When courthouse development fight is over, let’s think about how the state, city played us
The playbook being run by the state at East Cambridge’s former courthouse sounded like a success Sept. 9, as resident after resident got up to testify to the City Council about their fears living next to a building that was always “sick” but has been “deteriorating” rapidly and has “fallen apart” to become a “rotting … hideous blight” and an “environmental hazard” – in fact, a “toxic nightmare” – that neighbors believe they “shouldn’t breathe as [they] walk past” because they are “scared to death” the asbestos within is “going to kill all of us.”
Later public speakers pointed out that these fears resulted from neglect by the building’s owners, the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which should be responsible for, well, maintaining a building well enough that no one need worry about that, or not letting it go so badly that residents no longer trust when state officials give the building a clean bill of health.
The idea of suing the state was brought up too, but not by city staff. Certainly no staffer, and not City Manager Louis A. DePasquale himself, would show any degree of upset with the state for letting a building rot in the middle of a largely residential neighborhood, causing a panic among some citizens and essentially a civil war with others. As resident Tesley Utley said a week ago, “This community has become divided. Not by zones and districts, but house to house, and person to person. We shouldn’t be like this.”
But the City Manager’s Office can’t be upset, because the city’s using the same playbook.
Just as the state is waiting for Leggat McCall Properties to give it $33 million for the privilege of cleaning out all the toxic junk it left in the former courthouse, the city is waiting for Leggat McCall to come fix up its own neglected property: The First Street Garage, where 420 parking spaces may be leased to the company in a council decision Wednesday that will satisfy a special permit and allow the project to go forward. Nine thousand square feet of retail is included in the lease agreement.
“Benefits contained in the LMP proposal will be derived not only from the leasing of the parking spaces and the retail area, but also from the capital improvement funds for the garage,” said David Kale, assistant city manager for finance, during a Sept. 9 presentation.
“Benefits also include contributions for capital and fit-out improvements to the ground-floor retail … as you are aware, the retail space has been vacant for several years, and there are no plans to recommend funding to rehab the retail space at the garage,” Kale said.
To translate, Leggat McCall’s money will pay for repairs to a garage owned by the city that makes a profit every year, though the city could be and should be maintaining it; and in its retail space, which the city hasn’t been leasing, though the city could be and should be maintaining it and leasing it. (Especially since the city is listing ground-floor retail space in prime territory at a sweet $12 per square foot! Other lease rates in Cambridge can average up to $42 a square foot.)
But most of the retail space has just been empty and ignored for around a decade at the garage, which East Cambridge’s Marie Elena Saccoccio recalled this way Sept. 9:
“That building was a highly used and desired location. It housed the VFW and a very busy restaurant, and there was even a florist and a travel agency at one point. The VFW Hall was consistently rented out for political fundraisers, wedding showers and holiday parties. The demise of use really stems from a fire in the restaurant section of the garage that the city never remediated, and made no attempt at supporting the maintenance of the structure. Before long, the VFW closed and the city failed to … lease any part of the usable space.”
In case you missed it, the final part of Kale’s statement was an implicit threat to the council and residents that if Leggat McCall isn’t allowed to take over and rehab the retail space, the city will go on letting it fall apart – presumably until some other company with too much money comes along and agrees to fix up the space to rent it from the city. It’s exactly the kind of landlord everyone wants, showing you a ruined property and saying, “We didn’t take care of the place, but you’re welcome to clean it up if you want to pay us extra.”
None of that was mentioned in the city’s October 2018 request for proposals, which officials have noted drew not a single response aside from Leggat McCall’s. To be fair to them, no one has pointed out what a ludicrous assertion that is, considering it was a custom RFP of a specific amount of retail packaged with a specific amount of parking, like Andre the Giant ordering a bespoke bright orange, polka-dot suit and the tailor expressing surprise no one else bid on it. But they still shouldn’t go around saying it.
Whatever the council decides Wednesday, all residents of Cambridge should think about whether they appreciate the way the state and city has played them in pursuit of free money for dumpy properties. The state shouldn’t be inciting panic and civil war; this absurdly wealthy city shouldn’t be dumping its problems lazily on a developer invited in against the wishes of its own citizens. (Or cheerleading the war as its own means to an end, as it has in the past by encouraging project-by-project development or failing to act on very obvious environmental concerns.)
We can all be happy that war will end, but there should be a reckoning afterward about why we fought at all.