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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.

  A preliminary design for the $70 million Garden Under Glass, near South Station. The project -- an acre in size and enclosed by glass walls and roof -- is now at the center of a great Boston drama. (Courtesy of Koetter Kim & Associates)

Glass Act

A spectacular winter garden is the centerpiece of the Massachusetts Horticulture Society's plan for the parkland above the depressed Central Artery. But can the society get the job done?

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By Robert L. Turner, Globe Staff, 3/30/2003

his is the dream: Exiting South Station onto Summer Street, you are drawn across Dewey Square to a vast plaza serving as a welcoming entrance to the string of parks above the newly depressed Central Artery. Immediately behind it, an all-season Japanese garden provides a locus of tranquility in an urban setting. Just beyond, reached either at street level or via an elevated bridge spanning Congress Street, a squarish building contains a visitors' center and horticultural exhibits on the lower floors, with offices above. Still farther up Atlantic Avenue, toward the Evelyn Moakley Bridge, a winter garden -- an acre in size and enclosed by nine-story glass walls and roof -- houses a rich variety of plants and flowers rivaling those of any indoor garden in the world, certainly in such a downtown location. More than a million people a year flock to this emerald-green oasis tucked into the gray canyons of Boston's financial district.

This is the dream of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and its president, John Peterson. The $70 million Garden Under Glass will not only be a major new attraction for the city but will anchor the south end of the artery corridor, named the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Together with the new Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, a mile to the north, and the parks and other public spaces in between, the Garden Under Glass will help define Boston for the new century.

This is the dream. But can it happen? A great many people in Boston hope so, both because they think the project would add luster to the city and because there are no contingency plans for using the invaluable 4 acres of space if it fails.

But many have their doubts, doubts that were underscored last month when Mass. Hort.'s talks aimed at a collaboration with the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency collapsed. Agency president Michael Hogan says the society failed to come up with evidence of an anticipated "leadership gift." Peterson and Garden Under Glass counsel John Delaney say no such evidence had been demanded before, and the project's phased fund-raising effort is now getting underway. Sill, the deal's failure left Peterson with neither a partner nor financial pledges to give his project credibility.

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society, once one of Boston's proudest institutions, with a rich history dating from 1829, has been struggling financially for some time. It sold its landmark headquarters building on Huntington Avenue, across Massachusetts Avenue from Symphony Hall, in 1991. And last year, to stay afloat, it sold much of its library in two batches, one to Chicago's Botanic Garden for $3 million and the other through Christie's auction house for $2.45 million.

Former directors have criticized the current leadership and called for Peterson's head. When Nancy B. Putnam of Manchester-by-the-Sea resigned as secretary and trustee last year, her letter to Peterson cited his "mismanagement," which she said had impoverished "one of Massachusetts' oldest and formerly most respected charitable organizations." And, she added, "the current lack of respect for the Society's management is such that it will continue to be extremely difficult to raise substantial amounts of money."

But Elizabeth Harris, chairwoman of the Mass. Hort. board, says financial troubles preceded Peterson's arrival in 1992 and have finally been turned around. William McDonough of the Federal Reserve Bank, a cochair with Harris of the Garden Under Glass board, says that the barbs aimed at Peterson are coming from outside the organization. "John Peterson is secure at Mass. Hort.," McDonough says. "The current trustees back him."

The project's community support is indicated by Boston lawyer Rob Tuchmann, who earlier this month told the Mayor's Artery Completion Task Force, which he cochairs, "I think we all have a responsibility to make it a success and not just say they haven't got their act together."

So the Garden Under Glass proposal is now at the center of a great Boston drama. Old families, raw politics, changing demographics, power struggles between the city and state, the failure of the philanthropic community to step into the breach -- it is in many ways a familiar Boston story being played out again with relentless momentum.

And the stakes are high, both for Mass. Hort. and for Boston. If the project succeeds, the society will be reborn, and the city will celebrate a signature public space. But there is fear the project will be stillborn, wounding Mass. Hort. and blasting a gaping hole in the crucial effort to develop coordinated plans for the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

Urban Garden
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society is the designated developer of three parcels near the southern end of the depressed Central Artery. (Central Artery / Third Harbor Tunnel project, Wharf District Working Group)

he designation of Mass. Hort. as developer of part of the corridor was agreed to more than a decade ago by Stephen Coyle, then director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and by two Cabinet members in the Dukakis administration, Transportation Secretary Frederick Salvucci and Environmental Affairs Secretary John DeVillars. All three knew that the parcels near South Station would be coveted by developers for hotels or other structures. But they wanted the space kept open, and they determined to designate a developer whose mission was consistent with their vision.

The Garden Under Glass idea essentially walked into DeVillars's office late in 1990, when a group from Mass. Hort. arrived with a proposal. DeVillars remembers that the discussion was "very much conceptual," without a lot of detail. The late Jay Hill, one of the founders of the Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos advertising agency and then chairman of the Mass. Hort. board, led the group in suggesting that an ambitious horticultural exhibit, including a large winter garden, would work well on the site.

DeVillars saw the proposal for a horticultural hall as answering part of his overall responsibility: counterbalancing the environmental harm of the mammoth road tunneling project that came to be known as the Big Dig. In the legally binding environmental certificate he signed on January 2, 1991, as the Dukakis administration was leaving office, DeVillars set down a requirement that only 25 percent of the entire corridor space could be developed, with the rest as public open space. Included in that document was the designation of Mass. Hort. as the developer of three key parcels.

