New group rallies opposition to the tower OK’d to replace courthouse ‘monstrosity’

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A meeting of the new Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge wraps up Sunday in MIT’s Stata Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)
A meeting of the new Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge wraps up Sunday in MIT’s Stata Center. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Neighborhood opposition to plans for East Cambridge’s former courthouse is growing again, taking form in a new group called the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge that met Sunday to rally public pressure before a March 4 meeting of the Planning Board.

The board hearing, which could lead to the granting of a special permit to Boston developer Leggat McCall to “reskin” the tower into 460,000 square feet of office space, some retail and 24 to 48 units of housing, has signaled a flurry of public activity in addition to Sunday’s meeting. Another is planned by city councillor Dennis Carlone for 2 p.m. Monday at City Hall, and the issue is on the agenda for a 7 p.m. Wednesday meeting of the East Cambridge Planning Team, an older neighborhood group the new association hopes will endorse its “insurrection,” in the words of organizer Seth Teller.

022314i courthouseWhile the meeting struggled to find unanimity on the details of its opposition, the couple dozen people in attendance agreed they wanted more neighborhood participation in the process, which had been run by the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, and, ultimately, for the building to be gone.

The group has between 50 and 100 people involved already and has hired a lawyer, Teller said. The Sunday meeting encouraged people to write letters to city officials and donate money to pay the lawyer, but debate led to talk of strategy as well.

“Maybe our point of view should be that [the land at 40 Thorndike St.] must remain in public use … If it not needed for a courthouse, then it should be used to support other public needs of the neighborhood and the city,” said Bob Simha, a former planner for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Then we can argue about what that use should be.”

A series of deeds dating back to the early 1800s gave the land for public use and “reads like a public trust. Some of the words that are significant are simply, ‘We give this property to the inhabitants, to the people of this county, forever for the sole purpose of putting up a courthouse and a jail and other public buildings that promote the county’s needs,’” said Mike Hawley, an organizer of the new group.

With the land used as a courthouse and jail for centuries, converting it to private ownership and different uses means its outsized height is no longer grandfathered to exist in a neighborhood otherwise limited to 45-foot structures, organizers said.

The difference in height is worse than many think, Teller said. The 280-foot height cited by officials is measured from an uphill portion of the land to the top of an indoor ceiling, but by his calculations neighbors in the downhill portion will be looking at a 325-foot building including rooftop “mechanicals” such as heating and air conditioning equipment.

Birth of a “tombstone”

The 22-story, three-basement Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse was built from 1966 to 1974 despite public protest and a cost that ballooned to $90 million after initial estimates of $20 million, and held a jail, District Attorney’s Office and Middlesex Superior and Cambridge District courts until aging and asbestos concerns sent everything but the jail to outlying communities in 2008-09. The neighborhood – mostly two- and three-story homes – never accepted the tower and its height, and even Sunday people were calling the building a “tombstone” and “monstrosity.” But when the state put out bids and awarded development to Leggat McCall in December 2012, “the state told us it was grandfathered in,” said Chris Matthews, a member of the East Cambridge Planning Team who was at the meeting as a resident rather than as a team representative. “Actually it’s not.”

Another developer’s plan sheared off the tower’s top four stories, but Leggat McCall has said it needs the full height to pay back what it expects to be a $200 million investment – money that residents said still has to be raised. Included in the cost is ridding the building of its asbestos, and residents said they were skeptical about current estimates for remediation and unhappy that Leggat McCall’s purchase price for the land has never been revealed.

Organizers urged not only attendance at public meetings and pressure on Planning Board members to deny the special permits needed by the developer, but pressure on city councillors, who they said must approve the parking that makes the project possible.

“We have about a week to get our objections registered,” Teller said, continuing:

Fifty years ago there was a giant mistake made in the neighborhood. Everybody acknowledges that. There is a chance now to correct the mistake, but there is also a possibility that the Planning Board could effectively perpetuate the mistake. If the use is converted now, 50 years from now when it’s time to tear down whatever horrible thing they build and put up the next thing, that group of residents won’t have this argument to make – because the conversion will have been accepted in 2014.

Second Street attorney and resident Dan Malis worried it was admirable but “a bit Pollyanna” to have overly broad goals such as reversing the state’s land sale process instead of trying to modify plans for the site. While he wasn’t sympathetic to the state or developer process, he warned that years-long “stasis” could result, leaving the much loathed building in place for years to come.

“Not an us vs. them situation”

For others, threats of long-term legal action seemed a plausible way to get the state and developer to rethink their approach, and Hawley pointed to promises that local zoning laws would apply to Leggat McCall in his response: “I don’t think it’s Pollyanna to say, ‘This is what the law says’ … people are looking at this building and trying to tweak it into submission. It can’t be done.”

With the new group’s next step being to ask the endorsement of the East Cambridge Planning Team, Matthews reminded them that with enough consistent appearance at meetings they would effectively become the team. “It’s not an us vs. them situation,” he said.

And he seemed ready to throw in with them.

“We didn’t really like any of the proposals,” but an ECPT compromise developed in the face of what seemed like inevitably development and no critical mass of outrage from the neighborhood, Matthews said. “Now you guys have come forward, which sort of re-energizes me into saying maybe we were right in the first place.”

Despite the process leading to the compromise, “I don’t think it’s a very deeply held conviction. If you all turned up at the East Cambridge Planning Team … my suspicion is that the sentiment in the room could quickly turn against this project,” Matthews said.

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