Transfer of prisoners closes Middlesex jail, moves courthouse redevelopment closer
The Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge got one step closer to redevelopment Saturday as 220 prisoners were transferred from the derelict building at 40 Thorndike St. to the Middlesex House of Corrections in Billerica. The Middlesex Jail in Cambridge is now closed.
The closing of the jail removes one roadblock to the planned office and residential conversion. Leggat McCall Properties is expected to soon buy the site from the state, though its project remains the target of strong neighborhood opposition and will need special permits from the city’s Planning Board. Its next hearing date is July 29 at the Kennedy-Longfellow School in East Cambridge. Removal of the prisoners from the building was one of the preconditions for the sale.
On Wednesday, Leggat McCall presented the latest version of its redevelopment plans to the East Cambridge Planning Team, with mixed results. The team voted against supporting Leggat McCall’s proposal by about 2 to 1.
New proposal shorter, with terra cotta
In a response to community feedback, Leggat McCall has removed two stories from the top of the building, about 24 feet, architect David Manfredi said at the Wednesday meeting. That lowers the height to 20 stories from 22.
“We clearly heard that you all were uncomfortable with a glass tower,” Manfredi said, “and so we reimagined it.” The new design is clad in a terra cotta grid that surrounds the building’s windows, and he said the company has “broken down the scale … significantly reduced the overall amount of glass.”
In response to audience questions, Leggat McCall representatives indicated that the purchase price of the building from the state was not a significant factor in their financial projections for the project, and that two stories was the maximum they could remove from the building and still maintain financial viability.
Members of the ECPT were clearly conflicted – all who spoke felt that the new proposal was better than the previous all-glass tower, but there was substantial debate about whether this proposal was good enough, or whether they should continue to oppose the project.
Leggat McCall also presented changes to the landscape design around the building, leveling off some of the green space and trying to make the design more inviting and less exclusionary, landscape designer Chris Jones said.
Ultimately the ECPT vote did not support Leggat McCall’s proposal.
Resident Mike Hawley indicated that he and other local residents still intended to block the development with litigation, stressing that even if he did not prevail, the litigation would tie up the development process in the courts for three to five years. Hawley hoped that the threat of litigation would force Leggat McCall and the state to reevaluate the process by which the building is being sold, hopefully resulting in the removal of the building or a much more substantial height reduction.
On Thursday, in advance of the transfer of prisoners from the Middlesex Jail on the upper stories of the Sullivan Courthouse, Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian led press on a tour of the building and its jail.
Standing in the dimly lit second-floor former offices of the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, Koutoujian described the closing as “really bittersweet” for those who, like he, “grew up so much of our formative justice professional lives here.”
Koutoujian was formerly a prosecutor for Middlesex County who worked in the building; he met his wife on the 13th floor in Cambridge District Court. “I still remember the outfit she wore the very first day I met her,” he said. “I remember very vividly when I first saw her and I fell in love with her that day.”
“The physical plant was never strong to begin with,” Koutoujian said. “The elevators have failed, pipes have failed, the electricity has failed, the steam has failed.”
“I don’t want to say it was obsolete from the very beginning,” he said, “but it was not built the way that it should have been built.”
Koutoujian said the jail was designed for 160 prisoners, but as of Thursday housed 221 inmates. At one time it held as many as 440 inmates, substantially over capacity.
The prisoners from the Middlesex Jail in Cambridge have moved to the Billerica House of Corrections, which has recently completed a $40 million expansion and can now hold up to 1,501 people. After the move of the Cambridge prisoners, it has 300 available spaces.
Koutoujian stressed that he hoped the move to Billerica would be temporary, and that a court complex would be built in the next few years somewhere in southern Middlesex County. Such a complex would include space for pretrial detainees, as well as relocating Cambridge District Court (now in Medford) and Middlesex Superior Court (now in Woburn). Koutoujian expressed concern about Billerica’s distance from the southern part of the county, considering the dozen of its 14 courts in the south and problems with traffic while transporting prisoners from Billerica in northern Middlesex.
While Koutoujian continued the tour through the jail facility, prisoners played half-court basketball and watched television, unaware that in two days’ time they would be leaving that Cambridge facility for good.