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Popular Lawn on D may be too costly to keep going

Sisters Mia, 15, (left) and Tal Ginsburg, 21, of Los Angeles were on the swings at the Lawn on D in South Boston on Wednesday.
Sisters Mia, 15, (left) and Tal Ginsburg, 21, of Los Angeles were on the swings at the Lawn on D in South Boston on Wednesday. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Since opening a year ago, the popular Seaport District park known as the Lawn on D has become a magnet for crowds who flocked to the outdoor space for everything from Latin dance parties to an offbeat art installation featuring giant inflatable rabbits.

But the Lawn is costing the state convention center authority so much money to run — nearly $2 million this year — that officials there are unsure whether they can keep it open in its current form.

Convention center officials said they budgeted $2.2 million this year for operating costs at the 2.7-acre park in South Boston, and they expect to generate just over $300,000 in revenue.

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The Lawn was once envisioned as an 18-month experiment, a way for the convention center authority to make use of the space before construction began on an expansion of the convention center next door while also fostering a community feel in an emerging neighborhood. The agency anticipated it probably would not turn a profit with the venture.

The park drew an immediate following from young tech professionals and local families alike after opening in August 2014. An estimated 135,000 people have visited the space in the past 12 months — office workers relaxing on oval swings in a break from the daily grind, millennials throwing back Harpoons on summer evenings, parents and children picnicking in the sun.

When Governor Charlie Baker shelved the expansion project in April, many hoped that meant that the Lawn’s activities on a once-forlorn stretch of D Street would continue.

But with costs that far exceed its revenues, the Lawn’s future is unclear.

Johanna Storella, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s chief strategy officer, said she does not know whether the Lawn will continue after the park closes for the season in October. The staff, she said, is drawing up different operating scenarios to present to the agency’s board in the fall.

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If board members choose to revive the park next year, Storella said, they may need to decide whether to scale it back to a simpler open space or continue to pay for a heavily programmed venue.

Storella said she is pleased with the revenue the park has seen this year compared with $70,000 generated in the shortened 2014 season. Food trucks pay to line up at the Lawn, and the authority gets a percentage of burger and beer sales at the concessions tent. The entire Lawn, swings and all, can be rented for $17,500 a day. The authority is starting to seek corporate sponsorships for its upcoming events.

“We can take all the lessons we’ve learned and bring [the Lawn on D] closer to break even in the future . . . and eventually make money,” Storella said.

HR&A Advisors of New York, the consultant hired to manage the park, comes up with the programming ideas and runs them by convention center officials before putting them into motion. The expenses can rack up: $56,000 for the “Friday Night Flicks” series or $70,000 for a weekend visit from a giant inflatable maze known as Pentalum.

Cindy Brown, the board’s new vice chair, is keeping an open mind on the future of the park. The chief executive of Boston Duck Tours, Brown said it’s too early to weigh in on whether the Lawn should continue. But she said she’s impressed with its popularity, particularly among twenty- and thirty-somethings. “This is just a little bit hipper [than Boston’s other parks],” she said, “a little bit trendier.”

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Finding private funds for park space isn’t a new dilemma for Boston.

When the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway opened in the path of the old elevated Central Artery seven years ago, the Legislature’s goal was to limit state subsidies to half of the park’s operations, according to Greenway Conservancy executive director Jesse Brackenbury.

The conservancy, a nonprofit charged with maintaining the 17-acre Greenway, has met that goal, Brackenbury said: The group received a state subsidy valued at about $2 million in the fiscal year that ended last summer, to help pay for a $4.2 million budget.

The Greenway generated about $578,000 in revenue in that year, largely from food truck fees and carousel tickets, and relied on its endowment and donations to cover the rest, Brackenbury said. Now the conservancy’s board is looking at other sources of income, such as opening a beer garden. That idea, if it came to pass, would in part be inspired by the success the Lawn on D has had with its beer and wine sales.

Some parks can be weaned off public subsidies completely. New York’s Bryant Park is one of the most famous examples.

Dan Biederman, president of the firm that runs the Manhattan park, said it hasn’t received a subsidy in 18 years. Its $12 million budget, he said, is funded by sources such as corporate sponsorships, concession fees, and payments from nearby property owners.

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“We don’t take public money,” he said. “That makes you hustle.’’

Greg Sullivan, research director at the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute and a vocal critic of the Boston convention center expansion, said the Lawn on D needs to follow Bryant Park’s lead and become more self-sustaining.

“If it wishes to continue this program, the board needs to make sure that going forward a realistic plan is in place,” Sullivan said.

Architect Cheryl Tougias, whose office is on nearby A Street, said the events that the convention center authority hosts at the Lawn on D have helped it draw throngs from other parts of the city and connect South Boston’s main residential area with the waterfront.

“It’s been very successful in drawing people there and giving the people who are moving there a place to go,” said Tougias, whose firm had hoped to help design two nearby garages if the convention center expansion went forward.

Tougias said she hopes the convention center authority continues to subsidize the Lawn for at least a few more years to give the corridor more time to develop: “I think, in the long term, to have that replaced by something other than an open active green space might be a mistake.”

An art installation with giant inflatable rabbits invited exploration in July at the park.
An art installation with giant inflatable rabbits invited exploration in July at the park.(JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.