State still silent on details of Sullivan Courthouse sale in Cambridge
Cambridge Councilor Dennis Carlone became at least the third person Tuesday, July 15, to attempt to get answers from the state on questions about the sale of the Sullivan Courthouse to a private developer.
Mired in controversy since a December 2012 announcement that Leggat McCall Properties LLC had been selected as its developer, the courthouse’s redevelopment proposal is up for a vote by the Planning Board on July 29. Members of the East Cambridge Planning Team initially voted in August 2012 to support developer HYM Investments, which offered to reduce the height of the 22-story building by four floors.
The Cambridge Chronicle submitted a public records request in February 2013 asking for the evaluation matrices the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) used to select Leggat McCall among the pool of three finalists, along with a copy of the purchase-and-sale agreement. The state refused, saying the records would not be shared with the public because they relate to “policy positions” currently being developed.
“Records which address the development of policy are exempt from disclosures to the public, unless and until the recommended policy is adopted,” said Peter Wilson, Deputy General Council to DCAMM in response to the Chronicle’s inquiry.
Multiple attempts to reach DCAMM’s legal counsel at the time were unsuccessful. Councilor and state Rep. Tim Toomey filed a similar public records request on June 30 this year and received a similar response. Toomey appealed to the Secretary of State, arguing that because DCAMM had already signed a purchase-and-sale agreement, the internal decisions were over.
“Internal deliberations at DCAMM about who to sell the building to and for what price are now complete, and related records should no longer be exempt from public scrutiny,” Toomey told the Chronicle.
DCAMM has long held that the transaction is not complete until the title to the land has been transferred to Leggat McCall, which could not take place until the more than 200 prisoners had been transferred out of the jail facility in the courthouse’s top four floors. Meghan Kelly, a DCAMM spokeswoman, said the jail is officially closed and all pre-trial detainees have now been relocated, but said the state is working towards “finalizing the sale of the property.”
She did not respond to requests for a timetable on when the sale would be finalized.
Despite the previous request denials, Carlone said he’s seeking the same information sought by Toomey and the Chronicle to “get the full picture” of what’s at stake in the deal. Residents have long clamored to reduce the height of the building, which was completed in 1972 under immunity from local zoning since the building was being used by a government entity. Rob Dickey, executive vice president of Leggat McCall agreed recently to reduce the height of the building by two stories, eliminating some 40,000 square feet of office space from the proposed 460,000 square feet.
The original proposal called for nearly the entire building to be comprised of commercial office space with 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, but Leggat McCall has since added 24 apartment units at the request of residents and made significant changes to the building’s façade. The design also includes 15,000 square feet of open space, a community room for area residents, and a daycare on the ground floor.
Representatives from Leggat McCall have said the cost of removing the asbestos from the building and reconstruction prohibits the company from reducing the building’s height further. But, Carlone argued more information is needed to determine whether that’s actually the case, adding the state is likely looking for a return on its investment, as well.
“In a positive light, that information could confirm what the developer has said about what the limitations are,” Carlone said. “In the past, the Planning Board has looked at the economics of a project, and I would hope they would do that again. It’s probably the most interesting and difficult issue they will come across, and it probably merits a lot more information that we hope to get from this request.”
At the same time, the council must vote on whether to allow Leggat McCall to lease 420 parking spaces in the city-owned First Street Garage, which is adjacent to the courthouse. As part of their leasing plan, Leggat McCall has agreed to locate a grocery store on the first floor. If the council refuses, representatives from the company have said they will seek parking relief at the CambridgeSide Galleria, a move that would also require approval from the Planning Board.
In the wake of the discussions over the courthouse, the recently formed Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge coalesced to oppose the project, and the long-standing East Cambridge Planning Team has voted in the past to express serious concerns with the design.
Toomey formed a working group earlier this year with 18 representatives from both the Neighborhood Association and the Planning Team, along with abutters and business owners to work with Leggat McCall on mediating their concerns. Dickey described the working group as successful in reducing the real height of the building and the amount of reflective glass on the façade based on concerns from residents that the building was too tall and would create glare and light pollution problems. Dickey said they met five times, including once without Leggat McCall representatives present, between March and May.
Those changes aren’t enough for some residents who continue to oppose the project, however. Michael Hawley of the James Green Condo Association, which is across the street from the courthouse, vowed to appeal any approval of a special permit by the Planning Board.
“That’s 3 to 5 years in court, and frankly, I think the courts will side with the people,” Hawley said. “Either way, I wouldn’t want to be the developer right now trying to risk this project on uncertain odds.”
Dickey said the company has already made significant revisions to the plan based on input from the community, including the proposal to add a grocery store on the ground floor of the First Street Garage.
“That idea grew out of early conversations with the East Cambridge Planning Team and remains a high priority for area residents, in addition to providing a ‘shot in the arm’ for the First Street retail corridor,” Dickey said. “The alternative of the building remaining in its current state for many more years is clearly not a constructive goal or positive outcome for anyone.”
The Planning Board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 29, at the Kennedy Longfellow School, 158 Spring St.