neighborhood Council (NEWNC) representative is John Pregmon. Other appointed North End residents currently on the board include Vice Chair Kathryn Burton, Attorney Daniel Toscano and former New England Aquarium President Bud Ris.
If past negotiations are a guide, it is unlikely the State will completely cutoff the Greenway Conservancy from public funding. However, it could force a reduction in the Conservancy’s budget plans and help convince surrounding business owners to take on more of the burden. Either way, a lot can happen between now and June.