Help Us Fix A Big Problem.
Now, this is a truly horrible building — a roughly 300’ concrete and asbestos monstrosity that fills an entire block. It abuts quiet residential homes zoned for just 35 feet. But it’s much worse than just “ugly.”
A Corrupt Catastrophe
This building was a fiasco — a corrupt failure and a planning catastrophe. It was supposed to have taken 3 years, and cost $15m, and would have rebuilt a five-block site in several construction phases, and was to have included ample parking, a public plaza, and more. Instead, only Phase One was ever “finished” but that took more than 15 years, cost more than $100m, bankrupted Middlesex County which led the State government to abolish Middlesex altogether. The State senators and construction execs who supervised the building were thrown in jail for graft and corruption. Only the tower was ever built, that’s the only reason two of the original historic blocks remain, including the nationally-registered Bulfinch Courthouse. The building was a flop from the moment the doors opened. It’s filled with 90,000 pounds of friable asbestos. The court workers sued the state because of those toxic hazards, and won. The jail was designed for 160 but was generally filled with 400 inmates, so naturally, the prisoners sued the State for deplorable conditions, and won. From the day the doors eventually opened, the building began falling apart. In 2006, the State learned that the building would cost $394m to renovate, so it offered the building to the City of Cambridge. City Manager Bob Healy’s reply was the headline in the Boston Globe: “Would Be Better Imploded.” It was essentially abandoned by 2008. The prisoners were promised a new jail in 2005, but were forced to remain here until 2014.
This architectural and financial disaster has profoundly damaged our neighborhood. All agree it was a mistake that never should have been built. Many wish the State would recognize this mistake and tear it down. Instead, the State is selling the tower to a private developer, forcing an even worse plan onto the city.
Three wrongs don’t make a right.
The building was wrong in the first place: it was a complete disaster. And it’s just as wrong for a private developer to propose reskinning it in glass and filling it with two thousand corporate commuters. Nobody in their right mind would ever propose siting that sort of tower in the middle of a residential neighborhood. That’s two wrongs, and the definitely don’t make a right.
The third wrong: trying to bridge from one terrible mistake to the next terrible mistake by bending the permitting system. Why would a civilized society want to perpetuate a mistake like this? The developer argues that they should have a “grandfathered right” to rebuild the entire tower. But zoning limits the maximum size to FAR=4.0, or possibly lower: that would be an 8-story building, not a 22-story skyscraper.
Not everything the government builds is “automagically” grandfathered. If it were, you could buy surplus heliports, bunkers, incinerator plants, and all sorts of stuff as if zoning never existed and never will. It would mean the government could continue building giant fiascos just like this one, and then flipping them to developers for private exploitation. This would be an enormous loophole for developers who want to dodge zoning limits. Our argument is simple: when an extraordinary government construction passes into private ownership, it becomes ordinary. The new owner must comply with ordinary regulations.
Our singular purpose is to achieve a better outcome for that site.
We are abutters. We live across the street from it. We join many other groups, like the NAEC (Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge) and the ECPT (East Cambridge Planning Team), and hundreds of citizens in staunch opposition to this unwise development plan.
The short story: circa 1970, the Commonwealth bulldozed the charming 19th century jail and sheriff’s buildings at 40 Thorndike St, and put up a concrete, asbestos-laden tower nearly 300’ high. It was built without public notice or consent, over strident objections by the city and picketing by the community. There are no permits, variances, or building records on file with the City. This is because the building was built via government exemption from local laws. That building — the Sullivan Building — failed and was effectively abandoned after less than 40 years.
