Saturday, May 18, 2024

East Cambridge’s former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse is more than twice the height allowed in current zoning, but unlikely to shrink as it’s redeveloped, state officials told residents Wednesday. (Photo: Google)

There has been “overwhelming interest” from developers in redeveloping East Cambridge’s massive white elephant — the 22-story (not counting three basement levels and a mezzanine) former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse — but there are “no proposals yet,” a state official told residents at a Wednesday night presentation and question-and-answer period at East End House.

Forty-nine developers and potential tenants have come through the aged, asbestos-ridden building over the course of three November and December walking tours, including names well-known in Cambridge: Boston Properties, Cabot Cabot & Forbes, The Bulfinch Cos., even the Cambridge Innovation Center. Nine of those cared enough to take a second tour, according to a state website.

They have until Feb. 6 to answer the state’s request for proposals, and one will be selected by June or July to take on the task of clearing asbestos and rebuilding on the remaining steel skeleton, very likely leaving it towering as high and dense as it is now, said Dana J. Harrell, the acting deputy commissioner of real estate for the state’s Division of Capital Management.

“This is me talking, not a successful developer, but I’ve been at this for almost 40 years now. Any developer is probably going to have substantial demolition on the interior — the asbestos is going to be gone — leave the shell and reskin this ugly thing,” Harrell said. “In terms of taking off some floors, anything is possible. But I don’t believe that’s the case.”

The answer disappointed the crowd of more than 50 people at the East Cambridge Planning Team-sponsored event, several of whom suggested lopping off some of the building’s 200-plus feet to bring it closer to what current zoning says is appropriate for the residential area: 80 feet.

Since city officials have told the state that a several-story parking garage across Second Street could be sold or leased long term as part of the redevelopment, recent City Council candidate Charles Marquardt wants the top several floors taken off the building and basically added atop the parking garage, resulting in a lower skyline but roughly equal density. Another resident merely told Harrell that, by having the courthouse forced on it in the 1970s despite protests, “this neighborhood has a burden. You should consider we’ve had the burden of this high-rise all these years, and this jail, and the traffic from the courthouse. I think it’s good for us to get something in return, some kind of remediation … take half the building off!”

Parking, prisoners and other problems

Parking was another big theme for the night, as residents recounted how special parking permits were handed out to courthouse personnel in excess of the 40 Thorndike St. building’s official 50 spaces, crowding streets that only got worse when the nearby One First condos went up some seven years ago, forcing long-timers to park up to five blocks from their homes — then losing even more spaces as Thorndike Street became metered. While neighbors can pay $100 a month for a berth in the garage, they worried even that would be taken from them with the needs of the redevelopment. The current courthouse has 595,000 square feet of space on 1.37 acres zoned to take everything from homes to lab and office space, retail or even a hotel. Office space is going for $42 per square foot in the area, according to Cushman & Wakefield figures cited by the state, and “view tower” space for up to $55 per square foot, resulting in a developer incentive to maintain the building as is.

“Our intent is to have the property work in and for the community, particularly at street level,” Harrell said.

Other complaints included the vicious winds whipping around the courthouse, especially treacherous when the grounds around it are icy, and the continued presence of the 375 Middlesex Jail prisoners that remain on the top four stories of the otherwise empty building. They are expected to be moved by spring of 2013, but in the meantime residents call them a nuisance — noisy when watching sports and loudly crude when they see women and children walking below. “They yell out obscenities to everyone walking in the area and, ‘Hey, fat lady,’” said one not particularly fat resident. “Night and day. And I don’t know why they’re allowed to do it. I couldn’t do it as a private citizen.” Another worry: if an even noisier set of occupants replaces them, or rooftop equipment is added that sounds off whenever air conditioning or venting is turned on inside.

The crowd groaned when Harrell denied asbestos playing a role in why the Middlesex Superior and Cambridge District courts left for other cities, and reminded him of the words of Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley as she demanded the state relocate her offices: “I’m not going to play Russian roulette with employees’ health and safety.” When he described how developers would rid the building of asbestos safely, “bagging” the building completely and creating a vacuum so none would escape, they reminded him of recent work where the “bag” tore in the strong winds swirling around the courthouse.

Another bit of skepticism arose with the request of a state guarantee that the chosen developer would finish what they started at 40 Thorndike. “We’ll prequalify the bidders,” Harrell said. “We won’t guarantee … we can’t.”

The answer didn’t sit well with those familiar with the 4-year-old hole in the ground where Filene’s used to be in Downtown Crossing.

Harrell also couldn’t promise the residents a say in which developer was chosen. But Barbara Broussard, a salty and effective moderator who managed to bring the meeting to a close even before its two-hour time limit, extracted a promise that the state would show the finalists’ proposals, without developers’ names attached, before a decision was made. The state officials, including capital management Commissioner Carole Cornelison, say they are scheduling more meetings with other East Cambridge and Kendall Square groups.