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Court ruling clears the way for redevelopment of East Cambridge courthouse tower

The old Middlesex County courthouse building in East Cambridge may finally get a makeover.JOSH REYNOLDS/FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/file

The fences could finally come down, allowing construction crews to move in, following a state Appeals Court panel’s ruling in favor of the company that wants to redevelop the former Middlesex County courthouse building in East Cambridge.

The 22-story tower has been vacant for nearly three years, in part because of a legal battle between developer Leggat McCall Properties and a group of plaintiffs — including neighbors — who want a much smaller project at the site.

The Boston-based firm wants to keep most of the tower intact, and convert it into a mix of offices and research spaces, along with some housing and retail. But the plaintiffs have said the tower would be too big for a neighborhood packed with residential buildings. Some critics would like the tower — considered by many to be an eyesore — to be torn down.


The case before the Appeals Court hinged on the issue of government immunity from zoning rules — and whether that immunity could carry forward once the property is in private hands. State officials worried that, had the case gone the other way, it could have set a tough precedent for the redevelopment of other publicly owned properties.

In addition to the developer, the defendants included the Cambridge planning board, which issued a special permit for the project in 2014, and the state.

The Appeals Court’s ruling, made public on Wednesday, sides with a Land Court judge who in 2015 ruled that the tower should be considered a lawful nonconforming structure after the state sells it. The existing structure is much larger than what Cambridge zoning rules would allow at that site.

Robert Dickey, an executive vice president at Leggat McCall, said in a statement that the company is pleased with the court decision and is eager to turn the former courthouse into a vibrant, mixed-used project that will benefit the community.


One of the plaintiffs, Michael Hawley, said he and other plaintiffs declined to comment for now, other than to say they are considering whether to seek further review with the Supreme Judicial Court.

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.