The old building is a well-known fiasco here in greater Boston, and was a dismal failure from start to finish. It was supposed to cost $14m but ran over $100m. Was supposed to take 3 years to construct, but took nearly 20 to finish and fully occupy. Even before it was finished there were investigations by the Supreme Judicial Court, Grand Jury, State Senate (six volumes of testimony), the State Police, the MA Bar Association, taxpayers' groups, and individual legislators, but again, government immunity made criminal prosecution difficult. After it failed, there were lawsuits from occupants and prisoners alike, over asbestos problems and deplorable prison overcrowding. In 2006 the cost of renovation was pegged at
$130m, but in 2007 it was budgeted at $340m. It is a monument to bungling and corruption. The Commonwealth first offered to give it to the City, but there were no takers for this albatross. In the Boston Globe on 25 May 2010, our City officials were stunningly blunt: they would rather see the building imploded than accept it as gift.
Instead of fixing this mistake, the Commonwealth drove an auction seeking to profit from it. Buying and renovating this building is so expensive that the developer, Leggat McCall, was forced to propose re-using the full bulk and height of the existing building. In a modest residential neighborhood, this is simply insanity.
We vigorously oppose the redevelopment proposed by Leggat McCall, but we would enthusiastically support development that is properly planned in conformity with zoning and character appropriate for this quiet, historic, residential neighborhood.
Unfortunately, the City is now on the verge of approving a private plan foisted on us by the Commonwealth that effectively leaves this disastrous mistake in place and would pack 2000+ commuters and visitors and clogged traffic into this single small site. No sensible plan would ever invite such an abrupt, foolish change here.
At a minimum, new development should conform to the 35-to-80-foot height limit zoned for this area, and should not result in even more damaging impact than the fiasco that came before (admittedly a very low bar).
Remember: this is the historic founding center of East Cambridge. It was property expressly given to the people of this region forever for a public use. It deserves creations that are in keeping with those ideals, and in harmony with the surrounding residential neighborhood and charming old homes and churches that date from our nation’s founding era.
To join our advocacy group and receive more information, write to us!
Leggat McCall’s Plans
Plans — the development plan (72mb PDF)
Traffic and Parking Comments — City’s tacit acceptance of parking plan
Glare Study — LMP’s study of reflective glare
Illumination Study — LMP’s study of night-time illumination
Planning Board Presentation (4 March 2014) — LMP draft presentation
Wind Study — LMP’s study of wind effects
Questions & Answers.
DCAMM = Massachusetts Dept of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance (current building owner) LMP = Leggat McCall Properties: private developer DCAMM chose as the buyer CPB = Cambridge Planning Board ECPT = East Cambridge Planning Team NAEC = Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge MEPA = Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act
The NAEC (Neighborhood Association of East Cambridge) is a group of several hundred community members who vigorously oppose this development.
And we are abutters — we live right across the street from this thing. As such, we stand to suffer the most damage from a bad development plan.
Great neighborhoods take time and thoughtful, committed planning to build. But they can be destroyed by one bad development. It will take time to arrive at the best redevelopment solution for this problematic site. Better that we invest the time now, to think hard about choices, than live with the consequences of a rushed decision and an extreme option forever.
Under the law, if a nonconforming status ends, any new construction or reconstruction must either conform, or be granted a variance. The straightforward and legal thing to do is deny the permits and indicate that the nonconforming status must end. That way, instead of a dialog that begins with a 300’ building that a Developer begrudgingly lowers until the community accepts, the dialog proceeds with a building that starts at an accepted height (80’) and might be higher if a variance is granted. Despite what some have said, it is not clear that this problem is best addressed by removing height and rebuilding to the existing envelope. Razing the building and starting with a fresh design may be a much better path. Among other things, if razed, one is free from the architectural constraints imposed by the previous failure. Keep in mind that from a developer perspective, they’d like to retain as much of the leasable volume as possible, which is why they want the discussion to start with the full bulk of the building, and then chip away at it. Really, who can say when chipping away has reached an acceptable height?
But this is not a typical case. The building was built through government supremacy: it is immune from local laws. It was built without public notice or consent, and over strident objections by the City and the community. But because the government is exempt, it did not need permission. Thus, it doesn’t matter what the zoning or local laws might have been before, during, or after construction: zoning is irrelevant. As long as this was a public, government building, it was immune from our City’s laws. Thus it could never have been a nonconforming building. This building is something else. And now that the basis for its immunity is terminated — now that the government has abandoned its use as a public courthouse and jail — it is no longer immune from local ordinances or nuisance controls.
