The James Green Condominium Association

Help Us Fix A Big Problem.

We are concerned citizens who vigorously oppose the proposed redevelopment of the Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge:

Now, this is a truly horrible building — a 300’ concrete and asbestos monstrosity that abuts quiet residential homes zoned for just 35 feet. It was built at exorbitant cost, profoundly damaged the neighborhood, failed, and had to be abandoned. Most 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.

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

These are some of Leggat McCall Properties' (LMP) filings.

Application — the special permit application (3mb PDF)

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.

Some questions and concerns commonly raised by people in the neighborhood.

Acronyms used:

 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

Hasn’t the building already been sold?

No: the Purchase & Sale Contract has not transacted and cannot close until the State relocates the prisoners in the jail, and the Developer secures building permits. Note that the prisoners were to have been relocated last July soonest, and last December latest; the State missed that deadline and now looks toward May or June. Until the P&S closes, the Developer can back out without penalty. By acting now, we can prevent the transaction and reset the process to consider other, more sensible, alternatives.

Who are the parties involved?

The building is owned by the DCAMM, a department within the State of Massachusetts. DCAMM is trying to sell it to the highest bidder yet is not sharing auction prices to date. Currently Leggat McCall (LMP) is the private developer DCAMM has chosen as the buyer for the building, based on their highest bid, thereby fully dismissing the input given by the East Cambridge Planning Team (ECPT) as to the preferred developer for the project (note: the ECPT voted LMP as the least desirable of all developers).

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.

Why block the current project if there is no better alternative?

Imagine a range of possible solutions, from “tear it down and build a park” to “pack the maximum 22-story tower with corporate commuters” and many things in between. The current plan is the only plan that could be driven by the auction process, and it will have the worst possible impact on the neighborhood. The reason to deny the current project is to allow other better possibilities to be proposed. If we do not act now, the current plan will be forced upon us and the mistake of the past 50 years will be perpetuated effectively forever. The only realistic way to reset the process is for the Planning Board, representing our views, to deny the requested Special Permits, and for the City to agree and support us.

Isn’t your group anti-development?

No. We seek development that is sensible for the neighborhood. Our goal is not to stop the development process indefinitely and perpetuate a vacant building. Our goal is a process that involves better planning, community input and thorough consideration of impact on the neighborhood.

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.

Isn’t it completely unrealistic to expect that a future building will fully comply with current zoning requirements for the neighborhood?

No. The existing building is roughly 300 feet high. It far exceeds local zoning height limits, which are 80’ for the building, and just 35’ for the abutting residential neighborhood on most sides. And consider that the Urban Planning Guidelines for East Cambridge require “finely graduated heights.” Putting a 300’ building next to a 35’ building is absurd.

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?

Nobody listened to us when the Sullivan Building went up. Why would anyone listen to us now?

In the 1960’s, the Sullivan Building was built without public notice or consent, and over loud protests from the City and picketing from the community. This is because it was built under government exemption and did not need to adhere to local zoning, urban design, or community needs. But a private development does need to adhere to local laws and neighborhood integrity. There is a now a strong body standing up to ensure our residential and young family community will continue to improve. The NAEC is working to see that our representatives at the City and State level will work FOR our neighborhood so that we are properly heard and can hold government accountable for its actions.

Is the Courthouse really a nonconforming building?

That’s an interesting question. After much discussion with legal counsel, we conclude it is not. In a typical case, a pre-existing building becomes nonconforming when the zoning and local laws change. In such cases, when a developer proposes to renovate a “pre-existing nonconforming” structure, they need to receive special permits in order to proceed.

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.

If this project does not go ahead, won’t the building sit empty for many years?

The building has already been effectively abandoned since 2008. While it is possible that delays will mean that the building will be left “as is” for some time to come, this strongly outweighs the disastrous and permanent consequences of the current project. We must take a step back and understand the magnitude of this once in a lifetime moment. If we don’t act now then this 40-year-old monstrosity will, in a new skin, not only continue to damage our neighborhood, but it will have a significantly worse impact on the neighborhood forever. What is being proposed would essentially transform East Cambridge from a quiet residential area into a bustling hub for corporate commuters, with no solution for the overflow of traffic, parking or other nuisances caused by such an inappropriate development.

