Globe Editorial

How to fix the Greenway

(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
April 18, 2010

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The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway should be a 21st-century complement to the Boston Common: A gathering place, a town center, public ground. It can assume whatever form Bostonians choose. An emerald necklace. A grand boulevard. A waterfront lawn.

It is now none of those things. The progeny of the disastrously mismanaged Big Dig, the Greenway lacked proper planning when construction began more than two decades ago, and was short of resources when the project staggered to finish just over two years ago.

Even those who care about the Greenway are disconnected, victims of a dysfunctional process. The players — the state government, the mayor, the nonprofit Greenway Conservancy, the owners of abutting property — are reading from their own maps. However much they care about the space, they are letting down the public. What could be a monument to Boston’s collective spirit is instead a victim of the region’s parochial rhythms.

The state led a planning process that designated sites for a museum, an arts center, a YMCA, and an indoor garden; but Peter Meade, chairman of the Conservancy, calls these plans a ‘‘pipe dream’’ that never should have reached the drawing board. Officials of Governor Patrick's administration point to the failed stewardship of previous governors while disclaiming responsibility to lead on their own. The mayor, meanwhile, is engaged in a years-long feud with the leading property owner over a proposed tower along the Greenway. Their pettiness casts as much of a shadow over Boston’s newest park as any skyscraper.

And yet there are good ideas coming from all camps. There are no villains here. Each player's attitude seems less obstinate, and more understandable, in the context of a failed leadership structure. That structure, above all, should be clarified. The Greenway desperately needs a nurturing hand, and all the parties must come together to provide one.

A place to visit in all seasons
A mile-long ribbon of grass bracketed by surface roads, the Greenway is the land where the elevated Interstate 93 once slashed its way through the city. The Greenway repairs that wound and provides 15 acres of open space for pedestrians. It should be a magnet drawing people out of four neighborhoods that never used to connect to one another: Chinatown, the downtown business district, the North End, and the South Boston waterfront.

Mayor Menino’s administration is moving ahead on plans to create wider streets and sidewalks to attract people from the neighborhoods. Those improvements should be a first step toward opening up the Greenway to all who live and work nearby. But the Greenway must also be a destination for people who aren’t in close proximity. It must be a place to visit in all seasons, with attractions for all types of people.

It must be more beautiful, with trees and flowers to draw those who seek a comfortable spot to read a book.

It must be more compelling to children, with spaces to play and intriguing amusements. The summer carousel has been a significant attraction, and should be complemented with street musicians, jugglers, puppeteers, and other performers.

It must be lined with stores and cafes, which are sadly lacking. Most of the buildings along the Greenway were put up when the space was a highway. Places that should be doors and windows and storefronts are currently brick walls.

It must be more open to the water. In some places, out-of-towners might be excused for not realizing Boston was built on the ocean. There are openings at Columbus Park and Long Wharf. But buildings — some shiny and attractive, others shabby and in pressing need of rehab — block the harbor at most junctures. A concerted effort is necessary to provide more public access to the water.

It must have at least some of the destination attractions envisioned in the original planning process. One that should be easy to build is a public market above the Haymarket T stop, with open stalls along the Greenway. Its pricetag is a relatively cheap $10 million in state bond money, and it would be a boon to local growers and consumers alike, soon paying for itself in tax revenue.

Of the more ambitious projects, the two that are unique and should not be sacrificed are the Boston historical museum and the Garden Under Glass. The museum isn’t going to emerge overnight, but should remain a priority. There is no place else where the Boston story is told, no gathering point for the millions of visitors who come to learn about the city’s rich past.

Boston played a central role in the founding of the nation, but its Revolutionary-era sites are not as well presented as Philadelphia’s, where the federal government operates a giant visitors center, dozens of sites, and 45 acres around Independence Hall. By contrast, the National Park Service has given Boston short shrift. Securing federal funds for a Boston history museum should be a priority for the state’s congressional delegation. The Greenway, or property abutting it, is the logical place for such a museum, in walking distance of many of Boston’s most historic sites.

The Garden Under Glass, to be built on a spot near the South Station end of the Greenway, was assigned by the Legislature to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which has proven itself unable to do the job. Yet such gardens have been hits in many cold-weather cities, and the Greenway needs a festive off-season attraction. The Greenway’s overseers should raise money for the garden themselves.

Of course, fund-raising will be a major challenge. But it should be less of a problem with a clearer leadership structure and division of responsibilities.

Tapping a new source of funding
The Greenway is short on funds because the state, understandably eager to stop the bleeding on the Big Dig, did not provide enough money to see the Greenway to completion. Frugality is wise, in the face of rampant cost overruns. But to pay $592 million in annual debt service for the Big Dig, as a Globe analysis calculated, while ponying up only $2.6 million to develop the park that was a prime benefit of lowering the highway, is self-defeating.

