Petition: DENY THE PERMITS (SP#288) for Proposed Redevelopment of Sullivan Courthouse

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To:Cambridge Mayor; City Council; City Manager; Planning Board; Head of Community Development; State Representatives Decker & Toomey; Commissioner, Department of Environmental Protection
From:Concerned Residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date:23 February 2014

We, concerned residents of Cambridge, hereby make it known to our City representatives that:

We vigorously oppose the redevelopment proposed by Leggat McCall for the Sullivan Courthouse.

We would applaud development that is wisely planned, that conforms with existing zoning rules, and that has a character appropriate for this quiet, historic, residential neighborhood.

Any new development should conform to the zoned 80’ height limit adjoining a 35' residential area, and should not result in a significantly more damaging impact than what came before. Whatever is done here should respect the historic founding gift, which gave this property to the people of Middlesex County for public use forever. The donors demanded the highest standards of design and construction, and they realized that vision beautifully. That trust established a healthy balance of public and private space around which a vibrant and dedicated community could blossom.

However, as most in the City and Commonwealth would agree: the Sullivan Courthouse Building should never have been built. The process that created it was corrupt and illegitimate. At 22 stories nearly 300 feet in height and over 500,000 square feet, it is wildly inappropriate in size for the neighborhood, badly built, riddled with asbestos, had inadequate parking, created a wind tunnel, and eventually had to be abandoned because it was an environmental hazard, among other problems. It was a very big mistake.

Most people would also agree: when you make a mistake, you should clean it up. The Commonwealth has not cleaned up this one. Instead, it seeks profit from it. It auctioned the property to the highest bidder in disregard of any sensible neighborhood plan, and is exacting such a high price that any developer is forced to repurpose the full bulk of this building to pay for the State’s mistake. But this doesn’t fix the mistake. 
 It perpetuates it, and in many ways, makes it worse. It shovels the whole burden of that mistake onto developers, and ultimately, onto the community. And it privatizes a civic-minded founding gift that was clearly intended to be public forever. This is wrong.

The Sullivan Building is fully amortized, effectively abandoned and an environmental hazard. 
 It was a mistake. It needs to go. This small piece of property should be approached with the duty of care, visionary enthusiasm and public excellence that put East Cambridge on the map in the first place. 
 And thus, we ask our representatives:

Please deny the Application for Special Permits #288.
Please deny the request for waiver of project review under Mass. Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).
Please deny the request to lease the 425 public spaces from the municipal garage.
Please declare the nonconforming status of the failed building to be effectively terminated.
Please wisely enforce both the letter and the spirit of zoning laws and insist that any redevelopment of the former Courthouse site respects the finest standards of public planning, strengthens the historic integrity of the neighborhood, and conforms properly to local limits.

East Cambridge deserves better.

Marilyn Wellons

651 Green Street, Cambridge 02139
Wed 5 Mar 2014 3:00 pm

Please deny this permit.

Sarah Boyer

138 Antrim Street Cambridge
Wed 5 Mar 2014 10:08 am

It was a mistake then and it's a mistake now. It is not in character with the neighborhood and it's forcing this "new building" down the throats of East Cambridge residents who have had enough!

Joe Rose

72 Spring Street
Wed 5 Mar 2014 9:39 am

Please deny this permit

Sarah Christopher

88 Spring Street
Tue 4 Mar 2014 10:28 pm

Please work towards a better solution for the neighborhood of East Cambridge. We do not need even more traffic in this family friendly community.

Michael Hawley

101 Third St
Tue 4 Mar 2014 5:31 pm

[This is a petition, not an edited blog or comment stream. But since Mr. Behrends has posted his view of why this building should be preserved, a brief rebuttal is below. -- MH]

Folks, "rethinking" the building's character to conform to current tastes is a short-sighted idea


So given that, I presume you are opposed to the Leggat McCall renovation, which involves totally gutting the building and then gift wrapping it in glass, with a brick podium below? The only thing it would have in common with the original is the steel frame. Moreover, the original is regarded as a deeply flawed design. It started as 18 floors with a huge base plaza (, but the plaza and base were eliminated when the state ran out of funds. That is considered by most to be a lucky break as it would have wiped out all of the Bulfinch plaza and the historic 19th century buildings all the way to Cambridge Street and across. It was only the mind boggling corruption and graft that drove the cost up 6x from the starting point and burdened taxpayers for 30 years to pay off the interest that prevented the certain distraction of the old buildings. In fact, when the Sullivan Building went up, the block they bulldozed was filled with charming 19th century buildings, including a keeper’s house, and a women’s jail made of Quincy granite. Not quite as spectacular as the Charles St jail (now the Liberty Hotel), but nonetheless surprisingly beautiful. During excavation for Sullivan, flaws were found in the foundation, which caused no end of problems, and another 4 floors were added. I did an extensive search in the Boston Globe and could not find a single positive news article about this building. Words like “Blunder”, “Fiasco”, “Travesty” are used to describe it. The building was the subject of grand jury investigations, civil suits, senate hearings, arbitration involving thousands of witnesses. The jail cells were too small — 39 square feet, which is 16 feet less than minimum standards. The cells on the top floors were beyond the reach of fire ladders. It was questioned whether the jail would ever be used at all. It was, but they packed in 400 in a space designed for 163. The prisoners rioted, tossed flaming mattresses out the window, sued the State, and won. In 2007 as it was being abandoned after barely 25 years of use, the State commissioned an extensive study to look into possible renovation of the building. The budgeted cost? $394m. Among other things, it is an environmental hazard, filled with 90,000 lbs of asbestos. It is dilapidated.

I can think of some brutalist buildings worth preserving. The Sullivan building, however, is not one of them. It was truly a failure from start to finish. The Cambridge Historical Society regards it as a “monument to corruption and bad management."


Steve Behrends

42 Lopez Ave
Tue 4 Mar 2014 1:53 pm

Folks, "rethinking" the building's character to conform to current tastes is a short-sighted idea. Had this logic (the same that erased the NECCO candy building in our neighbourhood) prevailed in earlier years, for instance, we'd have no art deco buildings. This building's "look" is a reflection of its times -- let's keep our hands off the historic (even the 1960s-70s qualifies as a period of history) architecture in our neighbourhood.

Jeffrey DaSilva

44 1/2 Spring St., Cambridge, MA 02141
Tue 4 Mar 2014 1:22 pm

please deny this permit!

Magaly Koch

271 Hurley St., #3, Cambridge, MA 02141
Mon 3 Mar 2014 5:58 pm

please deny this permit

Robert and Waneeta Jones

51 Magee St
Mon 3 Mar 2014 3:00 pm

please deny permit.

Catherine Cavanaugh

84 Spring Street
Mon 3 Mar 2014 12:48 pm

Please deny this permit!

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