What if it is boarded up and fenced? Will our property values plummet?

No. This building is a bombproof high-security granite and concrete fortress. There are roll-down metal barriers to cover most of the doors. There are virtually no ground-level entries. This building is its own fence, and hardly needs to be “boarded up” or wrapped in yellow plastic barrier tape. In all likelihood there will be no perceptible change, except that the small trickle of vehicles and people in and out of the building will taper off to zero. In the life cycle of this failed building, a bit of limbo is of little consequence compared to the damage incurred by its construction, or what the proposed redevelopment would entail.

If the proposed project does not go ahead, won’t the building end up as a tower of low-income housing?

No. The cost of this property including the associated required asbestos cleanup means that all City departments have declined to use it and hence the State is now trying to sell it. It is therefore wholly unrealistic to think that the building will be turned into a tower of low-income housing.

Surely any delay to the project could jeopardize the financial benefit to the neighborhood including its stores.

No. If the current project is approved there is considerable financial risk involved. It may be more than a $300m renovation (in 2007, a thorough proposal was made to simply renovate the courthouse without appearance changes, and the budget for that was $349m: the proposed redevelopment is much more ambitious). Typical overruns can be 50% or more. There is no guarantee that the building will be occupied quickly (it took the courthouse more than 10 years to be occupied, and that was in an overcrowded system). If the proposed development fails, which an economic downturn could cause, the result could be a half-built albatross that is even more costly to dismantle than the current one.

Parking is already terrible so how could it possibly get any worse?

It can and will get worse with thousands more people. The current plan hinges on the City leasing approx. 425 of the spaces in the municipal parking garage to the private developer, thereby taking them away from public use. That figure is based on 1,150 employees, which would surely overflow the garage and swamp the neighborhood. Estimates by the developer call for ~ 2500 occupants, and 5,000 trips per day, about half of them vehicular, plus untold numbers of service trucks, delivery vehicles, livery and so on. Some folks remember how bad parking was when the courthouse operated at full capacity; if this development goes ahead as planned the number of trips to and from the building and the associated parking will be 5-10x worse than the busy courthouse days.

Traffic is rated as F, so how can it get worse?

Think about it. The estimates (if you believe them) are for thousands of people and roughly 5,000 trips per day, more than half of them by car or service vehicles. This invites a tremendous amount of traffic swirling around the building. Every day at rush hour, Third Street is a parking lot for more than half a mile, and the Sullivan tower stands right at the choke point. To invite such a load is insane. Traffic will inevitably hemorrhage onto residential side streets as people try to dodge the main clogs. There is no master plan or remedy for the arterial clogging on the Third Street corridor. The Developer argues that much of the parking would flow via the First Street entrance, but First Street isn’t much better.

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.

Why don’t they just add a couple of stories to the First Street parking garage, won’t that solve the problem?

No. Not only will that not solve the parking problem, it does nothing to address all other factors such as exponential traffic overload, pollution etc.

Isn’t the ECPT working with the developer, and hasn’t the ECPT accepted the developer’s modifications to the plan?

Yes, But: At the time ECPT wrote to CPB, it was not aware that Cambridge Zoning Articles might significantly limit the developer’s rights. In fact, DCAMM had specifically told LMP that the building would need to be permitted by local ordinances. Thus the letter that the ECPT wrote was produced with the understanding that development of the full bulk and height was something we would just have to live with, and they were seeking any possible mitigation of that bulk and height. Now that the ECPT understands that zoning ordinances may preclude development, they have reconsidered their position: they wrote firmly requesting that the permits be denied. LMP’s attorney Jim Rafferty may tell you that there’s disagreement among neighborhood groups over what we want at the site, but we can say, and ECPT can confirm, that there is absolutely no daylight between NAEC and ECPT on this basic desire: ABSOLUTELY NO ONE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD WANTS THE FULL BULK AND HEIGHT OF THE EXISTING BUILDING TO PERSIST.

DCAMM (the State) has already put the RFP in place – doesn’t that lock us in to a development process?

