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Greenway group seeks voluntary tax for upkeep

State, private funding down

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / February 2, 2011

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The nonprofit organization that manages the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston will seek to raise up to $3 million for operations through a voluntary tax levied on commercial property owners abutting the 15-acre park system.

Directors of the group said yesterday that they will ask the property owners to pledge funds this year, with the hope of getting city approval for the tax in early 2012. The proceeds would be used to improve the downtown parks with new amenities and special events, and help maintain the landscaping and fountains along its length.

The Greenway’s budget has come under strain in recent years due to declining state aid and flat funding from private donors. Yesterday, the group elected a new chairwoman who said her top priority is to create a financial model that will sustain the parks.

“There needs to be a steady source of income for the horticulture, maintenance, and programming of the Greenway,’’ said Georgia Murray, the new chairwoman of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. “There’s a big difference between 19th-century urban parks and 21st-century urban parks. What we do in them is different and how they are maintained is different.’’

The Greenway, for example, has wireless Internet service, dozens of intricate lighting systems, geyser fountains, and other amenities that are designed to set it apart from Boston Common and other pastoral parks that have fewer mechanical systems and require less upkeep.

To levy the voluntary tax, organizers must get at least 60 percent of the commercial property owners to agree to participate in a business improvement district, which then must be approved the Boston City Council. The tax would be based on the amount of property each owner holds.

The effort would also have to be coordinated with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which controls about 50 percent of the Greenway’s annual funding. A spokesman said the Transportation Department is mindful of financial needs of the Greenway and intends to work with the city and the conservancy to create the improvement district.

The Transportation Department’s funding for the Greenway dropped by one-quarter, to $2.2 million in the current fiscal year, underscoring the need for a more predictable revenue source. Murray said the conservancy’s goal is to raise about $7 million a year for annual operations, closer to what is raised for other large urban spaces such as Millennium Park in Chicago.

Even if the Greenway district is approved, commercial property owners could opt out of the tax. That provision has sapped money from the city’s only other improvement district, in Downtown Crossing, where Equity Office and other large landlords have declined to provide about $1 million in annual funding.

Equity Office also owns several buildings along the Greenway. The company refused to comment on a Greenway tax yesterday, although it is involved with a group of property owners that is evaluating the idea of an improvement district.

Several other abutters are more enthusiastic about paying the voluntary tax. Among them are Donald Chiofaro, who developed International Place, the largest office complex along the Greenway, and developer Robert Beal, whose firm is headquartered along the parks.

Boston Properties, which is finishing a 31-story building along the Greenway, said it is still evaluating its participation. The business group A Better City is working with abutters and the conservancy to study the formation of the district.

Murray said the effort is in its early stages and several details still have to be worked out, including the precise boundaries of the district, what services it would pay for, and who would control its funding.

Typically, an improvement district has a board composed partly of property owners managing its finances. In this case, however, such a board would overlap with the Greenway Conservancy, creating two groups with responsibility to improve and maintain the parks.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration has made clear it does not want confusion over park management, although it backs the improvement district.

“There are a lot of details to be worked out, but we think the Greenway needs additional funding sources to reach the potential we think it can reach,’’ said Kairos Shen, Menino’s chief of planning. “The intention is to make the horticulture and programming of the Greenway sing.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.