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Saga of empty Cambridge courthouse tower enters a new chapter

Those favoring Leggat McCall Properties’ plan for the Sullivan Courthouse tower say it’s the smartest way to clean up the site.
Those favoring Leggat McCall Properties’ plan for the Sullivan Courthouse tower say it’s the smartest way to clean up the site. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File)

Could this be the longest Beacon Hill has had to wait for a windfall in the history of state budget writing?

In late 2012, Boston developer Leggat McCall Properties won the rights to redevelop the ugly Sullivan Courthouse tower that looms over East Cambridge. But Leggat’s deal to buy the giant white elephant from the state for $33 million remains up in the air, nearly seven years later. The latest hitch: The developer’s request to lease part of the city-owned garage across the street has run into serious resistance.

The saga’s next chapter is scheduled to play out at a Planning Board hearing on Tuesday night. But that’s just a prelude to the main event. The parking transfer — Leggat wants the spaces to fulfill a condition of its special permit to redevelop the empty tower — goes before the City Council next month. Six of the nine councilors need to vote in favor, an outcome that remains in doubt.

For those in favor, including Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern and City Manager Lou DePasquale, this plan represents the smartest way to clean up the asbestos-packed 22-story tower and turn it into something useful again. To opponents, it’s the city taking the easy way out rather than thinking of the best public use for the tower property and the garage.

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The development already survived one major challenge — in the courts. The 280-foot tower is the very definition of nonconforming, surrounded as it is by much smaller buildings. The structure is much larger than what Cambridge’s modern zoning rules would allow there today. That prompted a group of neighbors to sue to stop Leggat, arguing that government immunity from zoning limits shouldn’t carry over to private owners. A Land Court judge sided with Leggat in 2015.

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It had the potential to be a precedent-setting case, for the entire Commonwealth. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office argued that blocking the courthouse project could threaten possible future redevelopments at up to 200 inactive state properties, by suddenly imposing local zoning rules on them. The state Appeals Court agreed. The Supreme Judicial Court decided not to weigh in, and the case ended there. But not the drama.

Leggat’s special permit with Cambridge requires it to obtain 420 nearby parking spaces for the 430,000 square feet of offices that Leggat wants to build in the tower. (The tower plans also call for 24 units of affordable housing and a relatively small amount of surface-level retail; the top two stories would also come off.) The city garage across the street is by far the best option for Leggat, which would pay the city $49 million over 30 years to lease those parking spaces and along with another $3 million-plus for a retail area.

Now, the tower has ignited another public policy debate — this time revolving around the best way to dispose of public property.

Cambridge state Representative Mike Connolly is helping lead the opposition. Connolly argues that booming East Cambridge doesn’t need another office tower. What it does need, he says, is more affordable housing. New offices continue to get built to meet the demand from biotech and tech tenants, but relatively little housing goes up, he says. The city, Connolly argues, should use its considerable financial might to work with the state to create affordable housing there, much like what Trinity Financial is doing with an old courthouse in Worcester.

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Cambridge’s mayor disagrees with the Worcester comparison, in large part because Cambridge real estate is far more valuable. The Baker administration, McGovern says, has made it clear to the city that if the Leggat plan falls apart, state officials would simply put the tower back out to bid to seek the market value for the property. Leggat is willing to spend $50 million-plus to clean up the building on top of the $33 million. McGovern says that might be a tall order to ask of an affordable-housing developer.

The imbroglio has divided the neighborhood. Many neighbors agree with Leggat supporter Mary Ellen Doran: She lives across the street from the tower, which no longer has electricity, and worries about the risks that a giant abandoned building poses. To them, something needs to happen, soon. Many others side with the critics, including Michael Hawley, one of the plaintiffs in the zoning dispute. Government officials, he says, should be more concerned with addressing the public’s needs rather than maximizing revenue.

It’s not clear what Leggat will do if it loses the council vote. Leggat has considered leasing spaces at Cambridgeside, but the landlord has its own redevelopment plans for part of the mall.

No matter how this convoluted story ends, it’s a good thing the state finished the most recent fiscal year with a big surplus. Who knows when this long-awaited check will arrive?

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.