Developers get their first tour inside the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and one will be chosen as soon as June to replace the mostly empty, 40-year-old building, said Dana J. Harrell, the acting deputy commissioner of real estate for the state’s Division of Capital Management.
With the state fully in charge of choosing a developer, city councillors worried at a Monday roundtable that East Cambridge might get socked with a high-density building — up to 259 units are possible there, said Brian Murphy, assistant city manager for community development — and have no way to block it.
“If Cambridge has no one at the table to review those bids,” councillor Denise Simmons said, “we’re not sure where the community process comes in. If it’s after a developer’s been chosen, that might be too late.”
While Harrell and division Commissioner Carole Cornelison tried to soothe with assurances that a selected developer would have to go through Cambridge’s public process and, as Harrell said, that the state would “take the appropriate proposal for this location,” he also said simply that “usually we decide. It’s the state’s real estate.”
Councillor Leland Cheung raised the issue by noting that unlike other communities stuck in economic doldrums, Cambridge remains attractive to developers who bid high and then “have an incentive to build dense, because pretty much anything they build here they know they can sell and make money off of … you have to be cognizant of the fact that they may be the high bidder, but they may be punching more into the building than perhaps the community would like to see.”
The public bidding process began only after the state offered to sell the space to other state agencies and to Cambridge itself, but all passed on the opportunity. City Manager Robert W. Healy told the City Council in May that it was best to see the courthouse “imploded.”
With construction complete in 1974, the 22-story, three-basement, asbestos-ridden building housed the Middlesex Superior Court (now in Woburn) and Cambridge District Court (now in Medford). Only a few hundred county prisoners remain in a couple of the upper floors, and they are expected to be moved by spring of 2013 to a facility being built in Billerica. The current courthouse has 595,000 square feet of space on 1.37 acres zoned to take everything from homes to office space, retail or even a hotel. Lab space was included in the state’s description for developers.
But councillor Craig Kelley noted that laboratory space is not actually allowed at the 40 Thorndike St. site if it’s within 50 feet of residences — which might still allow laboratory space to be installed in the upper floors of a tall building.
Remediation and removal of asbestos and any other hazardous material from the site could cost between $10 million and $16 million, Harrell said, and it is possible that rather than raze the courthouse, which officials said has been called an “eyesore” and “a blight,” a developer might leave its steel skeleton and “re-skin” it, making for a similarly sized building.
“Many people thought it was too big when it was built,” Mayor David Maher said. “In redoing the building we want to make sure we don’t reopen those wounds.”
Councillors Cheung and Ken Reeves seized the opportunity to press division officials for a return of the Cambridge District Court, and while Cornelison noted that a review of the trial court system were being reassessed, it was a broad process that made no promises that would benefit a single city.