Think of the government exemption as a kind of bulletproof superpower. In this case, most agree that the government abused that power, and built a deeply objectionable, failed structure. That superpower cannot be handed to a private developer for exploitation, and in this case, doubly so, since the building itself is such a failure, and the State in effect is profiting by selling off a gift of public property given to the people.
For this reason, this building’s fate is not governed under G.L. 40a s.6, nor under Cambridge’s ordinances (Article 8.22 in particular). It is not nonconforming, but rather, something else. It is a “violative” structure. It is not in the Planning Board’s jurisdiction to decide.
This is a little like taking a patient with clogged arteries and weak heart valves and asking them to sprint around the block a few times. It’s a foolish plan.
News Coverage Over The Years
Is it possible to find any positive news article on the old Sullivan Courthouse?
The building has been a fiasco from start to finish and most all who see it regard it as a hideous failure that should be demolished. But “hideous” is skin deep.
Cost overruns soared by more than
600% (from about $14m or $16m initially: it’s hard to tell exactly) to north of $90m — again, hard to tell, and probably not beginning to count the compounded costs of investigations into the scandal, conducted by the Supreme Judicial Court, a Grand Jury, the State Senate, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Massachusetts State Police, individual legislators, taxpayers' groups.
And those investigations kicked into gear long before the building was finished.
It was supposed to take three years to complete, but it was roughly 10 years from inception circa 1965 to the bungled opening around 1975.
The project ran out of funding, thankfully, and so the parking garage was never built.
This swamped the neighborhood with cars and was a nuisance to courthouse workers and the public who were called upon to serve.
The day it stumbled to an opening — April Fool’s Day — Paul Tsongas said “it will be more like a wake than a party.”
There have been lawsuits by occupants and prisoners alike — lawsuits over the friable asbestos problems, the hopelessly inadequate jail.
In 2006 the State proposed to renovate the failed building — for “just”
In 2007, the very next year, a study was done by the State that budgeted the renovation cost at
By 2008, the lower 18 floors were abandoned — except for the prisoners who remained stuck in the overcrowded jail.
In 2010, the State offered the building to the City of Cambridge. The City refused. Who wants an albatross? A headline read: “Rather see it Imploded.”
Taxpayers were socked with the burden of paying for this dismal failure well into the 1990's, and this mistake continues to plague the City and the State and especially the people in the vicinity who have been forced to simply “suck it up” all these years.
It is difficult not to see the current development proposal as a perpetuation of this same mistake, a continuation of the bungling, and a privatization of a public trust given to this part of the city by a founding patron in 1813. The fiasco that started in the 1960's continues, in disregard of any sense of good urban planning or wise architecture.
The Boston Globe’s reporting and editorial teams have done a valuable job of chronicling this mistake over the years, and we all can be grateful for that.
Read for yourself. You might find the history interesting.
DCAMM has ignored sensible city planning and neighborhood input. Leggat-McCall’s plan would expand and intensify the prior use of the building, and cause substantially more detrimental impact. Unfortunately, DCAMM’s process misled the developer (Leggat McCall) and the City into believing the existing building is simply a nonconforming structure ripe for renovation. It is not. It is a government structure that has lost its immunity and is now “violative” and wildly out of compliance.
09 Jan 2013: DCAMM disregarded the City and the Neighborhood
A letter from Seth Teller and Barbara Broussard to DCAMM, protesting their choice of the Developer that was the worst for the neighborhood. DCAMM was unresponsive. We feel that DCAMM has conducted a process in disregard of the neighborhood’s needs, or any remotely sensible urban plan. They have ignored the community and the City’s representatives.
26 Feb 2014: LMP plan would violate numerous city by-laws
A letter from Attorney Michael Nuesse to the Planning Board on behalf of the NAEC, citing numerous ordinances the proposal would violate; emphatically arguing that its impact would be substantially more detrimental to the neighborhood and is thus impermissible; and questioning the legality of transferring a public use gift to private hands.
