Dear city councillors, city manager and Community Development Department members,

LetterAs you know, the Planning Board is due to deliberate the special permit for the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse on Sept. 30. Planning Board members, including the chairman, have expressed concern about a lack of information and direction as to how to decide this special permit. The Planning Board chairman also attended and spoke at the Ordinance Committee meeting on the Carlone petition to state that, despite not recommending the petition, he would welcome input from the council on the courthouse, as it raises very difficult issues.

Similarly, at the last Planning Board hearing, members expressed their desire for an independent legal opinion with respect to the important legal issue that potentially divests the Planning Board of its authority to approve this special permit. This legal issue is the matter of the building’s “legal pre-existing non-conforming” status, as well as the appropriateness of the Planning Board versus the Zoning Board of Appeal in granting the zoning relief.

Since the competing legal opinions are offered by well-respected and recognized leading land-use attorneys (attorneys Martin Healy and Mark Bobrowski), and because the city solicitor, as noted by the Planning Board, reached her opinion without considering the competing arguments, it seems reasonable to ask if Healy and Bobrowski could agree on an attorney to provide an independent second opinion on this matter.

At the July hearing, Planning Board members also asked for legal clarification regarding the implications of the gift of deed for the underlying property – which could also be researched by the independent attorney.

It seems highly irresponsible for the city to not resolve these legal matters in a proactive manner and instead leave it to the residents to file a lawsuit against the city and developer. How embarrassing would it be for the city and the residents to be locked in a lawsuit to resolve serious issues that were flagged by many as needing resolution before the granting of a special permit?

Some city officials have expressed the thought that a lawsuit is the likely outcome, so there is no use for the city to take steps to work toward a solution short of that.

If the city can prevent such a lawsuit aimed at protecting the rights of the community, the city has a duty to do so. The Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge is not advocating for litigation and hopes such an outcome can be avoided.

In March the City Council, by unanimous vote, passed a policy order requesting that the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance and the developer “work together in an expeditious and creative fashion to substantially reduce the height, traffic and environmental impacts of the developer’s proposal.” In response, the developer reduced the height of the 22- story building by two stories. The NAEC does not believe this minor reduction meets the test of “substantially” reducing the detrimental impacts on the neighborhood.

Indeed, as Planning Board chairman Hugh Russell pointed out in his comments at the July 29 board hearing on the special permit, “right now the building is very detrimental and the use is not compatible with most of the surrounding residential areas. And I don’t think we want to see this level of detriment perpetuated.” (To see a transcript of Russell’s comments, see Pages 3-4 of this PDF.)

To be clear, the NAEC is not advocating for a park on the site, as detractors have claimed. We believe that there are viable development options between a park and a 22-story building that are more appropriate from an urban planning and neighborhood preservation perspective (and in line with the guidelines of the East Cambridge Planning Study), that have not been adequately explored. For example, as Russell mentions in his comments, perhaps a building of a 4.0 floor area ratio – the maximum zoning envelope at the time the building was constructed – is legally justifiable. This would produce a building of about 240,000 square feet, less than half the size of the current 500,000 square foot building.

The NAEC has consistently challenged the developer and city to seriously explore the viability of this size building.

We appreciate the Planning Board’s careful consideration of the special permit, and the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge is hopeful that the city will work with the Planning Board to address the outstanding legal and design issues before any permit is issued.

Abigail Lewis-Bowen, for the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge