Greenway funds fall short as costs rise

Directors look to taxes, other revenue sources

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / April 19, 2010

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Only two years into its existence, the nonprofit conservancy that manages the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway does not have enough money to complete and maintain the high-end park system, prompting its directors to appeal to the government for new taxes or other funding sources.

The Greenway conservancy is evaluating ways to raise an additional $2 million a year for its operations, and to offset an expected reduction in funding from the state for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Massachusetts officials say the state cannot afford next year’s $3 million appropriation, part of its pledge to pay half the Greenway’s annual maintenance costs.

The reduction would come as the Greenway’s maintenance costs continue to rise and would make it more difficult to buy and plant hundreds of trees or install public art that was promised as compensation for 17 years of Big Dig construction.

One-third of the 20-acre Greenway is unfinished, with some parks lacking basic furniture and signs, and parcels that were slated to host museums and cultural institutions remaining barren. Moreover, some of the amenities that distinguish the Greenway, including elaborate fountains and more than 50 lighting systems, are proving to be more costly to maintain than expected.

The conservancy had already planned to increase its budget by one-third, to $8 million, but with the recession hurting its other big source of money — private donors — officials said they have to find a new way to fund the parks.

“We need a more appropriate and stable financial structure that can withstand these cycles,’’ said the conservancy’s executive director, Nancy Brennan. “Deferring maintenance will just drive up costs, and the Greenway will begin to look poorly.’’

Brennan said the conservancy must have a new funding source by 2013 or the Greenway parks risk significant deterioration, and more than $550,000 in tree plantings and other planned improvements from the North End to Chinatown will be delayed even longer.

She said the conservancy is looking at the fund-raising practices used for several other modern urban parks, including Discovery Green in Houston, the High Line in New York City, Millennium Park in Chicago, and Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle. Those include getting a portion of the revenue from parking garages in the city, renting out space to restaurants and cafes, selling naming rights, or levying a special tax on commercial property along the Greenway.

The latter idea would be accomplished through the creation of a so-called business improvement district around the parks.

Tax funding would need approval from both the city and the state. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he would back an improvement district because building owners would be helping to maintain a park system that has dramatically increased their property values.

While supportive, aides to Governor Deval Patrick declined to comment on specific measures for now. Conservancy members said they expect to propose potential new funding sources by July.

In the meantime, the organization’s budget crunch is creating political tension, with Menino urging the Patrick administration to abide by the legislation that created the conservancy and required the state to provide 50 percent of its funding.

“These are state parks and they haven’t finished the job yet,’’ Menino said. “There is silence from the state on what they are willing to do over the next several years, and that’s a problem.’’

But Massachusetts officials said that at a time of budget cuts across state government, they simply cannot afford a $3 million appropriation for the Greenway.

“We are going to be taking a hard look at [the conservancy’s] budget because of the need to be careful with the dollars that go into any public facilities right now,’’ said Jeffrey Mullan, secretary of the state Department of Transportation. Mullan would not say how much might be cut from its budget.

While the Greenway is a vast improvement to the strip of downtown Boston once covered by the old elevated Central Artery, it remains devoid of the public art and cultural institutions that were promised by the legislation that created the park system in 2008. The legislation envisioned the Greenway as a showcase civic space, with museums, unique landscaping, decorative lighting, and other features.

But many of the cultural institutions that were planned for the Greenway have either died or are stalled, including a so-called Garden under Glass near South Station and a local history museum opposite Faneuil Hall. The institutions have had trouble raising money, especially to cover the higher cost of building over the newly submerged interstate and its ramps.

Moreover, some of the high-end features already on the Greenway are expensive to maintain. For example, on the plaza near Milk Street is a fountain that uses compressed air to shoot a minigeyser of water, surrounded by a bank of LED lights. The display is run by computers and other specialized electrical equipment in an underground vault directly above the Interstate 93 tunnel.

Steve Anderson, director of operations for the conservancy, said the temperature inside the vault needs to be strictly controlled during extreme winter and summer weather to keep the equipment from malfunctioning. That means higher utility costs, along with additional employee hours to operate the specialized equipment.

Above ground, some of the Greenway’s plants, such as bamboo planted in the parks in Chinatown, are high-maintenance.

“It’s very aggressive,’’ Anderson said. “You have to work hard to keep it contained in its space.’’

Brennan said these costs contribute to the squeeze on the conservancy’s budget, which does not have a capital reserve to pay for equipment failures. This summer, the conservancy will offer free wireless Internet service along the Greenway, but it may have to delay plans to install 150 trees and other landscaping along Atlantic Avenue and Surface Road.

“We need to stay within our budget, and will do that work as soon as we have the money,’’ Brennan said.

Casey Ross can be reached at