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Long-stalled plans to remake old jail and courthouse may soon proceed

The proposed remodeling of the Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge.
The proposed remodeling of the Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge.(Elkus Manfredi)

The long-stalled makeover of the empty Middlesex County courthouse building in East Cambridge could soon move forward — finally —with the developer hoping to begin work this year on converting the towering old jail and court into a modern office building.

The development company Leggat McCall is showing new images of its plans and offering to include more affordable housing in the building as the Cambridge City Council prepares for a key vote that would let the project — which has been tied up in lawsuits and other delays for years — get underway.

A proposed renovation of the Sullivan Courthouse.
A proposed renovation of the Sullivan Courthouse.(Elkus Manfredi)

The developer next week plans to open a storefront community center on nearby Cambridge Street to boost public awareness of the project, including by displaying models of what it envisions for the site.

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“We want to be out in the community,” said Leggat McCall’s executive vice president, Rob Dickey. “We want to be accessible.”

The push comes after lengthy legal wrangling with nearby residents who sued to block the project, on the grounds that the 282-foot building, constructed by the state in the early 1970s, is too tall to conform with city zoning in the area. In 2017, a state appeals court sided with the city and developers, ending the litigation.

But opposition remains. The East Cambridge Planning Team, a neighborhood group, has repeatedly called for further study, and 120 people recently signed online petitions urging that the building be torn down and replaced with a park, community space, or affordable housing. They aim to come out soon with an alternative plan that would better address neighborhood needs, said Democratic state Representative Mike Connolly, whose district includes the courthouse.

Leggat McCall, which agreed to pay the state $33 million for the tower, has its own ideas. It wants to renovate the building and make room for 430,000 square feet of office space, street-level retail and open space, and 24 apartments, all with rents affordable to lower- and moderate-income tenants.

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Plans also include re-facing the building’s Brutalist-style concrete facade with bigger windows and terra cotta, and better integration of its fortress-like ground floor with the streets.

Leggat McCall has city approvals to do all of that work, but it needs to lease 420 spaces in the city-owned First Street Garage, across the street, to fulfill its parking requirement. That deal, which includes a plan by the developer to operate a year-round farmer’s market in a long-empty storefront on the garage’s ground floor, needs City Council approval before the broader project can move forward. A parking study is underway, and Dickey said he’s hoping for a vote this spring.

If the parking plan is approved, Dickey said, his company hopes to start overhauling the tower in the fall, five-plus years after the last prisoners were shipped out of the jail on the upper floors, and nearly seven years after the developer started planning the project.

“We feel like we’re on the five- or 10-yard line now,” Dickey said. “We’re trying to push through.”


Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.