Could the Greenway soon become the “Brownway”?
The state is poised to pull the plug on millions of dollars in funding for the nonprofit that runs the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, setting off tense behind-the-scenes negotiations between state, city, and business officials over the park’s future.
The Greenway Conservancy, which oversees the 17-acre ribbon of parks that bends through the heart of the city, stands to lose 40 percent of its budget this summer when its contract with Massachusetts ends on June 30.
That prospect has left officials scrambling to find a way to keep the park — with its towering art sculptures, Bellagio-esque fountain, and huddle of food trucks — green, thriving, and well-fertilized.
After languishing for years as a concrete wasteland, the Greenway has emerged as a beloved urban oasis, joining the Common and the Public Garden as a park inextricably linked to the identity of the city. On sunny weekdays, workers pour out of the nearby office buildings to picnic on the lawns, while summer weekends find the expanse teeming with tourists and residents.
But now its funding is in question. In state offices not far from the park, a group of officials from the conservancy, the city, the state, and the business community are meeting regularly to negotiate a solution.
The Greenway’s leaders are accustomed to this regular battle over state money. For years the park has subsisted off short-term contracts that have been renewed time and again. The most recent agreement gives the Greenway $2 million annually. The rest of its $5 million budget comes from private donations, with a small amount — $130,000 — collected from nearby businesses.
But for almost a decade, the state has warned the Greenway it would not pay forever, and urged the park to be self-sufficient. As recently as last June, after controversy arose over the park’s management, Governor Charlie Baker repeated that warning.
This year, say people with direct knowledge of the conversations, the state has at last put its foot down, placing new pressure on the Greenway and its advocates.
The city has always resisted the idea of funding the park because it sits on state land. Nearby businesses insist they’ve done their part, as property taxes have grown as fast as the park’s popularity.
Leaders of the Greenway Conservancy, however, think all parties have a duty to contribute.
“I think you need support from the state and support from the city and support from the private sector,” said Bud Ris, a Greenway board member and former president and chief executive of the New England Aquarium, which sits alongside the park.
The Greenway’s executive director, Jesse Brackenbury, is more guarded, but hinted he would like others to pitch in.
“We remain confident of a shared resolution that is good for the park and for the public,” Brackenbury said.
The Greenway’s history is long, complicated, and political. The infamous Big Dig project, completed a decade ago, sank the Central Artery and created the park, but it sat relatively barren for years before the conservancy revived it beginning in 2009.
The independent organization was modeled after the group that runs Central Park in New York and was created by joint agreement of the city, state, and the now-defunct Turnpike Authority.
The Greenway’s popularity has grown in the last few years, in part because of the many public art projects Brackenbury’s team has brought to the space. The park features a carousel and, on a recent weekend, a zipline.
The Greenway has an endowment of $13.5 million, whose returns also help support the park. Since 2009, the state has contributed more than $15 million to the Greenway, according to data from the state’s comptroller. The Department of Transportation also gives the Greenway office space worth $11,500 a month on Kneeland Street.
Greenway officials say philanthropists are more eager to support special projects, like Janet Echelman’s net sculpture that hovered above the park in 2015, than everyday needs like fertilizer.
But the park has faced other challenges. Last year an outside group accused the nonprofit of mismanagement and superfluous spending.
Not long after, Baker, who was a member of the Greenway Conservancy’s founding board and an early supporter of the project, told the Boston Herald he intended to eventually cut state support to the Greenway.
The Greenway launched an internal investigation into those allegations, brought by an anonymous outside group, and deemed them unfounded. The investigation did reveal, however, that the Echelman sculpture was estimated to cost $500,000 but ultimately cost $1.8 million to install and take down. Money from private donors paid for the project, the report said.
The Greenway’s state money comes through the Department of Transportation. Asked about the department’s intentions for funding the park in the future, secretary Stephanie Pollack’s office repeatedly declined to make her available for an interview.
In a statement, Pollack’s spokeswoman reiterated that the funding is set to expire June 30 — the end of state fiscal year — and said MassDOT continues to talk with the conservancy and other “stakeholders about potential options for multi-party financial support and advancing long-term self-sufficiency going forward.”
The city, through a spokeswoman, said Mayor Martin J. Walsh “hopes that the state and the Greenway can reach a fair resolution that maintains what has become a treasured state asset.”
Nearby business leaders are also involved in discussions of the park’s future. Neighbors have traditionally balked at the idea of contributing more. In 2011 they resisted a request for them to pay a special tax to improve the park.
That suggestion, to create a so-called business improvement district, is again on the table, but Richard Dimino, president and chief executive of A Better City, a group that represents local businesses, said neighbors’ contributions should not be the main source of income.
“We think that the state has a defined set of responsibilities based on the ownership of the asset,” Dimino said.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat who represents the Greenway and neighborhoods around it, said that after residents suffered through the “dark days” of Big Dig misery, they deserve to have the park maintained.
“I’m open to finding a way to make the Greenway funding more sustainable,” he said. “But until we have that mechanism to fund the conservancy, the state needs to continue to provide monetary help to the park. That’s fulfilling its promises to the communities that dealt with the issues of the Big Dig.”