Stalemate at Sullivan Courthouse

Originally published April 30, 2014 in Banker & Tradesman.

An artist's rendering of a redeveloped Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge. Courtesy photo/Banker & Tradesman.

An artist’s rendering of a redeveloped Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge. Courtesy photo/Banker & Tradesman.

After a grueling four-hour hearing Tuesday, the Cambridge Planning Board agreed to extend the deadline to June 20 for a decision on a proposal to redevelop a roughly 500,000-square-foot courthouse and jail in East Cambridge.

The delay is only the most recent in a string of setbacks for the project following the formation of a new residents group, the Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge, which coalesced earlier this year to oppose the project. The state sold the E. J. Sullivan Courthouse at 40 Thorndike St. in Cambridge to Leggat McCall in December 2012.

The Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge has since retained land use and zoning attorney Mark Bobrowski, who delivered a legal opinion to the board arguing the state property, once transferred to a private developer, would no longer qualify as a pre-existing, nonconforming structure exempt from current zoning ordinances. The building is roughly 280 feet tall, dwarfing the surrounding residential neighborhood, where heights are restricted to 80 feet.

“The Sullivan building was constructed under the doctrine of government immunity or ‘supremacy’ principals,” Bobrowski wrote in a letter to the Planning Board dated April 9. “However, when the government building is decommissioned, the status of the structure, once turned over to the private sector, is not necessarily that of a protected, nonconforming structure.”

Planning Board chair Hugh Russell cautioned at the meeting that the board could only deliberate on laws as they exist, not establish new case law. He urged residents to “show restraint” in their comments to the board by focusing only on the criteria for Leggat McCall’s special permit applications, which require the developer demonstrate there would be no significant detrimental impact once the building changes from public to private use.

The board offered no comment on the issue after the four-hour hearing, choosing instead to delay deliberations to a meeting to be scheduled in June.

State Rep. and City Councilor Tim Toomey convened a working group of residents to work with Leggat McCall on the project. They have met three times, twice with the developer and once without, said James Rafferty, Leggat McCall’s legal counsel.

At the hearing on April 29, residents overwhelmingly expressed opposition to the project, claiming light from the high-rise office towers would loom over the neighborhood like a bright lantern. Several people cited concerns over a wind-tunnel effect that currently exists and would remain if the building’s height is not significantly reduced. Others pointed to noise pollution and the impact of thousands more employees crowding East Cambridge’s roads.

At least two members of the East Cambridge Business Association voiced their support for the project. Association President Patrick Magee urged the board to remember the detriment to the business community when the courthouse vacated in 2007, leaving only the top four floors of the building occupied by prisoners in the jail.

“It’s easy to look at this building now as opposed to 2007 when the courthouse closed,” Magee said. “When you look at the detrimental impacts to the business community, which I think is a vital aspect of why East Cambridge is what it is, there have been a lot of negative impacts to the closing of the courthouse and using it only as a jail.”

Leggat McCall Executive Vice President Robert Dickey said the state plans to move the 200-plus inmates out of the jail by May or June, and he hoped to close the deal with the state by the end of the summer.

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