HYM Investment Group’s proposal for the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge takes off the top floors. Its model, shown Wednesday, has a bright building visible when you take off the dingy tower, shown at right. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Handsome visions of the future East Cambridge courthouse — transformed into loftlike homes, office space with small grocery stores at the base, penthouse restaurants with views of the city and grand community rooms — met hard-edged reality Wednesday with two questions about how the transformation takes place.

Six of the seven developers bidding presented plans at a East Cambridge Planning Team meeting, with Bulfinch Thorndike Investors missing, then took questions from the crowd, mainly fielding the questions smoothly and with good humor. Then an audience member asked for an estimate of how many cubic feet of asbestos would be taken out of the 40-year-old, 22-story structure, now emptied of its uses as the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse. (Document storage remains, and a jail on the top four floors.) No one could or would say, but the cost of the work gave the audience pause.

“We spent the bulk of our time thinking about the asbestos,” said Tom O’Brien, of HYM Investment Group. “There’s a lot. There’s asbestos throughout the entire building — ceilings, floors, just think about all the different pieces.”

The state long ago gave its estimate for asbestos removal at between $10 million and $16 million.

“I’m probably not allowed to say publicly what the number is,” O’Brien said. “I think $16 million is light.”

William Gause, executive vice president and a partner at Leggat McCall Properties, agreed the cost was “well in excess of $16 million.”

The state says its closing date on a courthouse purchase and sale agreement is July 1, and that the city has no formal role in helping it select a developer — but the developer who’s selected then has to go through a zoning process with the city, what O’Brien calls the residents’ “hole card” in getting what they want on the site.

That process inspired an uncomfortable question for the two companies saying they would use the building mainly for apartments or condominiums, The Congress Group and Trinity Financial. Charles Marquardt, a member of the East Cambridge Planning Team’s executive board, asked: Since city zoning seems to suggest only 250 units would be allowed in the building, how would the developers reach their 332 and 298 units, respectively? Both companies’ representatives said they intended to go ask the city for a variance.

“If you don’t get the variance for the extra housing, what will you do?” asked Barbara Broussard, president of the neighborhood group, making clear the timing trap of winning development rights, spending more than $100 million on a property — and finding you can’t use the plan that won the development rights.

There was silence, laughter and finally Matt Zahler of Trinity Financial said, “We’d look at it.”

It was the last question of the night.

The background

This was the second round of presentations for the developers, with DivcoWest replacing Gutierrez Co. after the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance rejected the first round, saying “six of the eight proposals did not fully comply with the financial disclosure requirements.” It’s generally recognized that the error was on the state’s side, but officials backed out of attending the Wednesday meeting about an hour and a half before it begin, citing a “conflict of interest,” Broussard said. The officials are due to appear before the team June 27.

The building 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, but aside from The Congress Group and Trinity Financial, the plans seen Wednesday were mostly office space. Any development would have to wait for the Middlesex Jail prisoners to be moved in July 2013, although the state has given itself “an outside relocation date of Dec. 31, 2013.” That makes 2015 the earliest a project could be delivered, according to Rob Dickey of Leggat McCall Properties.

In general, the builders said they would replace the structure’s concrete cladding with glass and other, lighter elements meant to make it less intrusive in the skyline; those proposing offices said they could work with the neighborhood on low-cost parking for when garage space wasn’t being used by building tenants. East Cambridge residents complained throughout the meeting that street parking was getting worse by the year, in part because of creeping use from people moving in to new buildings — even those with promises of one parking space per unit. “You’re going to be selling to people with two cars,” resident Jane Myers said. “There’s a tradition with the builders, they come over here and say, ‘We’re going to build enough parking,’ but they don’t. It’s one thing or another … I want there to be some way that not one person in that building is parking on our streets so we can’t park.”

The proposals

The Congress Group’s proposal includes a unique facade alternating window and frame depth to creates the illusion of ripples running down the side of the building.

