After ballot box success, Boston parks advocates prepare project wish lists | Crain's Boston

After ballot box success, Boston parks advocates prepare project wish lists

The new year brought new hope for open space advocates and developers of affordable housing in Boston. This July, at the start of Boston’s next fiscal year, the city will begin collecting an additional 1 percent real estate tax to fund historic preservation, affordable housing and green space around town.

Voters approved the new fee at the ballot box in November, voting nearly three to one to adopt the Community Preservation Act, or CPA—a state measure that’s already law in more than 160 municipalities around Massachusetts, including contiguous Boston suburbs Cambridge and Somerville. A similar measure failed in 2001, one year after the state law was passed.

“Boston was missing out,” said Linda Orel, New England director of conservation finance for The Trust for Public Land. Orel is also executive director of The Conservation Campaign, an advocacy group that lobbied for the new tax.

“This is an opportunity to raise funds for important projects that often get squeezed out when the economy is down,” she said.

On a per capita basis, Boston has lots of parks, with nearly 5,000 acres of parkland within city limits—about 17 percent of the city’s total area. But not all neighborhoods have equal access to that wealth of green space. Many residents of Allston-Brighton and Mattapan are more than a 10-minute walk from the nearest park, according to an analysis by the Trust for Public Land.

Advocates estimate the new surcharge could bring in $20 million in funding, with about $16 million from residential and commercial properties and the rest from matching funds from the state. That’s a relatively constant flow of funding that could supplement municipal funding for parks projects, which get just a sliver of the city budget.

“We in the green space community are beginning to work on creating a list,” said Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of Friends of the Public Garden. “There are certainly projects in the parks that the Friends of the Public Garden care for that would be made possible because of it.”

This year Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department received $21 million, or less than 1 percent of the city’s operating budget. In the coming fiscal year, Mayor Martin Walsh has pledged $47.6 million in capital funds to the city’s parks system, the largest sum in the department's history.

Despite that infusion of capital, parks projects typically rely on federal and state investment, and advocates say that stream of funding has dwindled in recent years. Under the incoming administration of President-Elect Donald Trump, many of them fear public money for parks space will dry up even more.

The state law requires municipalities to spend at least 10 percent of the money they collect under the CPA on each of the three targeted categories: open space, historic preservation and affordable housing. Beyond that, local leaders are allowed to tweak the distribution of their funds. In Cambridge, for example, 80 percent of the money collected under the CPA is earmarked for affordable housing. Historic preservation gets a bigger share in New Bedford, Mass., which is home to the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park and a number of historic properties related to Moby Dick author Herman Melville.

In Boston, that formula is yet to be decided. A committee of up to nine people, including housing advocates, conservationists and urban planners—as well as potentially four elected or appointed city officials—will meet in the coming months to set the parameters.

Opponents of the measure argued that the 1 percent surcharge was unnecessary, and objected to creating a stream of funding for an as-yet undetermined list of projects. Now that voters have approved the measure and community groups are beginning to account for the new income in their project wish-lists for the coming fiscal year, advocates like Orel see the CPA’s success as a sign of bipartisan approval for investment in public space.

“Regardless of whether you live in a jurisdiction that is considered red or blue, everyone’s district is green,” said Orel.

Special taxing districts to fund transit and other public infrastructure were successful at ballot boxes around the country in 2016, from Atlanta to Los Angeles.

In addition to Boston, 10 other Massachusetts municipalities adopted the CPA in 2016: Billerica, Chelsea, Holyoke, Hull, Norwood, Pittsfield, Rockland, Springfield, Watertown and Wrentham. Five voted against it: Amesbury, Danvers, East Bridgewater, Palmer and South Hadley.

January 13, 2017 - 2:59pm