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opinion | Renée Loth

Greenway deserves public support

The Rose Kennedy Greenway is well-loved but severely underfunded, and someone has to pay

James Surls’s “Walking Flower Times the Power of Five.” is on on parcel 21.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

James Surls’s “Walking Flower Times the Power of Five.” is on on parcel 21.

The Brazilian street artists Os Gemeos are painting a fabulous 70-foot mural on the vent stacks at Dewey Square. Food trucks and fruit stands are drawing crowds, the Wi-Fi is free, and the butterfly milkweed and coneflowers are in bloom. Public use is up an estimated 73 percent over 2010. After a fitful beginning, the Rose Kennedy Greenway is starting to thrive. What a good time to stomp on it!

The state Department of Transportation, which owns the 15-acre park, sent a blunt letter to the nonprofit Greenway Conservancy in January requiring a budget plan to eliminate all public cash subsidies over the next five years. “I believe it is prudent for the conservancy to begin to wean itself off government support,” transportation secretary Richard Davey wrote.

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This despite the 2008 enabling legislation creating the conservancy, which initially set aside up to $5.5 million a year for maintenance and capital expenses. No one was talking about the Greenway becoming financially independent then.

This week, the conservancy offered a detailed business plan to reduce its current $2.1 million subsidy to $1.2 million in five years. Executive Director Nancy Brennan says the conservancy already has tapped private philanthropy, volunteer labor, and other cultural institutions for support, and it’s looking into naming rights (the Tiffany’s Ring Fountain?) and charging fees for private parties.

But that’s not enough for the state DOT, an agency understandably strapped with its own transportation priorities and looking for every dime. “I’m not cutting the spigot off today,” said Davey in an interview. “But I’m not willing to concede yet that the Greenway cannot ever be self-sufficient.”

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But why should it, exactly? Is the Esplanade, operated by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, self-sufficient? Or the Boston Common, operated by the City of Boston (with contributions from a friends group)? Or the Commonwealth Mall? The Greenway is a public park. All of its programs — from the sunrise yoga to the splash-through fountains to the jazz concerts — are free. What’s next, charging admission?

The Department of Transportation isn’t in the park business, and perhaps it never asked to be steward of what Brennan ruefully calls “this fair-haired orphan.” But that’s no reason for the agency to act like a deadbeat dad now.

Davey says that he loves the park, and that helping it stand on its own feet will protect it from some future administration’s budget ax. He is somewhat mollified that the Legislature passed a transportation bond issue this week giving his office a seat on the conservancy board — and making clear that the conservancy is subject to public meeting and public records laws. Brennan surely brought some of this grief on herself with a tone-deaf refusal to release her salary or those of her top staff earlier this year.

At Davey’s urging, the conservancy hired independent consultants to research private funding opportunities for the park. Brennan is betting on the commercial property owners who abut this prime real estate forming a business-improvement district, or BID, to contribute more toward maintenance and security. But the consultant’s report makes clear that the BID is “contingent upon” the state’s continued financial commitment — beyond the ‘‘in-kind’’ contributions, such as office space, that the transportation department has offered.

Governance problems have bedeviled the Greenway since before it had a name. No one doubts its dollar value, in hotel, sales, and meals taxes, in tourist visits, in rising rents for offices and condos. “The state is making a pot of money from the Greenway district,” said Brennan. “Unfortunately, none of it is going to DOT.”

The Greenway has private funding options, but it is not New York City’s High Line, with its deep-pocketed supporters. (Just this week, it got a $5 million donation from Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg.) And it is not Post Office Square Park, supported by revenues from its pricey underground garage. It needs public support for basic maintenance and repairs, and as leverage for private donations.

People tend to have short memories, but when commuters and city residents were enduring the worst disruptions of the Big Dig, the state promised them an exquisite amenity as compensation — a place of beauty and connection. They shouldn’t be seduced and abandoned again.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
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