State denounced for courthouse attitude as council forms group to review plans
A group is being put together to take a fresh look at the unpopular plan to redevelop East Cambridge’s former courthouse, with a reported lack of interest from the state officials that chose the plan only part of the reason for the open disdain sent their way by city councillors and residents at a council meeting Monday.
“I certainly think you would be well within parameters to shackle yourselves to the building” if current development plans went forward, councillor Nadeem Mazen said to residents. “When I spoke to DCAMM, I wasn’t being heard. I have no question you weren’t being heard.”
It was the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance that awarded courthouse development rights to Leggat McCall in December 2012 after signaling from the start that the city’s input on the site began only after the state chose the developer and proposal. “We decide,” agency Commissioner Carole Cornelison said in November 2011. “It’s the state’s real estate.”
But Leggat McCall’s plans for the 22-story, three-basement former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse at 40 Thorndike St. – revealed only after it signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with the state – have run into opposition from the community, first in a process with the East Cambridge Planning Team that honed the plan to 460,000 square feet of office space, some retail and 24 to 48 units of housing and now with the more militant, recently formed Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge.
The state of things
The state has been absent from discussion since, and has refused to release Leggat McCall’s winning bid or say how it compared with other bidders. In announcing the decision, Cornelison said the figures would be released within a couple months when the sale went through, but that still hasn’t happened. The state has given conflicting and vague answers why.
Councillor Tim Toomey, in announcing his efforts to organize a working group, said Leggat McCall would participate along with residents and city officials but that no one at the state level seemed interested. Mazen’s experience was like what Toomey said he experienced over the past couple of years, right up to Friday.
“DCAMM was invited to the meeting, and they alluded they would not attend any further meetings. We sent a letter on Wednesday to the governor’s office asking for them to participate. They told us they thought it would be inappropriate for them to participate. I was hoping the state would show more respect and courtesy to the city and neighborhood,” said Toomey, who is also state representative for the 26th Middlesex District, which includes eastern parts of Somerville and Cambridge.
Toomey said he would try again to win Gov. Deval Patrick’s attention and participation when Patrick returned from traveling.
Mayor David Maher urged East Cambridge residents and others upset by the courthouse process to make their complaints heard at the state level, because “a blind eye was turned by the state on this issue.”
But the city retains some power, as Cornelison suggested in 2011, and a policy order approved unanimously by the council Monday is to confirm what it is. The developer’s plans need a vote from the council to use parking spaces in the city-owned First Street parking garage and special permits from the Planning Board. The ECPT decided unanimously to ask the Planning Board to reject the special permits, and the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge asked residents to pressure board members on why Leggat McCall should be allowed to keep a building height that goes against neighborhood zoning. It was unpreventable when government stepped in to override local laws to build the courthouse from 1966 to 1974, but members argue that the change in use to a private company strips away that exemption. (A March 4 hearing with the Planning Board was postponed.)
“We would never allow this building to be built now, so we need to do everything we can to make it fit in as well as it can to the neighborhood,” councillor Dennis Carlone said.
The policy order by him, Mazen, Toomey and McGovern aims to find ways to reduce the height, traffic and environmental effects of the developer’s proposal, and Leggat McCall officials are asking out of an environmental impact report and on record as saying they can’t make the building profitable without its full height.
In the end, the project requirements could change so much on the city end that the state could be forced to start its sales process over again, Carlone said.
That might please many in East Cambridge, but not all. Resident Jay Wasserman was hissed Monday when he said there was something he feared more than a 22-building in his “vibrant” neighborhood, which improved dramatically over the past 15 years despite being in the shadow of the tower: “A dead building scares me beyond belief,” he said. “If we get into this terrible fight and stop negotiating with the developers – and there are still many issues we can negotiate with them – we will stop everything and have a dead building there for a decade.”
RFP, Part Three?
Carlone’s conjecture would actually lead to a third request for proposals, since in March 2012 the state rejected all the proposals it had gathered a month earlier and had developers refile a month later. It never explained why, and when Leggat McCall was chosen as developer many in the city felt an explanation for the decision was also lacking.
Cornelison was clear in saying the decision was based on financial factors, though, including a purchase price that was higher than that of other bidders.
Fifteen months later, that approach was not winning approval with a new council.
“Perhaps they are overburdened by a huge number of buildings to manage,” Mazen said of his phone call with DCAMM officials, “but I was shocked by the lack of interest in the local neighborhood. It was true that I think they were not thinking of themselves as custodians of the local good, but – as many have said – of maximizing the monetary receipt the state sees. They do not see themselves, I think, as having a debt to the community in which they put this odious building … and the language they use is about what they are legally required to do and what they have to do, rather than what they ought to do.”