Residential

The Congress Group: Shelley Santulli, a managing director for acquisitions and dispositions at The Congress Group, stuck fairly close to the company’s original presentation, including a unique facade — a fascinating alternation of window and frame depth that creates the illusion of ripples running down the side — and explaining that the building’s ceiling heights discouraged office space, while residences (“apartments or condominiums”) were more in keeping with the neighborhood. There would be 332 units, or 336,000 square feet of rentable space, with 183 parking spaces and a bike room; 50,000 square feet of retail on the two brick-faced ground-floor levels and an 8,500-square-foot meeting room for the neighborhood. “We looked at alternatives where we take off the top,” as HYM is proposing, she said, “but it really makes it difficult from an economic standpoint.” There could be a ground-level, open-air passageway through the building on a path that leads from neighboring Bulfinch Square.

Trinity Financial: Zahler, a project manager at Trinity Financial, said his proposal remained similar to the first round, but while half its 298 units (down from 306 in February) in 518,000 square feet stayed one-bedrooms, the company had added three-bedroom units for families into the remainder. The company also proposed 30,000 square feet of community space — as well as a 15,000-square-foot park with an amphitheater — and amenity space but no retail, as “we didn’t want to take away from retail that is already trying to make its way in East Cambridge.” Its 348 parking spaces provided slots for each renter and 50 for the community “at a reduced rate.”

All or primarily office

DivcoWest: This company works primarily with tech tenants and plans the same use here. It proposes about 400,000 square feet of office space, with the remainder split between retail, community space and amenities. There could be 80 parking space within the building, and DivcoWest touts the long-term lease it has on parking spaces at the city-owned garage across the street as part of its recent purchase of the nearby Davenport building.

HYM Investment Group: Uniquely, HYM plans to take off the building’s top floors, which would leave it with less overall square feet. It plans 50 residential units at the base, offices in the tower, 11,000 square feet of retail and 120 parking spaces. Community space and retail — possibly including a small grocer — would be next to a proposed 15,000 plaza.

Leggat McCall Properties: Seeing a lot of residential space being built and not being scared off by low ceilings, Leggat McCall opted for 500,000 square feet of office space using all of the tower and half the base, said Dickey, a company executive vice president and partner, with the rest of the base being retail and amenity space. Space was reserved on the south side for a park, he said, and a health club and grocery store (but not a supermarket) were being considered. The presentation seemed vaguer than some, with Dickey ended by saying “This is going to be a long process.” There will be 50 to 100 parking spaces.

Boston Properties: This proposal was the least formed of all, with Boston Properties Vice President Jeff Lowenberg presenting without any visual aids — every other company had images to present on an easel or models to display — and using almost all of his presentation time talking about projects the company has done elsewhere, such as Atlantic Wharf on Boston’s waterfront. It was especially surprising because the company was one of the first-round presenters as well, although it claimed at the time that its talks with the state precluded it from sharing details of its plans. “We don’t have a lot of splashy boards and stuff, but I will tell you that Boston Properties is a long-term owner, we’re here to stay and we can certainly deliver on this project,” Lowenberg said this time. Details that are available indicate 440,000 square feet of office space, 30,000 square feet of retail and 125 parking spaces.

Strangely, Lowenberg devoted a fair amount of time to talking about public and community space that could come to the former courthouse, again talking about Atlantic Wharf’s art galleries and public meeting spaces and about how “even more important than creating the spaces is actually programming and managing those spaces. We have staff in our Cambridge Center project, at the [Prudential Center in Boston] and at Atlantic Wharf that are devoted to programming these spaces. They’re constantly marketing them to nonprofits and other groups.” It was peculiar because programming in the Marriott Hotel plaza in Kendall Square has been so slow to come along that the mayor had Boston Properties commit to it in writing in exchange for the right to build elsewhere — even though Boston Properties had already promised the East Cambridge Planning Team that programming was on the way.