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.
Glass Act | Continued
ne idea behind the Japanese garden, according to Peterson, is that "it would make the historical tie to the seafaring trade." Many plants that are now commonly found around Boston originated in the Far East, he says. One of the main goals of depressing the Central Artery and opening up the Greenway is to reconnect the city to its waterfront; the Mass. Hort. parcels, located only a block from Fort Point Channel as it opens into Boston Harbor, are ideally situated to do that.
Peterson and others hope parcel 22 can be developed quickly. It is located just before the elevated highway begins, and therefore construction on it does not have to wait for the steel to come down, which is scheduled for 2005. Boston's Japan Society celebrates its 100th anniversary next year and would like the garden to be in place. And with Boston preparing to host the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, the city would like to show off part of the completed Greenway. Says Peterson: "I am confident that we could deliver at least some kind of place holder for the convention."
Still, there are questions. Is a Japanese garden the best use for the site? Should gardens from other cultures be included? As for the other parcels, some advocates doubt whether an office building is appropriate for parcel 21, and the plans for the actual Garden Under Glass are very sketchy. Peterson talks about something that "is not a plant museum but a plant encounter -- a dynamic experience that changes from week to week." But details, including the size of the structure, also vary.
In addition, Mass. Hort. has proposed that the development of parcels 21 and 19 be delayed so that it can finish planning and fund-raising, and that a traveling exhibit of topiarylike plant sculptures -- recently in Montreal -- be located there temporarily, starting in 2005. The traveling topiary idea has received only tepid response.
Also still undefined is the degree to which Mass. Hort. needs to raise money from these parcels, whether from concessions, rents for office space, or admissions charges for parts of the exhibit. Peterson insists that much of the space would be open to the public free, and that admission charges would be nominal, but he adds that the project does need a revenue stream to stay alive.
A 56-page marketing study for Mass. Hort. in 1999 projected that 1.1 million visitors a year could be attracted to an ambitiously designed and richly programmed facility. Still, assuming an admission fee of $3 to $4, the study projected an annual operating deficit of $1.8 million. The report, by Economics Research Associates of Washington, D.C., also looked at more modest plans that would have regional rather than national interest. But the projected financial results were not much better, so the focus has been on a major project that would be recognized internationally.
A major problem, however, continues to be uncertainty in the public mind over Mass. Hort.'s plan and prospects. "We don't really have a clear idea of what the Garden Under Glass can be," says the GreenSpace Alliance's Todisco. "What is the mission, and who is it going to serve?" Todisco sits on several boards connected with the Greenway planning and is as plugged in as any advocate in Boston. Indeed, Peterson was on her own Alliance board until last fall. If she doesn't know the answers to these questions, it is safe to assume that few in the city do.
Mass. Hort. may have contributed to this sense by trying to juggle a variety of concerns. Its internal problems, including civil suits that produced bad publicity, stemmed from multiple disputes. Some members wanted to move the organization to a site on the North Shore, instead of west of Boston. Some were passionately opposed to the sale of the books. Some felt from the start that the Garden Under Glass was too ambitious and would obscure Mass. Hort.'s basic mission. All of this was occurring during a time of financial stricture, which produced its own divisions and finger-pointing within the society. Harris says that Peterson, hired three years before she joined the board in 1995, has made significant progress on all the goals set for him. Last year, after a review, the board voted to keep him on for two more years.
Peterson, who has an amiable public manner, has, however, shifted aspects of the Garden Under Glass plans a number of times, creating the impression that Mass. Hort.'s first priority is to plan whatever is most likely to be funded, rather than what would be best for the site and the city. Peterson says he likes the political give-and-take. "Trying to meet the interests of all parties is not easy," he says. "But doable if you're creative."
The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis attracts some 800,000 persons a year to its 79-acre facility 3 miles from downtown. It is operated by a nonprofit organization and receives some public funding in exchange for allowing free admission at certain times for local residents. It is popular locally, enjoying a large membership of 35,000 -- far more than Mass. Hort.'s total membership of 12,000.
