Tuesday, July 16, 2024

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited to reflect the passing of time and changing circumstances surrounding the courthouse and Planning Board.

Dear city councillors and other public servants,

We understand you will be asked to consider an ambitious process to rethink Planning Board procedures.

City Manager Richard C. Rossi’s responsiveness to complaints on these thorny issues are appreciated, but isn’t this doomed to another quagmire of hearings and conversations? We are not sanguine about the result.

As you consider what to do, remember that until Thursday five of the Planning Board members had expired terms. Nearly all are a holdover from the previous administration. Is it any wonder the stale, entrenched patterns continue – or that so many people have complained so vigorously? “Rotating the crops” is crucial to any healthy board governance. With a fresh board, discussions about board process might have more traction.

To that point, I urge each of you to watch this brief clip contrasting Planning Board deliberation on the former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse on Sept. 30 with the testimony of Graham Gund:

Gund is one of the nation’s finest and most respected architects. He’s also the man who had the decency to step up and save the historic Bulfinch Courthouse, one of Cambridge’s jewels. And he continues to generously maintain the old Bulfinch building and its courtyard gardens with affection and dignity.

About the proposed 40 Thorndike courthouse renovation, Gund testified:

“It’s not a question of architecture. It’s the mass of the building.”

“During the entire year we don’t see the sun.”

“It’s horrendous. No one would permit this in a civilized society. So why are we perpetuating it?”

As you can see, when the Planning Board recalled Gund’s testimony, they sniggered in amusement that he “didn’t like the building.” Dismissing the whole point of Gund’s testimony, the board says: “We are softening the edge, making it compatible, with an emphasis on an earth-based material [terra cotta].”  Softening the edge?! An “earth-based” material? As opposed to what, kryptonite? We all know that tweaks to the skin of the building or to the details of the architecture do not begin to address the fundamental, overwhelming problem of massing and deleterious impact – which every single one of you voted to substantially reduce. The capacity of this board to toss aside the input of Gund almost as if it were a joke and disregard the input of hundreds and hundreds of citizens who were in a vast majority so thoughtfully and vigorously opposed to the project is jaw-dropping. Does nobody respect your unanimous policy order?

At the end of the deliberation, Planning Board members complimented themselves proudly on a job well done. And board member Ted Cohen actually wondered with a laugh why attorney Jim Rafferty didn’t jump up and down with joy once the vote was recorded – at which the whole board giggled. A “high five” moment? After the years of tortured hearings leading to this point? Really? Many observers were disgusted. One who stayed to the bitter end said “the so-called deliberation was merely a performance.” Another said it was a “bag job.” Another spoke of the “devastating incompetence” of the board.

This is not merely a few folks kvetching about an unpopular decision. And it is not just an echo of the summer’s heated arguments around councillor Dennis Carlone’s proposed amendment on large special permits. People are irate.

On a legal note about the filing of the formal decision on the courthouse permits: We intend to appeal that decision. As you all know, this case potentially leaves the city liable for issuing an unlawful special permit. As you also all know, the prudent course would have been to simply deny the permit and require the developer to seek approval in court that this structure, once privately owned, indeed gains protection as a lawfully nonconforming structure. Legally it is their burden to do so. Instead, stepping on the gas and approving the permits dumps the burden onto the community. It is an unfortunate turn of events, but many in the community feel that we need to do what is right – legally and morally – in the hope of achieving a better outcome for an historic site defiled by a colossal, corrupt mistake.

Since we citizens pay the taxes that support our city solicitor and the Planning Board, I’d like to suggest that the city provide funds to support the citizen’s legal appeal in this case. Unorthodox, but is that so wrong? Kindly reconsider some of the crazy “wrongs” that have led to this point:

We have the outrageous “wrong” of the original building (a criminally corrupt fiasco); and now the massively “wrong” idea of kicking that can into the future by piling thousands of corporate commuters into the midst of a residential neighborhood. Everyone knows two wrongs don’t make a right. And we have a third wrong: the exploitation of Cambridge’s unstoppable permitting machine to bridge from one monumental wrong to the next. And also the wrong idea that it’s somehow good planning to steam ahead on this massive renovation without first tackling the problems of traffic and parking that already plague the neighborhood and are growing much worse. Or how about the idea that 80 percent to 90 percent of the building will be removed – and then rebuilt like a zombie we can’t kill to milk every leasable square inch of the original monstrosity? Or the desperation maneuver by the state, using “eminent domain” to take the property from itself and give it back to itself to “cleanse” the title and wash away that pesky founding gift – all in the nick of time for the Planning Board to issue a decision in a final full-court press. Many feel these wrongs are deeply offensive.

How many wrongs must we swallow?

Michael Hawley, Cambridge