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Globe Editorial

Funding woes shouldn’t bury plans for new museum, garden

February 20, 2011

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THE FAILURE to build all four major public and community buildings envisioned for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is a dismal reflection of the economy; the nonprofit groups behind the projects struggled mightily before giving up and, in one case, moving to another site. It’s a blow to the civic culture of the city. But it should also be a challenge to city leaders. They must ensure that the worthiest of the projects go forward eventually, and that the state and city don’t let the Greenway become fallow. Cities grow organically, and today’s unfulfilled plans are the starting points for tomorrow’s ambitions. It’s the commitment that counts — and more commitment is needed.

By now, government leaders, Boston businesses, and community activists should agree that the city’s new front yard can be a cultural and community resource. Despite the vision and enthusiasm of backers led by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the various government entities involved in planning for the Greenway failed to come up with enough money to cover the former Interstate 93 highway ramps upon which the new buildings would be constructed. Mismanagement of the Big Dig left precious few dollars for the final clean-up work; but a greater obstacle was the lack of ownership by two governors, the mayor, and the business community. Over time, all must come back to the table.

Plans called for four structures — a new YMCA, an arts and culture pavilion, a Boston history museum, and a garden under glass. Of the four, two are unique to the region: the garden, and the history museum.

Backers of the history museum, led by former state administration and finance secretary Frank Keefe, have shifted their sights from the covered ramps of the Greenway to the nearby Parcel 9 on Blackstone Street, but many financial obstacles remain. That’s too bad, because a museum dedicated to Boston history should be an essential addition to the city’s cultural map.

There is no broad-scale interpretation of Boston history, a shameful omission considering the lavish ways that New York and Philadelphia, among others, celebrate their own history. This most time-layered of communities has somehow betrayed its own past. Blame should be shared by the federal government, which could do a lot more to promote and explain Boston’s central role in the founding of the nation. Potential donors should take note of the role a new museum could play in encouraging visitors; historic tourism is a growth industry, which could explode with the retirement of well-heeled baby boomers.

The garden under glass, slated for an expanse near South Station, is easily caricatured as a costly boondoggle, the pheasant-under-glass on the city’s development menu. But it could also be a downtown oasis. Over the recent snow-clogged months, the absence of any indoor landmark — any real horticultural enclave for the winter — has been especially apparent. It’s a good idea that should be supported. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the original developer, never came close to raising enough money. The local businesses whose employees would benefit the most from a garden under glass are already being asked to help provide for the Greenway’s regular upkeep, through a newly proposed Business Improvement District.

But after the upkeep is assured, they and other private donors should consider ways to revive plans for the garden. What was once envisioned as part of a grand master plan can eventually be accomplished in smaller steps. Let the climbing begin.