More centrally located is the Garfield Park Conservatory on the West Side of Chicago, which has persisted in a changing neighborhood since 1908. It has a program working with Chicago public school students that Boston might well emulate. At 75,000 square feet, the Garfield Park Conservatory is slightly larger than the 63,800 square feet set for the Garden Under Glass in Mass. Hort.'s preliminary plans from Koetter Kim & Associates. However, the Chicago facility attracts only some 100,000 visitors a year.
More than a million are drawn annually to Montreal's botanical garden, a 383-acre facility near the Olympic complex there. Outdoors and in, the facility offers Chinese and Japanese gardens, formal European gardens, and even a garden for the blind, emphasizing the plants' different textures. Programming is richly varied, and administrators estimate that half of visitors come for special events. Once part of Montreal's Park Department, the garden is now its own department, though it works closely with the Arbor Society of Montreal. It has an annual budget of about $30 million.
The biodome is another facility in Montreal with a patronage of nearly 1 million a year, and a substantial budget of more than $10 million.
While the 1999 study for Mass. Hort. looked at these and some other examples, more intensive work is needed. Gardens in Copenhagen and Amsterdam offer lessons for an urban conservatory in a northern latitude, and the gardens at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville are as ambitious as any. Boston's challenge is to take the best from the best, and improve on it.
Mass. Hort. today operates out of Elm Bank, a 188-acre estate in Wellesley and Dover that includes Italianate and Asian gardens designed by the Olmsted brothers, as well as plantings both traditional and modern, including some beds used for research into genetically modified flowers.
Peterson has been criticized for some of his moves to shore up the organization's finances, such as the sale of irreplaceable books. But Garden Under Glass cochair McDonough says it was the right move, partly because the books were not being used. "In truth," he says, "they were in a basement waiting for a disaster that would wipe out their value."
Mass. Hort. has reorganized its board, including creating a separate entity, Garden Under Glass Inc., to attract funding and community support. Recent arrivals have added some of the development and fund-raising clout that would give the project the credibility it needs so desperately.
For his part, Peterson is unfailingly optimistic. He points out that Mass. Hort. met a number of tests to get a long-term lease at Elm Bank, and he insists the Garden Under Glass plans are on track. Also, Mass. Hort. says that exhibition space for its big annual event, the Spring Flower Show (March 15-23), was fully booked earlier than ever before.
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society is a wounded institution, and the events of the past decade have made clear that its history will not save it. It must create its own future, and its chosen vehicle is the Garden Under Glass.
Yet to bring this off, Mass. Hort. will have to show an ability -- soon -- to raise money and create partnerships that has been scarce in recent years. This might mean help from the city or state or the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, but substantial private resources will be needed, too. It might mean a reconstituted board, with greater experience in development and fund-raising. Some think it might require replacing Peterson. Certainly Nancy Putnam's assertion that the organization will have difficulty raising money under Peterson has proved true, at least to date.
The venerable institution is at a crossroads. Turnpike chairman Amorello is actively exploring options. And Boston Redevelopment Authority director Mark Maloney says that lack of progress would require the selection of an alternative developer for the three valuable parcels at some point in the not-too-distant future. "It is not a decision I would like to make," he says, "but it will be an obvious one."
On the other hand, supporters of the Garden Under Glass have in recent weeks shown a new determination to fight for their project. John Henderson, a new board member and president of the George B. H. Macomber construction company in South Boston, endorses the plans for a phased approach, starting with raising $2 million in the next 12 months. This strategy is "very rational and manageable," he says.
John Dineen, a veteran Garden Under Glass board member who is also one of Boston's leading property lawyers, says the project will succeed "because it deserves to be done -- and besides, nobody's come up with anything better."
Because the Garden Under Glass is a dream that has excited so many, a lot is at stake, not just for John Peterson and the Horticultural Society, but for the entire Rose Kennedy Greenway and for all of Boston.
Robert L. Turner is deputy editor of the Globe editorial page.
This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 3/30/2003.