Other players have been slow to do their part, as well. Mayor Menino has expressed a willingness to help operate the Greenway — but only if the state pays for it. His attitude is too dismissive, as if the vast new park were a Superfund site to be cleaned up. At some point, it behooves the taxpayers of Boston to make a greater contribution for what is an enormous benefit to them.

Private funds were supposed to come pouring in once the Conservancy was set up, largely through the intervention of Senator Edward Kennedy. But its board hasn’t raised enough, and is caught between the various business and government actors.

While the state and city should provide more resources, the most promising source of funds is the abutting property owners, who’ve profited mightily from the removal of the highway. Little-utilized sites such as the James Hook lobster company property have suddenly seen their assessed property value soar, with sites abutting the Greenway increasing 767 percent (as compared to 241 percent at comparable sites) between 2000 and 2009, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Those owners should contribute more of the cost of running the park by creating a Business Improvement District similar to one that helped fund the successful Millennium Park in Chicago. The Conservancy is already pushing for such a move, and estimates it could add another $2 million in annual funds. But any effort to enlist the neighboring businesses should be broader than just assessing fees. Including the local owners in the planning process would speed the creation of cafes, ground-level retail stores, condominum units, and other necessary private development.

Businesses could then join a new public council to oversee the Greenway. The current Conservancy could morph into such a council, with a remaking of its board. Meade, the chairman, is now doing double duty as CEO of the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, a vitally important job that should command most of his attention and fundraising acumen. The Greenway needs a leader focused solely on its needs. A remade board, with a mix of members reflecting the major players and the ability to draw on the BRA’s planning resources, should review the work of Executive Director Nancy Brennan and her staff to ensure that they are doing all that’s possible to bring the Greenway to fruition.

Open more access to the water
Development in places surrounding the Greenway is largely controlled by Menino, who was slow to come up with a comprehensive plan. In the meantime, the leading abutter — Don Chiofaro, developer of International Place — leaped forward with his own. He and his partner Ted Oatis purchased the Boston Harbor garage beside the New England Aquarium and began drawing up big plans.

Acting, they say, on their informal soundings of Menino’s BRA, they launched plans for a project roughly the size of the John Hancock building. Their 690-foot landmark would, they say, help solve the lack of retail stores and restaurants, provide both a new hotel and hundreds of condominiums, and still have room for a separate office tower, to boot. Commerce and traffic would grow. The open space on the Greenway, they argued, creates an opportunity for greater density of development on their 1.3-acre site.

As these plans developed, Menino’s own vision began to take shape — and it was radically different, imposing a 200-foot limit on buildings on the harbor side of the Greenway. Now, Chiofaro and Oatis are claiming that the mayor is trying to block them. They’ve offered to trim the size of their proposal somewhat, but Menino isn’t playing ball.

While overly rigid, Menino’s vision is sound. It sees the Greenway as a connector to the water, and not as the centerpiece of a new downtown. It steers potential development toward places like Chinatown, the North Station area, and the South Boston waterfront — essentially leveraging the Greenway to enhance the attractiveness of abutting neighorhoods, rather than be a neighborhood in itself.

Boston shouldn’t be like a party in which everyone crowds the kitchen: The opportunities created by the Greenway extend across the city, opening new places for development. If a revitalized Chinatown, West End, and Seaport District emerge as the ultimate legacy of the Big Dig, it could begin to look like money well spent.

Chiofaro’s concern for the Greenway is genuine, and his enthusiasm is palpable. His plan for a major development in the crowded Long Wharf area is out of whack, however. Ideally, his garage would be moved underground and the top grassed over. That, more than any other gesture, would open the Greenway to the water. But having already paid $153 million for the garage, Chiofaro and Oatis aren’t about to spend the money to move it underground without building something very valuable on top. Leaving the garage as it is — the default position of Chiofaro — isn’t desirable either, since the building is an eyesore that separates the Greenway from the harbor.

Menino should explore ways of buying out the garage owners, but the pricetag doesn’t seem feasible. Better for the mayor to show a measure of flexibility. Menino should at least explore compromises, with a bottom-line goal of creating more access to the ocean and a new lineup of stores and cafes. Chiofaro’s ambitions would have to get much smaller, but Menino could afford to give a little on the height question — especially to the extent that greater height could mean a smaller footprint on the ground. (The next-door Harbor Towers are already twice the height limit Menino is seeking to impose on Chiofaro.)

The mayor is right when he says the Greenway won’t emerge overnight. Meade makes the same point. The goal going forward shouldn’t be to solve every problem, but rather to win broad support for a vision, a process, a budget, and clear guidelines for organic growth. Future generations of Bostonians will be grateful.

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