Sunday, July 14, 2024

DivcoWest, a tech-focused developer with offices in San Francisco and Boston, hopes to remake East Cambridge’s former courthouse into an office tower. (Images: Divco West)

The company owns the nearby Davenport building, which houses small tech companies, and has a long-term lease on a neighborhood parking garage.

A second round of proposals for East Cambridge’s former courthouse is set to be heard at 7 p.m. Wednesday at East End House, and state officials are to be on hand — ideally to explain to skeptical residents and aggrieved developers why the second round was necessary.

One builder, though, is calling the state’s unexplained rejection of proposals in March something of a gift: DivcoWest, the tech-focused firm with offices in San Francisco and Boston that was partners with Gutierrez Co. in its bid for 40 Thorndike St. When Gutierrez opted out of refiling for rights to redevelop the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse, DivcoWest opted in. The company is even using the same renderings residents saw in February for its proposal of ground-level mixed-use space and an office tower.

“We have a good relationship with the Gutierrez guys, and we were going to be partners,” said Keith Wallace, managing director at DivcoWest’s offices in Boston. “But we’re a fund, and one of the distinguishing characteristics we have is the ability, from a capital standpoint, to step into this deal ourselves.”

The last time proposals were heard, Gutierrez was warning that what it was showing was not a final design, but quickly generated “ideas we’d like to explore” that didn’t stand out compared with HYM’s proposal to lop off the top 60 feet of the loathed tower. DivcoWest has more fleshed-out idea now, though, as well as a couple of other “distinguishing characteristics” its principals think can move it ahead of HYM and the five other competitors when the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance closes on the purchase and sale for the building 11 a.m. July 1.

DivcoWest not only claims some 10 million square feet of tech space across the country, including such hubs as New York, Palo Alto, Calif., and Austin, Texas — 4 million in Massachusetts alone — but ownership of the neighboring Davenport building at 25 First St. By paying $79 million for the office building in March, DivcoWest became landlord to tech companies including Zipcar, Sonos, HubSpot and Atlas Venture.

“It’s a good place to incubate tenants, but they grow out of the building,” Wallace said. By owning  the building at 40 Thorndike, the company can give those companies somewhere to go, “acting as a catcher’s mitt to keep those tenants very local and not lose them to other markets.”

Then Davenport space would open to even newer startups.

“We have a unique ability to step in and create jobs in the community,” said Wallace, who lived in Cambridge for several years before moving to Charlestown. “We’re pretty passionate about it, and excited about the real estate.”

The layout of the building inside would be designed for tech companies that reject the traditional, closed-off perimeter offices in favor of large, open, expansive floorplates encouraging collaboration — the same need Google has expressed to landlord Boston Properties in nearby Kendall Square that led that developer to propose adding structures connecting its Three, Four and Five Cambridge Center buildings. (The former courthouse would offer innovation companies 20,000 square feet of floorpate in which to roam, Wallace said.)

Effect on the neighborhood

Residents would see the courthouse stripped of its concrete cladding, rid of its asbestos and “reskinned” in all the developers’ proposals; DivcoWest would keep the height, save for eliminating a facade that hides mechanicals on the roof and moving those uses to a small building on the center of the roof, decreasing shadow by a bit. There would also be essentially no savings on size by switching from the concrete walls to a glass facade, but it would “lighten” the tower’s presence, according to a DivcoWest informational packet dated May 14. The lowest 1.5 floors would be retail and “demand-based” community space, Wallace said, with demand for a grocery store being heard with “resounding consistency.” An art gallery and restaurant is also likely.

The company also said it plans to use the building’s existing underground space better, adding some 30 parking slots to total 80, and it has a long-term lease on the city-owned parking garage across the street. While it also expects to use Cambridgeside Galleria garage to ease neighbors’ parking concerns, DivcoWest is emphasizing public transportation — potentially running employee shuttles and even noting that showers with low-flow fixtures will be added to restrooms or a fitness area for people who ride bicycles or run to work.

While the city’s need for housing has been sounded without cease for some years, DivcoWest has an argument for why the 595,000-square-foot building works best with some retail and the rest of its 490,000 rentable square footage reserved for offices:

Office use will have minimal impact on the area’s intimate residential context. Based on a typical office tenant’s workday, the flow of people in and out of the building will create a predictable impact on the neighborhood and an almost nonexistent impact on the weekends, allowing residents to enjoy a peaceful sense of place consistent with the building’s historical use.

East Cambridge Planning Team president Barbara Broussard, who met with DivcoWest officials Monday, remains a skeptic. With the potential cost of the property over $40 million, asbestos remediation estimated by the state at between $10 million and $16 million and construction costing untold millions more — competitor Trinity Financial estimated its plans costing a total $150 million — she says “It’s amazing anyone’s considering a purchase of that building.”

East End House is at 105 Spring St., East Cambridge.