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Developer alters look of Middlesex Courthouse site

An architectural rendering of the new plan to redevelop the Middlesex Courthouse in East Cambridge. It is strikingly different from the original proposal for a glass-walled tower.

Elkus Manfredi Architects

An architectural rendering of the new plan to redevelop the Middlesex Courthouse in East Cambridge. It is strikingly different from the original proposal for a glass-walled tower.

At first rebuffed by neighbors, a developer is taking another shot at rehabilitating one of the Cambridge’s most prominent eyesores.

Leggat McCall Properties of Boston is pitching a new $200 million plan to transform the old Middlesex Courthouse into an office, residential, and retail complex. A prior proposal by the company was blocked by neighbors and city officials over complaints about its height and traffic impact, among other issues.

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The revised version slices two stories off the tower’s existing 22 floors and adds terra cotta to the facade to help it blend with surrounding buildings. Leggat McCall has also scrapped its prior plan for a grand entrance on Spring Street. The company now proposes a simpler treatment with a small public garden containing running-water features and benches.

“The whole building will be gutted and rebuilt,” said Rob Dickey, executive vice president at Leggat McCall. “It is going to be much more sustainable and connected to the community in the way that it operates.”

The firm won a public bidding process to buy and redevelop the East Cambridge property — which dates to the early 1970s — pending local approvals. The state said Leggat McCall’s bid was highest of three submitted; the price has not been disclosed.

Its proposal to rehabilitate the tower must still be approved by the Cambridge Planning Board, which is scheduled to take up the revised plan July 29. The renovated building would include 430,000 square feet of office space, 15,000 square feet for retail stores, a 2,500-square-foot community area, 24 apartments, and 92 parking spaces. Construction could start early next year.

In addition, Leggat McCall wants to lease 400 spaces in the adjacent city-owned garage, where it also wants to construct a neighborhood grocery store. The garage will be subject to a public bidding process over the next several months.

‘The building . . . is going to be much more sustainable and connected to the community in the way that it operates.’

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Meanwhile, the Middlesex Courthouse is now vacant. The final occupants — 220 prisoners housed in the upper floors — were transferred to the county jail in Billerica late last month. All court operations had been moved out of the tower in 2008, due to deterioration of the lower floors.

Opened in 1974, the Brutalist-style courthouse is a forbidding presence in a neighborhood of mostly low-rise commercial and residential buildings. Not only is the building ugly by just about any standard, it’s filled with asbestos, and neighbors said they often had to put up with the profane rants of prisoners.

“It was horrible,” said Barbara Broussard, president of the East Cambridge Planning Team, a neighborhood group. “People would be getting married at the arts center and they’d be yelling obscenities. The building reminds me of Warsaw. I just don’t like it.”

Broussard said she is pleased with the revised design and its use of terra cotta instead of the all-glass tower previously envisioned.

But many other neighbors remain skeptical about the scale of the project and its impact on traffic and parking. A new civic group, the East Cambridge Neighborhood Association, has circulated a petition calling for any new development to conform to the area’s 80-foot height limit, and it says the 300-foot-tall courthouse should not have been built.

But Leggat McCall executives say they need a tall building to make the project financially feasible. For example, they say, it will cost $30 million just to remove the asbestos. Dickey said the firm would develop the building on a speculative basis, meaning it would begin construction before signing up tenants.

Few developers have been willing to accept that amount of risk since the recession, but Dickey said some companies have expanded their office footprints in recent months.

“We think there is still a lot of demand in East Cambridge for office space, particularly for high-tech office tenants and innovation companies,” he said. “That has been our focus from the very beginning and, fortunately, that market has remained strong.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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