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Park Conservancy Models Part III: The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and Discovery Green Conservancies

This is the third installment of a three-part series looking at the histories of six different city park conservancies.  Read part one here and part two here.

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Boston. Credit: Bill Ilott (Flickr Feed)

When Boston’s “Big Dig” Central Artery/Tunnel Project was completed in 2007, the city found itself with 15 new acres of designated park space in the heart of the metropolis – land that had formerly lain under the elevated Fitzgerald Expressway. But figuring out how to develop, manage and program these new parks became almost as great a challenge as tearing down the old expressway in the first place.

From the start, citing budget issues, both the Boston Department of Parks and Recreation and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation declined to take operating responsibility for the property. Several initial efforts to create a new conservancy for park maintenance and programming failed. Finally, in 2004, with prodding from the Kennedy family, a memorandum of understanding was executed between Governor Mitt Romney, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello to create the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy.

The Conservancy, modeled after New York’s Central Park Conservancy, was charged with the responsibility to raise $20 million for an endowment and operating funds by the end of 2007. An initial goal of $5 million prompted a matching gift of $5 million from the Turnpike Authority (now the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT)), and with the active support of an original ten-member board that included two appointments by the city, two appointments by the state, five by MTA and one appointment by the Kennedy family, the Conservancy met the goal.

Because the 1.3-mile long Greenway lies over the interstate, MassDOT retains ownership of the land, which it leases to the Conservancy. Neither the city nor the state parks departments have any role with the facility.

Construction of the Greenway, which contains five separate parks, began in 2005; it opened in phases in 2007 and 2008, at which time the state legislature passed enabling legislation, signed by Governor Deval Patrick, that designated the Conservancy its official steward with responsibility for management, maintenance, programming and improvement.  This includes fountains, lawns, planting beds, and paved surfaces.

In 2010 the Conservancy provided new tables, umbrellas, free WiFi, and food vendors; added signage; mentored youth through the Green & Grow youth workforce development program; and hosted 150 free events. In 2011, National Park Service and the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, opened the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion, a visitor center featuring canopies over a granite map of the islands and descriptive panels.  Other accomplishments by the Conservancy included installation of the temporary Urban Green sculpture exhibit at Fort Point Channel Parks in collaboration with the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum; and the provision of 12 food vendors offering diverse lunch options in six locations. This year saw a 70 percent increase in attendance at park events, including approximately 100,000 riders enjoying the rented carousel. (A permanent custom-designed carousel, inspired by the imagination of Boston’s schoolchildren, is planned for 2013.)

The Greenway has begun spurring redevelopment on its edges. In October 2011, ground was broken for a 12-story, 286-unit apartment building with 17,000 square feet of retail space.  Completion is set for early 2013. Also announced that month was funding to advance a 345-unit housing project in Chinatown whose first phase is expected to be complete in 2014.

Discovery Green Conservancy, Discovery Green, Houston

Discovery Green, Houston.

Discovery Green is a new 12-acre park located in downtown Houston.  Created through a public-private partnership between the City of Houston and the non-profit Discovery Green Conservancy, the park is home to two interactive water features; an outdoor stage/amphitheater; two promenades; theme gardens; a jogging trail; a library; two reading rooms; two restaurants; two lawns; a playground; two dog runs; and numerous works of art. It also contains Kinder Lake, with an adjacent water garden, pier and model boat basin, which turns into a winter ice-skating rink.

Discovery Green was conceived not only as a public park, but also as a landmark to attract convention revenue to the City, and as an anchor for downtown development. Discovery Green Conservancy’s mission is “to operate an urban park that serves as a village green, a source of health and happiness for our citizens, and a window into the diverse talents and traditions that enrich life in Houston.”

In the late 19th century the park’s site was a high-end residential neighborhood, but construction of Union Station in 1911 permanently altered the area and it remained industrial for most of the 20th century.  In the 1970s, Texas Eastern Corporation purchased 32 blocks to build Houston Center, a “city-within-a-city” complex featuring offices, luxury lodging, restaurants, shopping, banking, health and fitness, and residential high-rise living – all linked to Houston Center Gardens, a small strip of private green space within the development.  However, even with the 1987 construction of the nearby Houston Convention Center, Houston Center was never a financial success, and in 2004 the entire complex was put up for sale.

It was the Houston Center Gardens that became the catalyst for creating Discovery Green. When the community realized the Gardens would likely be destroyed for a parking garage or some other use, they leapt into action. A group of philanthropists from The Brown Foundation (established by one of the co-owners of Texas Eastern), the Kinder Foundation, the Wortham Foundation, and the Houston Endowment, Inc. suggested to Mayor Bill White that the city purchase Houston Center Gardens to create a permanent downtown public park.  The Mayor liked the idea and became a strong supporter. At his request the property owner agreed to delay the sale to give the city and the foundations an opportunity to raise the funds and make an offer.

In short order, $57 million was raised to acquire the four-acre Gardens and several adjoining parcels. The city augmented the site by donating two adjacent parking lots (totaling 5.5 acres) and also closing part of a street (adding another acre). At this same time Discovery Green Conservancy was established to create the park and operate it. Project for Public Spaces was involved in the intensive public process.

Unique among park conservancies, Discovery Green Conservancy has a 50-year management contract with the Houston Downtown Park Corporation, a Local Government Corporation that remains the legal owner of the park. The Conservancy is responsible for all aspects of management and programming. Neither the city of Houston nor Harris County has any operational role with Discovery Green.

Building Discovery Green cost $182 million, with $125 million used to build and outfit the park. Remediation of industrial pollution on the site cost $1.2 million, funded in part by $500,000 from the seller and $395,000 from the City. The City paid for all of the parking garage costs. But Discovery Green has already repaid that investment: since opening in 2008, it has stimulated over $500 million in downtown development, including a 37-story, 346 unit luxury high-rise building; an office development that has already leased all of its space; a 262 suite urban hotel; and a new 28,000 square foot gourmet market, with a dedicated restaurant, coffee shop and bar. In its first two years of operation, Discovery Green hosted more than 800 free public and private events and had been visited by 1.7 million users, many of them out-of-towners attending convention events.

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2 Responses

  1. This piece for the Greenway Conservancy “model,” copied from the Conservancy’s advertising literature, fails to mention a few important facts. This non-profit is not truly a conservancy (go to their website, look at their leadership), but a corporate lobby for developers and businesses, formed to protect their real estate values and usher in new over-zoning development.

    It got its designation to maintain the park on the premise that it would operate exclusively with private money; then it successfully lobbied for a law committing the state to fund half of its annual budget. That budget is now five million dollars for about twelve acres of parkland, and is slated to soar to eleven million dollars, almost a million dollars a year per acre (Central Park NYC operates on about $50,000 a year per acre); the state is legally on the hook for up to $5.5 million a year.

    This private group has already received over $17 million in public money. However, as a private non-profit corporation, it is not subject to public record, open meeting, competitive bidding or conflict of interest laws, so we cannot find out exactly where the money goes.

    You can Google the Greenway Conservancy and read the reports in the Boston Herald and the South End News, about high executive salaries, about mystery donors for a highly profitable new merry-go-round that will bring the Conservancy a tidy $3 a ride, about public, press and governmental requests for financial information that are denied, about 35 employees, including three public relations flacks, on the payroll, about $300,000 a year for the Green & Grow program which teaches six kids gardening, about the bill that has been filed to terminate the Conservancy lease, save taxpayer money, and make this a public park with a real Friends group.

    Please do independent research to give your readers an accurate picture of this model.

  2. [...] It was also the model used for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston—which has been very successful—as reported by the City Parks Blog. [...]

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