Legal appeals filed against city approval for East Cambridge courthouse project (update)

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Leggat McCall plans to redevelop the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge into office space, retail and residences.
Leggat McCall plans to redevelop the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge into office space, retail and residences.

Two separate appeals were filed Wednesday against the city’s granting of a special permit allowing development of the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge. Wednesday was the deadline for appeals, both of which were filed in the state’s Land Court.

The first appeal was filed by Daniel Hill, an attorney with offices directly across the street from the courthouse.

The second appeal was filed by four citizens: Mike Hawley, a former MIT Media Lab professor who has spoken repeatedly of his intention to appeal; Marie Saccoccio, a local attorney; Graham Gund, an internationally recognized architect; and Roger Summons, a professor of geobiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Except for Gund, they are all residential abutters.

The defendants in both lawsuits are the Planning Board and its six members who sat on the case, and LMP GP Holdings (a holding company for developers Leggat McCall Properties and Granite Properties). The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a defendant in the Hawley appeal.

Both appeals argue that the courthouse was not a lawful nonconforming structure under state zoning law and therefore the special permit to grant conversion from nonconforming to conforming was invalid and therefore “arbitrary and capricious.”

Same page for plaintiffs

“What we’re trying to do here is right a government wrong,” Hawley said, “and it’s not easy.”

“I feel pretty good” about the lawsuit, he said. “I feel frankly much better after I read [Hill’s] appeal, it just corroborates.”

Hill said he thought the suits were “very likely” to succeed. “There are several deficiencies with this decision,” he said. “The Planning Board didn’t get it right. The city solicitor was basically parroting the opinion from Marty Healy on this,” he said, referring to Leggat McCall’s lawyer.

Hill felt the board’s decision “didn’t adequately protect the interest of the neighborhood,” but said he decided to file a separate complaint because he didn’t know the plaintiffs in the other suit.

Developer responds

In response to the lawsuits, Robert Dickey of Leggat McCall said Thursday in a press release:

We remain committed to transforming this building in a manner that will contribute greatly to the vitality of East Cambridge by providing affordable and moderate-income housing, community gathering space, neighborhood-oriented retail and an office environment for the type of innovative and entrepreneurial businesses that thrive throughout Cambridge.

Dickey noted the Planning Board spent months on this special permit application and received “an unprecedented level of public comment. The Planning Board members should be commended for their very thoughtful and open public process. Before taking any final action on our application the board solicited and received legal advice from the city’s Law Department.”

“We believe that any review of the Planning Board’s decision will reveal that their actions were appropriate and lawful and in the best interests of the city of Cambridge and the East Cambridge community,” he said. “We intend to continue our efforts to develop the building as we await a judicial determination of this matter.”

The city’s role

Hawley and Hill also both argue that the developer does not have “legal control” of parking spaces in either the city’s First Street Garage or the developer’s recommended alternative, the CambridgeSide Galleria mall.

When told the city might choose not to renew parking leases at the First Street Garage to accommodate leasing spaces to Leggat, Hill said “If that’s going to be the case, that’s even more egregious. That a city would basically eliminate public parking in favor of a private developer — that’s just wrong on so many levels. The developer should be providing their own parking.”

City Councillor Dennis Carlone released a statement supporting the appeals:

I stand with residents who are challenging the decision in the Sullivan Courthouse matter. Large-scale redevelopment always requires tradeoffs, but a decision of this magnitude ought to be subject to an inclusive process that is characterized by transparency, democratic accountability and meaningful compromise. As it stands, the lack of process in this matter renders the outcome morally wrong.

The Planning Board is supposed to ensure a proposed use would “not cause harm or nuisance to surrounding uses,” but it didn’t do that in approving the courthouse, which would “impair the integrity of the district and the adjoining district” and “cause substantial detriment,” the Hawley appeal argues. Nor did it find that Leggat would make up for “the potential adverse impacts of additional residential units.”

The Hill appeal argues that the traffic generated by the redevelopment would cause “traffic congestion and ‘substantial change’ in the neighborhood”; and that the open space requirement of the zoning ordinance is not met. The Hawley appeal argues that there wasn’t proper public notice for granting of the off-site parking special permit.

Evolved plans

Leggat McCall’s plans have evolved since December 2012, when its $33 million bid was the highest among seven developers for the 40 Thorndike St. building. The company says it will cut two stories off, ending with a 20-story, two-basement building with 470,000 square feet of space – office and research and development offices except for 15,000 square feet of retail, restaurants and day care at street level and 25,000 square feet set aside to become 24 units of housing.

Leggat agreed to a Planning Board request that 24 residential units be allotted as eight affordable units, eight middle-income units and eight market-rate units. About 90 parking spaces fit onsite, but Leggat planned to use city-leased spaces in the First Street Garage or the parking garage at the mall for the remaining 420 spaces.

The two cases are before different Land Court judges: Alexander H. Sands III for Hill and former chief judge Karyn F. Scheier for Hawley. It is expected that they will be consolidated.

This post was updated Nov. 20, 2014, to correct the number of basements in the final project and amount Leggat McCall bid and to add quotes from residents and Robert Dickey.

Previous story: Courthouse redevelopment approved 6-0 by Planning Board, residents vowing suit


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