Planning Board takes its time deciding courthouse; next hearing set for Sept. 30
The Planning Board deferred by two months deliberation and a decision on a controversial special permit application to repurpose the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse building in East Cambridge
The decision came at the end of a long Tuesday meeting at the Kennedy-Longfellow School auditorium that drew about 190 members of the public. The meeting started with a brief update on plans from developer Leggat McCall Properties, which presented similar revised plans to the East Cambridge Planning Team on June 25 changing the tower’s surface from uniform glass to terra cotta and improving its landscaping.
Leggat McCall hopes to turn the 40 Thorndike St. space into about 420,000 square feet of office space, some retail and 24 to 48 units of housing.
The bulk of the meeting was nearly three hours of public comment that ended at 10:45 p.m. The board announced it would continue the meeting and conduct deliberations Sept. 30, although members offered brief comments.
Steve Cohen, an attorney, asked to hear more from the city solicitor on whether a historical deed restriction on the property (requiring it be used for a public purpose) was still in play. Cohen also asked whether the solicitor had considered Mendes v. Barnstable, a case involving the validity of a special permit issued after a variance, and hoped she could report back.
H. Theodore Cohen, an attorney and former town counsel in Reading for nearly 30 years, suggested the board should follow the solicitor’s opinion “and not question it.”
Tom Sieniewicz, an architect, gave a comprehensive overview of points he thought the board and public could agree on, and tried to frame questions the board should consider in September.
The zoning requires the board to determine if the new use is “more detrimental to the neighborhood than the existing” use. When evaluating existing conditions, Sieniewicz asked, should the board consider the moribund courthouse bounded by a chain-link fence? Or should it consider a busy courthouse with noisy prisoners, attorneys, judges and the business of the Commonwealth? He also said the result of this process might well make everybody equally unhappy, and hoped for the “wisdom of Solomon.”
Members Steve Winter and Catherine Preston Connolly highlighted problems with the land disposition process managed by the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance and suggested that members of the public should contact their state representatives and ask them to improve its methods, which Connolly called broken and confusing.
Hugh Russell, the board’s chairman and an architect, offered his view of how the process should have worked: The state should have demolished the building and remediated asbestos and other environmental concerns; the city should have considered appropriate zoning for the block (current zoning is for a public building); and only then should the division have sought proposals for private bidders. Russell suggested that understanding what that process might have yielded could offer a yardstick for evaluating the current proposal.
City planners hire urban design staffer
Separately from courthouse matters, Assistant City Manager for Community Development Brian Murphy said in an interview that the city has hired a project planner for urban design: Suzannah Bigolin, a planner for the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, a regional planning agency serving the Lowell area.
Bigolin, who could not be reached for comment, will start in Cambridge on Aug. 4. She replaces Roger Boothe, who retired in February as director of urban design after 35 years with the city.
The urban design staff member advises the Planning Board and works with developers to help encourage good design on projects before, during and after the board’s approval process. Murphy’s staff has been struggling to fill his shoes, and substantial relief was expressed that the position has been filled.
Boothe is serving as one of six jurors in the city’s competitive design competition to design a network of open spaces in the Kendall Square area.
I hope this moves project forward after the September 30th hearing. I have spoken to a number of neighbors that support the project that were attending last night’s meeting.