Twelve years later, DeVillars has no second thoughts. "The idea is as laudatory today as it was then," he says.

he immediate problem -- more pressing since Mass. Hort.'s recent difficulties -- is that the society's early designation as the developer has left these three crucial parcels outside the planning for the rest of the corridor.

When a yearlong process was carried out in 2000-2001 to develop a master plan for the corridor, the team, led by architect Karen Alshuler of San Francisco and including some of Boston's leading landscape architects and planners, was told specifically to ignore parcels 19, 21, and 22. While no voices have been raised against the Horticultural Society moving forward if it can, questions are growing louder.

If the group can't raise the needed money -- which it estimates at roughly $70 million -- what will become of the parcels? Shouldn't some fallback planning be going on now? Would it make sense for Mass. Hort. to develop one or two of the parcels, instead of all three? For far too long, such questions were not even being considered. Finally, just after the society's negotiations with the Development Finance Agency collapsed, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which is in charge of the Big Dig, acted. Chairman Matthew Amorello directed legal and design staff to explore alternatives.

Amorello says he still believes the Garden Under Glass is "a wonderful idea" but regards it as only prudent to examine other possibilities that would stress open space and perhaps cultural uses.

Stephanie Pollack, acting president of the Conservation Law Foundation, is another whose heart is with the project but who retains a pragmatic skepticism. The parcels along the Greenway must "work as an interconnected series of spaces," she says. "If the Horticultural Society is not going to be able to meet its commitments, then someone needs to be responsible for having this all work together."

Already, some opportunities have been lost because of the hands-off relationship with Mass. Hort. For instance, there was the possibility that Mass. Hort. might act as the gardener for the other parcels, an idea suggested by Patrice Todisco, head of the Boston GreenSpace Alliance. Also, it might have been better for the Garden Under Glass to be located elsewhere in the corridor. DeVillars says there was no magic to the choice of the three parcels near South Station. They seemed most appropriate to him at the time, and perhaps they still are, but no one has examined the question, and now it is too late. The Turnpike Authority has selected the final designers for all the other park parcels, and they are moving forward. Final design concepts are expected by this summer.

hile the hands-off relationship with Mass. Hort. continues to jeopardize the Greenway, it is understandable. Anyone seeking to draw the organization in closer might be asked to come up with some of the needed funds, which are considerable.

The Turnpike Authority is now budgeting $31 million for the development of all eight other park parcels; Mass. Hort. wants to spend more than twice that on three. The sources of funding are uncertain at best. And the current squeeze on state and city budgets -- and on the philanthropic community -- is a fund-raiser's nightmare.

Last year, Boston's mayor, Thomas M. Menino, said the city intended to partner with Mass. Hort. on the project, and talks have recently begun with the city's economic development agency. But there has been no detail of what that might mean financially.

The 1991 certificate from DeVillars, although slightly ambiguous, seems to require that the state come up with whatever funds Mass. Hort. is lacking in bringing the project to fruition, and DeVillars says that was indeed his intent. But state officials have not accepted that interpretation.

Even Salvucci, who is regarded as the godfather of the Big Dig, says now: "The Turnpike has the responsibility to help. I can't say it's their responsibility to build it."

Peterson has pointed out that his last major project, building the nation's fifth largest conservatory, in Columbus, Ohio, was aided by $70 million in federal aid secured by US Senator John Glenn. But there has been no evidence that Congress would be so generous with anything connected with the Big Dig, despite Senator Edward M. Kennedy's personal interest -- the Greenway is named for his mother -- and his enthusiastic support.

When the funding issue was raised at a public forum held in Faneuil Hall last May, sponsored by the Beyond the Big Dig project led by the Globe and MIT, panelist Hubie Jones got the loudest applause of the night when he shouted: "This isn't Mass. Hort.'s problem. This is Boston's problem!"

Whether because Peterson's tenure has been so controversial, or because the society was in financial straits even before he arrived, or because some people feel the Garden Under Glass proposal is too ambitious, neither old money nor new has yet answered Hubie Jones's call.

Unless a financial backer with exceptionally deep pockets appears, the success of the Mass. Hort. proposal will probably depend on partnerships. The organization itself, led by chairwoman Harris, has pursued links with Kyoto, Boston's sister city in Japan, and with the Japan Society of Boston to secure support for an open Japanese garden on one of the parcels.

Peter Grilli, president of the Japan Society, is an enthusiastic advocate, predicting that the Japanese garden will be "a permanent treasure" in Boston. Grilli says he is confident he can raise half the funds for the $10 million project in Japan and the United States, while Harris expects to raise the other half locally.

Other possible links include Harvard University. Its Arnold Arboretum has occasionally been a friendly competitor with Mass. Hort., but it might see a downtown outpost as a complement that could draw visitors to its 265-acre Jamaica Plain site. Alternatively, the world-famous exhibit of glass flowers at Harvard's Botanical Museum is viewed by some administrators there as a treasure but one that is taking up space for more active, academic pursuits. A glass flower exhibit on the Greenway would fit Mass. Hort.'s theme and, with a modest admission fee, might attract funds for both the society and Harvard.

Neither of these ideas has advanced very far, but a number of partnerships will probably be needed if the project is to succeed.

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