Tuesday, March 13, 2012

And the Public Wakes Up to the Deadway in Boston

In today’s Boston Herald article, “Greenway Conservancy critics have their say” the public has finally reached the conclusion that many of my posts have addressed. The Greenway is, relative to its cost and promise, a complete failure because of Mayor Menino and the restrictions that have choked the project. The ridiculous spending of the Conservatory is a symptom of what happens when nothing happens. “Overseers” claim that they need to “oversee” because the park isn’t successful. And it never ends.

The Greenway is the Deadway, and the game’s up on everyone involved. I served on the Surface Artery Commission of the State Legislature for two years before the Greenway opened. The State legislation designated that the Greenway be used for public use—not open parkland—public use. Of course, every environmental, preservation-minded person on the panel took that to mean empty parkland. And so we have what we limited ourselves to—a seldom-visited, chopped up series of miniature parks that nobody walks through.

I will put it simply. There is nothing to do on the Greenway, and it is not located in a spot where people would naturally congregate, i.e. the Common, Copley Square, City Hall Plaza. It is a circuitous path around the perimeter of the city, lined by buildings on both sides. Given the choice on a winter night of the choice to walk from Federal Street to North Station, nobody will decide that it would be more aesthetically pleasing to add 20 minutes to the trip by heading east and walking in an empty circle. People head in straight lines.

The solution is simple. First, charge fees to the current beneficiaries of the Greenway, the property owners along its path. They will object. They will fight. But if you make the fee reasonable, then you can beat them through public opinion. I can see an article in the Globe now: “Boston Harbor Hotel, city’s most expensive, refuses to participate in Greenway partner project.” And make life miserable without cooperation.

Second, get rid of the notion that big and tall is bad and let new construction take place, the return on which would justify a developer undertaking the project. And yes, Mr. Mayor, that means height. Every approved project would carry with it a pre-construction covenant of payment to maintain the Greenway. This is done in San Francisco at Yerba Buena Park and has encouraged new development –developers will gladly pay to build on an amenity. And, to address a primary purpose of the Greenway, assure that the developments incorporate a connection to the harbor. And I do not, in any way, mean height limits. We are afraid of tall buildings. Visit the waterfront of Sydney and tell me whether tall buildings and 24/7 vibrancy can coexist.

Those two financial assessments alleviate the maintenance of the park. Goodbye Conservancy, goodbye to public funding. But they don’t address the core issue of making the Greenway a place people want to go.

Let the private sector build on the Greenway. I know this will shock everybody at the BRA because I think they actually enjoy reviewing and encouraging nonsensical non-profit proposals (YMCA, Mass. Audubon, Museum of History, etc.) Each parcel can structurally bear significant buildings. Allow private developers to create public spaces. They would not necessarily be free to the public but they would be designed to bring anyone into the project as opposed to office towers or residential buildings.

Let Apple build one of its glowing iconic stores. Let the BSO build a magnificent opera house, raised above Dewey Square. Let the Bruins and the Jacobs Brothers build a remarkable hockey rink near the Garden. The developers’ costs will not be recovered by charges. The expenditures will not be recaptured and categorized as advertising. And not impermanent billboards or flashing signs but physical spectacular advertising they could develop, all in the name of the public good. I can see the blimp view of the Greenway during a Pats game now—alive and creative.

Let imaginations run wild for once rather than be dismissed by restrictive rules that have utterly failed. I don’t have the answers for how the private sector will react and what they will propose. But they will respond and it will be exciting. Otherwise, we’re struck with the Dimway, bleeding money.

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