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City may tap '30s gift to aid Greenway

Commission urges sale of 218-acre trust to pay for park maintenance

Money to endow and care for the new Rose Kennedy Greenway could come from an unlikely source: a couple hundred acres of wooded land and fields bequeathed to the city 75 years ago.

In a letter last week to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the Boston Finance Commission, an agency that serves as a watchdog of city finances, said the city could tap the Cummings Trust, which holds 218 acres of idle land in Burlington and Woburn estimated to be worth $30 million.

The land was given to Boston in 1930 by Mary P.C. Cummings, widow of businessman and farmer John Cummings, who also owned a building on North Market Street in Boston. The trust called for the land to be kept ''forever open as a public pleasure ground."

But the commission said the city could honor the intent of the trust by selling the land for some kind of development and using the proceeds to pay for upkeep of the Greenway, the downtown parkland now being created to replace the elevated Central Artery, which has been dismantled.

''Funds are presently needed to maintain the soon to be completed Rose Kennedy Greenway," commission chairman Paul J. Minihane wrote to Menino, ''and this would be an excellent use of the Cummings Trust income."

The recommendation has come up before -- twice in the past 10 years. Each time, the city failed to act, the finance commission said.

Menino said that if the solution were that easy, the city would have latched onto the idea years ago.

Still, Peter Meade, chairman of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy's board, which oversees the parkland, is interested.

''I can't wait to talk to the mayor about it," he said.

Meade has estimated the conservancy needs to raise $50 million to establish an endowment sufficient to maintain parks along the 30-acre downtown corridor in perpetuity. Finding a source of funds has been a problem facing the Big Dig and Boston officials for more than 15 years.

Menino referred questions on the trust to chief of staff and corporation counsel Merita A. Hopkins, who said there were several big obstacles to selling the land for commercial use. For one, Mary Cummings wanted the land to remain open and not be developed, Hopkins said.

In addition, converting open land to commercial use is difficult under state law, she said, and using the land other than as the donor intended could mean the City of Boston would lose it.

''If it was something where we could have liquidated it and applied it to whatever project, we would have done that," she said.

Though the land is northwest of the city in Burlington and Woburn, Cummings apparently gave the trust to Boston to prevent local collection of property taxes on it. Decades ago, Boston kids were taken to the preserve to plant and tend ''victory gardens," said Warren Cummings, a distant nephew of Mary P.C. Cummings who lives next to the land, at the apex of Routes 128 and 3. But now the property is mostly used by kids on dirt bikes and hikers, he said.

''In recent years, particularly the past 10 years, there has been no use made of the land," the finance commission said in its letter to Menino.

When the commission first suggested that the city sell the Cummings Trust land, the panel said it was ''the largest and most underutilized trust fund in the city's possession."

In its letter last week, the commission pointed out that the Menino administration had agreed with earlier suggestions to make the value of the Cummings land work for the city. Edward J. Collins, then the city's chief financial officer, had worked on a plan and received a positive response from the state attorney general's office. Formal approval is required if the land in trust is to be sold.

But Collins became ill and the plan ''largely fell off the radar screen," the letter said.

Jeffrey W. Conley, executive director of the finance commission, said disposing of the land in a way that would keep with the spirit of the trust isn't that difficult. ''I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is you can create another public pleasure ground in its stead," he said.

For the next few years, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority will do upkeep on the Greenway. The Greenway conservancy board is obligated to raise $5 million this year -- Meade said it is well along toward that goal -- which is to be matched by $5 million from the authority.

Robert A. Mercier, Burlington town administrator, said conversations are under way about resolving the future of the Cummings Trust land, but he declined to elaborate. ''We've been interested in it for recreational uses for ourselves," he said. ''We would consider some development of the site if it makes sense."

Just not too much, said Warren Cummings, who played on the land as a child and has enjoyed it all his life, even though he doesn't own it. ''I did, my children did, and now my grandchildren," he said. He wants something done, because ''I don't like to see it a no man's land."

''I'd like to see a Mary P.C. Cummings Park on the land right where it is," he said, ''but it isn't my call."

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

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