The uncertainty around how the site is to be zoned clearly affects the value of the site to developers. If it’s zoned as a 22-story business tower, the value is literally high, as LMP’s bid for the job demonstrates. But if it’s zoned as a 45-foot or 80-foot mixed use parcel, or if it’s zoned for public use only, the value may well be negative, because the cost to mitigate the asbestos may exceed the positive value inherent in development. DCAMM’s issuance of an RFP for development, before the question of Zoning has come before the Planning Board, was thus putting two essential elements of the process out of order. Our position is that the Planning Board should clearly weigh in on how the site is to be zoned. Once this occurs, the perceived value of the site will be clarified. The State can then issue an RFP with the clarity of the Planning Board’s ruling in place.

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” $130m.

In 2007, the very next year, a study was done by the State that budgeted the renovation cost at $394m. Oops.

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.

24 Mar 2014CCTV Developer Destroying a Neighborhood?
19 Mar Boston Bs.Journal City Urges Reduced Impact
17 Mar Boston Globe Rep. Asks for Working Group
13 Mar Boston Globe Sullivan Courthouse Under Fire
08 Mar Boston Globe Ask, Then Build in Cambridge
07 Apr Boston Globe Growing Opposition
11 Apr 2013Cambridge Day Delay moving prisoners...
18 Jun Boston Globe Judge Rules on Overcrowded Jail
11 Apr Cambridge Day Just as tall, not as bad
23 Jan Boston Globe Criminally Ugly
14 Dec 2012Boston Globe Redeveloper Chosen
21 Apr Boston Globe Want to Buy a Used Jail?
24 Mar Boston Globe Developer Chosen
25 May 2010Boston Globe Rather See It Imploded
06 Jul 2009Boston Globe Evacuated Middlesex Inmates...
06 Jul Prison News Unrest at Overcrowded Jail
23 Nov 1978Boston Globe Contract Probers Preparing Case
20 Oct 1975Boston Globe A High Rise Fire Waiting To Happen
08 Sep 1975Boston Globe Courthouse at Issue Again
29 Mar 1974Boston Globe Tatters of a new Courthouse
03 Jan 1971Boston Globe Saga Sags to an End?
22 Jul Boston Globe A Not-so-comic $55m Blunder
25 Mar Boston Globe Grand Jury Probe
03 Mar Boston Globe Cost Escalates to $52.5m
14 Jan Boston Globe $4m for Winterizing
01 Jan Boston Globe Another Delay
03 Sep 1970Boston Globe 3000 Changes
16 Aug Boston Globe Soaring Costs
14 Aug Boston Globe Delayed Building
12 Aug Boston Globe Contractor Criticized
07 Aug Boston Globe Lawyer Blames Builder
17 Jul Boston Globe Bar Assn Probe
14 Jul Boston Globe Senate Orders Probe
13 Jul Boston Globe County Sues Insurers for $21m
11 Jul Boston Globe Supreme Judicial Court Probe
10 Jul Boston Globe High Court to Probe
09 Jul Boston Globe Costs rise from $16m to $40m
12 Dec 1967Boston Globe Long delayed $27m Construction to Begin
29 Oct Boston Globe Middlesex Signs Pact
20 Feb 1965Boston Globe Tower to Replace Jail
02 Dec 1962Boston Globe Ancient Ruins of County Jails
31 May Boston Globe Court Costs Make Boston Twinge
16 Mar Boston Globe Courthouse Facilities Mediocre
20 May 1953Boston Globe Cambridge Jail to Be Demolished

The 1813 Founding Gift

East Cambridge was born from a special public gift. Is our generation upholding the spirit of that founding gift? See what you think.

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).

“To Have And To Hold...”: Founding Conveyance

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.

East Cambridge in 1826: Ten years after Bulfinch’s Courthouse was Built.

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?

Latest News

Planning Board final hearing on SP#288 Tuesday 29 July 7:00pm @ Kennedy Longfellow School, 158 Spring Street, East Cambridge. This is the crucial final hearing! Please: come and speak.

Welcome to East Cambridge!

Help us:
solve a big problem. Join us: info@40thorndike.org

Sign the Petition!