City council must resist bogus privatization scheme
Everyone agrees the state-owned Sullivan Courthouse site in East Cambridge needs to be remediated of asbestos and prepared for redevelopment.
The current proposal, backed by the Baker administration and Cambridge’s city manager, would accomplish this goal by transferring ownership of the courthouse to commercial real estate developer Leggat McCall Properties.
In exchange for cleaning up the site, delivering a $33 million windfall to the state, and providing various community benefits, Leggat will be allowed to extract hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate profits from the East Cambridge neighborhood by refashioning the courthouse into a massive commercial office and R&D building.
The question we must ask is whether this transaction serves the public interest. In my view, having engaged with many hundreds of constituents on this topic and being a longtime renter and housing justice advocate, the answer is no, it doesn’t.
The main reason why I oppose the Leggat deal is because the ratio of commercial office space to housing is approximately 18-to-1 (i.e. 430,000 sq. ft. to 24,000 sq. ft.).
In this time of affordable housing emergency, the use of public land in East Cambridge for a massive commercial office building is outrageous, as the project will ultimately displace working class renters across Cambridge and even parts of Somerville. And while Cambridge has been a leader on many aspects of housing policy, the fact remains that the city has systematically prioritized commercial development over desperately needed affordable housing.
Moreover, the Leggat deal will perpetuate an urban design disaster in the East Cambridge neighborhood, in the form of a 258-foot-tall office tower that will loom over adjacent triple-deckers and historic buildings. The Leggat project will also add some 2,066 daily automobile trips to our already-gridlocked city streets, according to the city’s own findings.
Clearly, East Cambridge is facing the impacts of an unbelievable boom in commercial office, lab, and luxury housing development. This boom has greatly increased property values and the city’s tax base, but it has also made the city less accessible to families, people of color, artists, and the working class. That’s why it’s so important to ensure our public assets are put to use in ways that serve our most pressing needs. Unfortunately, no one can say that is happening here, because the state offered the site to the highest bidder without any regard for housing needs or community impacts and then proceeded to conceal the winning bid price for the duration of the permitting process (in violation of the public records law).
And yet, there is now a real opportunity to achieve a much better outcome. That’s because condition six of Leggat’s special permit can only be satisfied if the City Council approves the disposition of 420 parking spaces in the city-owned First Street Garage.
On Monday, Sept 9, the council has scheduled a hearing to consider this First Street Garage disposition. I am standing with over 1,250 local residents in respectfully calling on the council to vote “no.”
The stated purpose of the city’s disposition ordinance is to “protect the citizens of Cambridge and achieve land uses that best serve the City’s public purpose.” In this case, disposition of parking in the First Street Garage will result in commercial office uses that tend to displace residents (not “protect” them), and commercial office development is hardly the use that “best serves” the public interest, in light of the housing emergency.
For the past several months, I have been working to organize grassroots support for a community-driven alternative to Leggat’s commercial office plan. The basic concept is for the city to use its leverage to resist the Leggat deal, and from there, for all of us to work together to negotiate a more favorable disposition from the state.
Mayor McGovern has argued that a community-driven alternative isn’t feasible because the Baker administration wants to obtain “fair market value” for the courthouse. Leaving aside the fact that the state has done absolutely nothing to deserve a cash windfall for this building, the key point to understand is that the marketable value of this site is largely determined by the city’s approach to permitting and parking approvals.
To be sure, abutters are understandably concerned about the condition of the courthouse. However, it is important to note that Cambridge’s own fire chief recently declared that the building poses no hazard to the public. Nevertheless, fears were stoked again last week when an avid Leggat supporter managed to enter the premises and, without any credentials, apparently removed materials for testing. Upon learning of this incident, I filed a complaint with the Department of Environmental Protection. I am pleased to report MassDEP immediately responded and is now playing an active role in securing the site.
All over Massachusetts, other municipalities are using their leverage to negotiate creative deals for the reuse of abandoned state assets, and collectively, we have the power to do the same in Cambridge. After 206 years in the public domain, the fate of the courthouse site is now in the hands of our City Council. If we work together and stick to our principles, we can achieve an outcome that serves the public interest and makes us all proud.
Mike Connolly is the state representative for the 26th Middlesex District—which includes East Cambridge and East Somerville.