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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.

Plans for botanical complex jeopardized

Mass. Horticultural, developer end talks

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff, 2/14/2003

The troubled Massachusetts Horticultural Society has hit another pothole in its effort to build a botanical complex on a key section of the new Surface Artery corridor.

Discussions about a collaboration between the 174-year-old organization and MassDevelopment, a quasi-public agency that promotes development in the state, ended this week without an agreement, officials for both organizations said yesterday.

The society, which more than a decade ago was assigned three blocks of the open space being reclaimed by the Big Dig, had planned to announce next week that it was taking on MassDevelopment as a partner in its long effort to create a public attraction called Garden Under Glass between Summer Street and the Moakley Bridge.

The announcement was eagerly awaited, because it would have helped put to rest persistent doubts about whether the organization can fill the role that state officials had in mind when, in Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel environmental permits, they tapped the society to build a "winter garden." Since then, the organization has struggled to raise money and build support for the project.

But John C. Peterson, Mass. Horticultural's president, said yesterday the joint effort with its prospective new partner is off, at least for now. The parties wouldn't be specific about their differences.

"MassDevelopment's business and projects are not landscape and public enjoyment-oriented," Peterson said. "We got to the point on some contract negotiations where we just thought we couldn't come to agreement. We looked at that situation and said, `Time out'."

Michael J. Hogan, president and chief executive of MassDevelopment, confirmed the split. "We agreed that it wasn't a good fit to proceed," Hogan said.

Matthew Amorello, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which oversees the Big Dig, yesterday said he directed his staff to look at other possible options for the society's parcels. "I'm disappointed the announcement isn't going to be a reality," Amorello said. "If Mass. Hort., in the next couple of months, comes up with a plan and puts together something new, we will be supportive. But we need to keep moving forward."

MassDevelopment's relationship with the horticultural society goes back several years. The agency issued $2 million in bonds that allowed the society to build its educational center at Elm Bank in Wellesley. MassDevelopment also has provided about $75,000 in grant money to the society to help develop plans for Garden Under Glass.

Peterson said the society is continuing discussions with a number of public and private institutions to assist it in building the project gradually over the next few years. "We're definitely not left high and dry," he said.

"The funding opportunities that are out there are probably more in keeping with the phasing we're doing," Peterson said. "We need a more inclusive and collaborative effort here than with just one entity like MassDevelopment."

But Peterson also sounded an uncharacteristically tough note of realism as he discussed Garden Under Glass, acknowledging that efforts to design it and to raise millions of dollars to pay for it have been set back for another few months.

"If people and corporations really don't want to step up and support Mass. Hort, we've got to face the fact that the resources aren't there and give up," he said.

Peterson would not say with which other groups he is negotiating.

Although there is no formal deadline, Peterson said the horticultural society must show by the end of this year whether it can develop the parcels it was given. "I think we'll have a good sense of it in a couple of months," he said.

Peterson said the Garden Under Glass organization, which now has a separate board from the society, has an overall design concept that links the three parcels into "unified experience, horticultural gardens, and history of horticulture in Boston and New England.

Before the main structure can be built, a permanent Asian garden is to be constructed, and a temporary topiary exhibit, called Mosaiculture, is scheduled for 2005.

Peterson said that, with the recent sale of some valuable books, the society is in its best financial shape in years, with an endowment of about $5 million and only about $2 million in debt.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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