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Critics question plan for Greenway carousel

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  June 22, 2011 01:33 PM

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( Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Some would prefer to see the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy maintain the current seasonal carousel near the new Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion.

The latest announcement about plans for a permanent, custom-made carousel on the much-scrutinized Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway has raised a variety of pointed questions from area residents and carousel enthusiasts.

Their concerns range from the project’s rising price tag, to the cost of a ride, from the choice of expensive designers from Utile Inc. and Reed Hilderbrand, to the decision to build a new carousel with varied figures made of fiberglass rather than reuse a historic one with wooden figures.

Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, said in a recent interview at the conservancy’s headquarters that she doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

“A carousel is something that is so simple. It makes people happy,” Brennan said. “And we have … civic-minded people who have stepped up and put some non-public money down to do this great thing. And why shouldn’t it be so nice that we can all be proud of it?”

But Roland Hopkins, a native of Duxbury and former Boston resident who now edits the California-based Carousel News & Trader, took issue with many elements of the conservancy’s plan. Hopkins said the planners hadn’t consulted any carousel experts he’s spoken to and had never seriously considered acquiring an antique machine appropriate to the historic nature of Boston.

Hopkins believes the conservancy imposed the idea of unusual animals such as lobsters and butterflies on children, who he believes prefer the traditional galloping horses. He also said the conservancy’s contention that fiberglass creatures were more durable than wooden ones was ill-informed.

“It’s really a glorified mall carousel. There’s no history to it,” Hopkins said.

Bette Largent, president of the National Carousel Association, said an antique machine isn’t necessarily better than a new one, but she cautioned that a new carousel will need repairs as frequently as a historic one.

“Just to say, ‘I’m going to buy a new one because it’s not going to need repairs,’ that’s a fallacy,” she said. “To me that’s not a good and reasonable excuse to buy a new one when you can have a historic one.”

Brennan said the conservancy had consulted experts and considered using an antique carousel, that their planners had gotten input from many people in the industry.

“We talked actually to 52 other carousel operators, notably Prospect Park and the Boston Common, the Detroit Zoo, the Hudson River Park, the Battery Park Carousel, proponents that are working on a very modern carousel that will be … closer to $10 million,” she said. “I was not on the phone personally, but we talked to the leading carousel fabricators, the operators themselves that have been engaged in carousel operations for years or decades, carousel sculptors, Disneyworld.”

Brennan said that the idea for unconventional figures based on local animals came from the children at four city schools where the conservancy sought design ideas, and that the choice of materials was dictated by their research and the year-round placement of the carousel on the greenway.

“And we are very satisfied,” she said, “that the approach that we’re taking ensures durability and very cost-effective maintenance.”

Charlestown resident Diane Valle said the projected $2.9 million would be better spent maintaining and improving the Greenway’s gardens. Valle was chairwoman of the Greenway Gardens project of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society that designed and planted the three Dewey Square parcels and maintained those parcels until the conservancy took custodianship from the society.

“That’s an extraordinary amount of money for something that in any other community would never cost that amount of money,” Valle said. “I just find it mind-boggling, because I’m looking at the whole Greenway. Two-point-nine million dollars could make this like the Boston Public Garden, where people would come from all over the world to be there.”

And Matt Conti, a 17-year North End resident who has written critically of the plan on his blog, NorthEndWaterfront.com, said he doesn’t see why the conservancy needs to spend so much on a new carousel when it currently has a profitable arrangement leasing space to a carousel owner and sharing the revenues.

(Under the current contract, the conservancy charges the carousel owner $1,000 per month and receives 25 percent of ticket sales.)

“So they’ll do this whole project, and what will be the end benefit? You’ll have a slightly better carousel,” Conti said. “And I think that’s a shame given the other options and what could be done with this money.”

Conti also said he's heard from neighborhood parents who are frustrated with the ride's ticket price. They consider $3 too high for frequent use, though many children will ask for a ride each time they pass the carousel — as often as twice a day for some.

Brennan stressed that the $2.9 million price tag given at the most recent public meeting is a cautious estimate and includes money designated for unforeseen contingencies. She said the conservancy would have more accurate figures after they received bids from carousel mechanism manufacturers.

A rough budget provided to Boston.com by the conservancy shows an estimated total of $2.95 million: $1.3 million for site work and landscaping on the entire northern portion of the lot; $1 million for the construction of the custom-designed carousel, including winter enclosure, lighting, music, railing, and a ticket booth; $325,000 for design, from concept to construction documents; $100,000 for project management; and $225,000 for contingencies.

Figures provided by the conservancy for comparable projects showed similar or greater costs for the construction of a new carousel, irrespective of landscaping and other costs. The numbers ranged from $750,000 for a carousel at the Children’s Zoo in Saginaw, Mich., to $2.5 million for the carousel and pavilion building at Pier 62 of New York City’s Hudson River Park.

Brennan said those who believe the carousel will be only a little better at a much greater expense should keep an open mind.

“They should just be patient and wait until this is put in place, and I think they’ll see a world of difference,” she said.

The carousel project grew out of the interest of a generous donor who has pledged $1.6 million to support the project, Brennan said, and doesn’t prevent the conservancy from pursuing other projects with funding from other donors.

“That’s the way philanthropy works,” she said. “You can’t get mad at one donor for doing something wonderful just because there’s a laundry list of important things that will make the park great. You just do that and then you go find another person, and then you go find another person.”

Brennan said the conservancy had heard the requests of the community to make carousel rides more affordable and now offers discounts on bulk ticket purchases as a result. While individual tickets are $3, a book of 10 tickets is available at $25. She also said the conservancy hoped in the future to find donors who would sponsor free rides for groups from schools or other organizations.

Perhaps the most passionate opponent of the carousel plan is Shirley Kressel, an activist and longtime critic of the Greenway Conservancy. Kressel said that if the conservancy has the ability to raise almost $3 million in private funds it has no right to further financial support from the state, and she’s offended that so much money will be spent on what she deems a frivolous project during hard economic times.

“Man, you would never know from [the conservancy] that we’re having a government crisis, that people are hungry, that people are out of work, that people need services,” Kressel said. “They are really just something like living on their own little planet.”

Kressel contends that the conservancy was created with the expectation that it would be self-supporting after receiving financial support from the state during an initial startup period scheduled to end in 2012. Legislation introduced in January by State Representative Aaron Michlewitz would extend state support of the parks through 2017, though it would cap the maximum amount of support at a lower level.

“What people should care about is that this outfit took control on a written agreement … with the state that after they took responsibility they would be entirely self-sufficient on private money,” Kressel said. “That was the premise, and that was the only reason that they are even there.”

Conservancy spokesman Tom Palmer forcefully rebutted Kressel’s claims, saying that in an early brainstorming period, a privately funded organization was one of many ideas discussed, but the conservancy was founded with the understanding that state support would be renewed after the startup period.

Susan Elsbree, director of communications for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which represented the city in those negotiations, agreed with Palmer’s recollection. “It was always contemplated that the state would have a significant role,” Elsbree said.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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(Reed Hilderbrand Inc./Utile Inc./Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy)

This elevation drawing shows the proposed design for the new carousel area as it would be seen from Christopher Columbus Park looking toward Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

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