Opposition forms to Sullivan Courthouse Redevelopment

Published in Banker & Tradesman on March 2, 2014.

A new neighborhood group convened for the first time last week with the sole purpose of opposing the redevelopment plan for the E.J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge.

Calling the current 22-story courthouse a “monstrosity” and an “asbestos tombstone,” the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge said it will be using every tool at its disposal – including legal action – to oppose plans to redevelop the building as mainly office space, with 15,000 square feet of retail and 24 apartments.

At a meeting of the East Cambridge Planning Team, a long-standing neighborhood advocacy group, on Feb. 26, the new group turned out in large numbers and was successful in convincing planning team members to support their position. The East Cambridge Planning Team voted to unanimously endorse a letter to the Cambridge Planning Board asking them to deny a special permit at the site.

The state’s Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAMM) first put the property out to bid in the fall of 2011, rejected all of the bids, and selected developer Leggat McCall in December. 2012 after a second round of applications.

The East Cambridge Planning Team had strongly favored HYM Investment Group LLC, which proposed a mixed-use development with a four-story reduction to the height of the building. Currently, the top four floors are occupied by Middlesex Jail inmates, who are scheduled to be relocated to the Middlesex House of Corrections in Billerica in the spring, according to Meghan Kelly, deputy communications director for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance.

“DCAMM would support any agreement reached by the city of Cambridge and the developer,” Kelly said.

The Cambridge Planning Board is scheduled to take up Leggat McCall’s special permit on March 4. The developers are asking for relief in changing the use of the building from a courthouse to commercial and residential use, which includes a proposal to lease 420 parking spaces from a municipal garage on First Street, pending a public land disposition agreement that the City Council has to sign off on. But Cambridge resident Seth Teller urged his fellow residents Feb. 23 to use both technical and emotional arguments to convince the board to deny the permit, or at least delay it long enough for the group to recruit more members.

Fifty years ago there was a giant mistake made in the neighborhood,” Teller said. “There’s a chance now to correct it.”

Technical Considerations

East Cambridge resident Michael Hawley said he and his wife, Nina You, formed the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge after the couple attended a planning team meeting in January and left frustrated that there wasn’t more they could do block or stall the project. Hawley and You started digging through property records and came across the original deed for the land, a gift from Andrew Craigie, a Cambridge real estate speculator who built the Craigie Bridge.

According to the Cambridge Historical Society, Craigie deeded the land to the county in 1816 for the sole purpose of housing a courthouse and jail. Heather Hoffman, a Cambridge resident and title examiner, said there was no legal basis to maintain the site in its current use since the deed is nearly 200 years old. Use restrictions can only legally last for a maximum of 50 years, she said.

Even without the deed restriction in place, Teller said the redevelopment presents a major change of use from a public to a private building, and therefore should not be grandfathered in as a non-conforming building. The underlying zoning allows heights of up 80 feet, he said, and the new building proposed to be 282 feet should have to come down to scale.

“It’s a non-conforming use. They’re changing it from a public courthouse to a private building,” Teller said. “It’s bad for the city and it’s detrimental to the neighborhood. And those are the things the zoning code is supposed to protect against: increased traffic, noise pollution, the wind tunnel, solar glare, nighttime light pollution. Just think about all of the garbage trucks that will be rolling through our neighborhood to service the development.”

Cambridge resident Bob Simha encouraged the residents to tie up the development in “as much legal barbed wire as possible.”

But not everyone at the meeting was convinced those arguments were the most practical. Cambridge resident Dan Malis asked on Feb. 23 if it wouldn’t be better to try to negotiate a reduction in the height as opposed to blocking the project entirely.

At the East Cambridge Planning Team’s Wednesday night meeting, City Councilor Craig Kelley warned residents against suing developers because he said the developers could come back and sue them.

“Before you go down that litigation space, I suggest you talk to a bunch of the people in this room and determine if it’s really something you want to do,” Kelley said. “It can tear families apart, it can tear neighborhoods apart. It’s a terrible, awful thing, and I suggest you talk very, very, very carefully.”

Kelley said the “push-point” on the development would be negotiating for the lease of the 420 parking spaces the developer needs as part of the zoning requirements for the building since the council has to first sign off on the deal.

For the time being, the group agreed to do what they could to slow the development down by asking the Planning Board to solicit a series of studies looking at traffic, the impact of changing from a public use to a private use, an environmental impact study, and a study of the costs to remediate and/or demolish the building. They sent a letter to the Cambridge Planning Board “strongly opposing” the special permit and asking that the board terminate the building’s nonconforming status, return the site to the people of Cambridge for “renewed community purposes with appropriate development.”

The East Cambridge Planning Team wrote a letter asking the Planning Board to deny the permit based on a provision in the zoning code that prohibits changes in use that are “significantly more detrimental” to the neighborhood.

The Planning Board is scheduled to meet Tuesday, March 4 at 7 p.m. at the City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway in Cambridge.

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