31 Mar 2014 Special Permit cannot be issued
A letter from the James Green association and other abutters to the Planning Board. The State has misled the developer and the City into regarding this as a nonconforming building ripe for renovation via a special permit. We conclude this is not a “pre-existing nonconforming structure.” Nonconformity is a condition that specifically arises from changes in zoning. For instance, an old factory building becomes nonconforming when the zoning around it changes to a different use, like residential. But in this case, the Sullivan Courthouse was built via Government supremacy. It was built without public notice, consent or permission. It is immune to local ordinances so it doesn’t matter what the zoning situation might have been before, during, or after construction: zoning is irrelevant where a government use is concerned. Thus, the building is not nonconforming. It is a “violative” structure. As such, its fate is not governed under G.L. 40a s.6, nor under our corresponding zoning ordinances (e.g., 8.22). Therefore, Leggat-McCall’s proposal is not permissible via special permits: this is not a pre-existing nonconforming structure, and it is not within the Planning Board’s jurisdiction.
02 Apr 2014 MEPA Waiver is Unacceptable
NAEC lodges formal complaint with MA Dept of Environmental Policy arguing that the waiver of an Environmental Impact Review is intolerable. MEPA has violated numerous of its own regulations in proposing to waive it.
09 Apr 2014 Government-Immune ⇏ Legal Nonconforming
James Green Association points out that the special permit application is erroneous because the Sullivan Courthouse is not a “pre-existing nonconforming” structure, and it will not become one upon sale to a private entity. It would be incorrect for the Planning Board to rule on it as if it were. Attorney Mark Bobrowski (an authority in this area of law) gives his opinion on the matter, citing case law both within Massachusetts and in other jurisdictions — like Richard Nixon’s Helipad in Key Biscayne, Florida; the case of Village on the Hill v. MA Turnpike Authority here in Newton, Massachusetts; Nolan Brothers v. City of Royal Oak in Michigan; Native Village of Eklutna v. Alaska Railroad in Anchorage, Alaska; and others.
There is a consistency of opinion: the special benefits attained by government immunity cannot be straightforwardly sold for private gain, especially when doing so would violate local laws. In the world of buildings and construction a special permit is the path of least resistance for many would-be private developers, and a City should really think hard before granting permits that exploit a public asset forever and in ways that stretch well beyond the bounds of local ordinances — let alone common sense.
This echoes the sentiments expressed by John Adams in our own State’s historic Constitution from 1780:
Letters from Concerned Citizens
Many community members have written firm, eloquent letters to express their staunch opposition to the proposed redevelopment of the Sullivan Courthouse. For some background, and addresses to use, read this.
Abigail Lewis-Bowen, to Mayor Maher
Anne & Richard Taylor
Teller & Broussard, to DCAMM
David deSwaan Arons
ECPT, 06 Feb, voicing concerns
ECPT, 27 Feb, requesting DENIAL of SP#288
Marilyn Wellons, to MEPA
Michael Hawley, to MEPA
NAEC, to MEPA
Nina You, to MEPA
Seth Teller, to MEPA
Paul Kroner, to Benzan
The 1813 Founding Gift
This property wasn’t bought by the government — like, say, buying a small parcel of land on Main Street in a small town to build a quaint post office. Not at all. This was a unique and crucial founding gift, made by Andrew Craigie in 1813. It was the gift that really gave birth to East Cambridge. Among other things, if you have enjoyed a great meal at Craigie on Main, or a stroll past the old brownstones on Third Street, you can be thankful for his presence — and his “presents.” Craigie gave that gift, of land, money, and superb architecture, to the people “forever” for a public use.
During the war, Craigie was George Washington’s “Apothecary General.” But after, he got involved in real estate. Craigie noticed that it took 8 miles by horse from downtown Boston to Harvard Square along the Charles River. But: if you could just build a bridge to Lechmere Point, it could be a straight shot down Cambridge Street (which was little more than a path then) — maybe 4 miles.
Craigie’s Bridge, from an 1826 map by Annin & Smith.
So Craigie built the bridge. It was Craigie’s Bridge and still bears his name: it is the drawbridge in front of the Museum of Science. He charged a toll, made lots of money, quietly bought up 300 acres of in the area, began gridding streets and selling parcels, and formed a corporation — the Lechmere Point Corporation — to manage the endeavor.
To promote development, he hit on a clever idea. Craigie persuaded the county to shift the courthouse and jail from Harvard Square to “East Cambridge.” It made perfect sense: lawyers could zip back and forth to Boston over the nearby bridge, and operations would not be so constrained by being in Harvard Square.
So Craigie and company really put their best foot forward. He donated the land. He gave $24,000 in cash to build the buildings. He organized a “superintendent committee” to ensure that the buildings were built “in conformity” with the best practices — out of brick and Quincy granite, not wood. Inferior buildings were to be “pulled down”. And he recruited the finest architect — America’s first native-born architect, Charles Bulfinch — to design state-of-the-art facilities. Bulfinch designed the State House for Massachusetts, and renovated the Capitol Building after the fire in 1822 (designing a dome with an “oculus” in the same size as the Pantheon in Rome). And to this day, Bulfinch’s elegant courthouse remains. Thanks to architect Graham Gund it was preserved and placed into the National Registry of Historic Places. But the government fully intended to demolish it to put up a parking lot for the Sullivan Building. It’s only because they ran out of money that the “red brick” historic civic buildings were saved from certain destruction.
That’s how East Cambridge was really born. Before that, it was a marshy point named for a British Loyalist (Richard Lechmere, who fled the country to return to England). British troops landed here during the war, and were gunned down. But after Craigie’s founding gift, it really became a neighborhood. The elegant, proportionate civic buildings and lovely lawns created a felicitous balance with nearby private homes. The old Holy Cross Church at Third & Thorndike was built not long after, the first church in East Cambridge. And its first pastor, James Diman Green, was a linchpin of the community and also served several terms as Cambridge’s first Mayor. (Here’s an oration he delivered in Malden, celebrating their 200th anniversary, in May of 1849).
Here is the original founding conveyance, made by Andrew Craigie in 1813, written in chicken-scratch penmanship. (It is 45mb, opens in a new window). This document is a “deed in trust” — it is a permanent, binding gift. We are enormously grateful to East Cambridge’s Heather Hoffman for unearthing this. We have found no other subsequent deed or land document, and no building permits or records or modifications on file with the City of Cambridge. There is no record that the property was claimed under “eminent domain” (which would require a legislative act).
“To have and to hold,” it solemnly reads: the gift was given expressly to the “inhabitants” — not to the City, or the County, or the State or the Country, but “to the people” — for the “sole purpose” of building a courthouse, a “gaol,” and other buildings that promoted a public, civic use, and “for no other purpose whatsoever.” Those words in boldface are literal terms from the founding gift.
You will note that the land specified for the “gaol” notes about 1/3 of the block in question (namely, a 75-foot strip bordering Third from Thorndike to Spring). In those days, before landfill (and more than a decade before the map below was drawn in 1826), the water and tidal marshy land came up much farther west. You could dock a boat near the jail. Here’s a map. First Street didn’t exist then, and Second Street was often underwater during wet seasons.
The bottom line? Yes, the Sullivan Building was technically in keeping with the idea of putting a courthouse and jail here. But most regard it as a corrupt atrocity and we feel it defiled the founding ethos of Craigie’s gift. It was certainly an affront to the elegant and commodious standards set here by Craigie and Bulfinch. It did irrevocable damage to the neighborhood, and effectively ruined the property for public purposes. Moreover, conversion of this site to private use is expressly forbidden by the 1813 deed in trust. Maybe that’s why the Developer and the State (DCAMM) have not mentioned this document?
Can anyone think of better public uses to which this property could be put?