The fix was in.
While the world was gearing up for the global climate strike last week, the years-long fight over the future of the Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge ended in a fast flurry of political maneuvers. Whose outcome surprised no one. Only the manner of the violation of the public trust remained in question until the last moment.
The matter up for debate in the Cambridge city council chamber was not really the matter up for debate. Officially the second of what had become a two-part council session was meeting to decide whether or not developer Leggat McCall Properties was going to get the 420 parking spaces required by the special permit which would allow it to convert the state-owned courthouse into a lucrative commercial office tower—with 24 affordable housing units and enough minor amenities thrown in to get the votes it needed to prevail.
In reality, the session was determining whether Leggat would be able to move forward with its plans or be stopped cold by failing to get the required six council votes for the necessary parking. At which time, anti-Leggat community activists hoped that the Commonwealth’s deal with the developer would collapse and the state would be forced to make a new deal with the city of Cambridge and other parties for a courthouse development that would mainly provide desperately needed affordable housing.
Leggat already had five votes locked down going into the session—councilors Craig Kelley, Alanna Mallon, Tim Toomey, and Denise Simmons plus Mayor Marc McGovern (who is still a councilor under Cambridge’s Plan E form of government). All exactly the kind of corporate-friendly pols whose support was never in doubt.
Facing off with them were three councilors solidly against the idea of a deal with Leggat—Dennis Carlone, Quinton Zondervan, and Vice Mayor Jan Devereux. Leaving one vote still in play. The deciding vote. Which was held by Sumbul Siddiqui, a councilor elected in 2017 with endorsements from several labor unions and, notably, two left-wing organizations that put boots on the ground in electoral contests: Our Revolution Cambridge and Boston Democratic Socialists of America. She had campaigned as a former resident of Cambridge public housing and a strong advocate for expanding affordable housing in the city. Those groups, and the public that elected her, took her at her word.
What happened next was described by Vice Mayor Devereux in the Cambridge Day article “Last-minute deal for courthouse squandered council power—to developer’s financial gain”:
“After months of authentic grassroots advocacy led by state Rep. Mike Connolly with rallies, a door-knocking campaign and a petition that gathered more than 1,250 signatures to reject the parking disposition outright to give the city leverage with the state to negotiate an inclusive, community-driven alternative plan with affordable housing as its centerpiece, councillor Siddiqui went to the brink and then folded our hard-won winning hand too quickly, even depriving the three councillors who had always demanded much more from the courthouse redevelopment of any opportunity to improve her deal’s terms. It was the momentum built through the grassroots campaign to stand up to the expensive, professional public relations campaign waged by Leggat McCall that put councillor Siddiqui in the position to even make these demands. She could have stated them as the opening bid on what she would need to get to ‘yes’ without rushing us to a final vote last night. Seizing her own bird in the hand deprived everyone else of a voice, which sadly is pretty much the opposite of a collaborative and transparent community-driven process.”
Under pressure from city leadership and Leggat, Siddiqui had clearly made a deal for her vote in advance. She announced the deal by laying out what she wanted for that vote toward the end of the hearing—basically doubling the number of affordable housing units from 24 to 48 and throwing another $3.5 million at Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Trust. To which the Leggat lawyer, former mayor and disgraced former State Sen. Anthony Galluccio, agreed shortly after asking Mayor McGovern for “30 seconds to a minute” to discuss the new deal. But not before McGovern literally called his old pal “Gooch” in open session—having also called Galluccio “councilor” at another point. As the ex-con’s mayoral portrait looked down on the highly unusual scene from the wall.
After that the vote was merely a matter of codifying a fait accompli. Which the council then did 6-3 in favor along the expected lines—with the added insult of blocking any future reconsideration of the vote.
Puzzlingly, one of Siddiqui’s asks according to Devereux was “Reducing parking leased in the city garage by 125 spaces (from 420 to 295) and to seek a further reduction of up to 25 spaces in the total parking requirement (from 510 to 360 total for the project).”
The vice mayor explained that “the reduction in the required parking, which it seems possible the Planning Board could approve without even requiring a traffic and parking study to update data that are now six years old, will save Leggat McCall a substantial amount of money. By subtracting 150 spaces from its lease in the First Street Garage, Leggat McCall would save about $17.5 million over 30 years (that’s about half of its reported acquisition cost for the courthouse). The approximately $49 million in guaranteed revenue to the city from the parking lease had been touted as a significant community benefit; councillor Siddiqui’s bargain will reduce the value of that benefit by about 35 percent. And in a little less than six years, the additional $3.5 million payment to the Affordable Housing Trust will have been recouped through these windfall savings on the parking lease.”
So the new deal is essentially undoing one of its own key planks by allowing Leggat to develop the courthouse while using fewer public parking spaces. A move likely aimed at reducing remaining community opposition to the project on grounds that it would have been leasing too many of said spaces to the developer—with the unhappy side effect of reducing the money the city will make by now leasing less spaces. Excelsior.
As I mentioned in my Apparent Horizon column of two weeks ago “The Political Movement to Come: How Cambridge Can Put Public Need Before Private Greed,” Leggat and city government will still likely have to fight at least one lawsuit over the way the disposition of parking spaces in a public garage was handled. But that probably won’t be enough to stop the project.
Not with Siddiqui having failed to remain true to her previous campaign promises to be a champion for affordable housing—by backing 48 units instead of fighting for a better courthouse development with many more affordable apartments. In a city with thousands of people on public housing waiting lists.
As Devereux made clear, if Siddiqui had held firm to her supposed principles and voted against leasing the parking spaces, a much better deal could have been negotiated. If Leggat was willing to suddenly double the number of housing units in its courthouse plan—something its bosses had always refused to offer in previous negotiations—in exchange for her vote, then the company surely would have managed to come up with much bigger givebacks to ensure that it would be allowed to make the huge profits it is undoubtedly expecting from the commercial office space it’ll build out in the (currently) 22-story tower.
But Siddiqui took a dive at the moment the city’s remaining working families needed her most. She didn’t stand with Carlone, Devereaux, and Zondervan for even an extra hour. She buckled under pressure from the developer and its allies on the council when they did not, and she made the kind of deal that my labor movement mentor Tim Costello called “bargaining against yourself.” The worst possible kind of deal.
The question now is what to do with her. And with Kelley, Mallon, Simmons, Toomey, and most especially with the council’s chief corporate quisling—the person primarily responsible for this outcome—Mayor McGovern.
Yet here we arrive at the problem I outlined in my last article. There is no popular movement on the (actual) political left in Cambridge currently large enough to easily “throw the bums out.” Which is definitely the right thing to do in this situation.
Worse still, Cambridge residents—many of them transient students at local universities—turn out in pitifully low numbers for local elections. And most know literally nothing about city politics. Which absolutely works to preserve the neoliberal status quo that I outlined in my earlier column, “Don’t Buy What Mayor McGovern Is Selling.” Explaining that McGovern—and, by default, his allies Kelley, Mallon, Simmons, Toomey, and now Siddiqui—believe “that the way to run a city in 21st-century America is to attract as much big development as possible, get whatever funds collected from the generally small and inoffensive taxes and fees that developers will accept, and then use that money to keep the city attractive enough to hold onto to the developments that are here and entice more developers to build here. While, secondarily, providing public services to residents that are somewhat better than the services cities without big developments have.”
Meaning that I can shout that Cantabrigians should purge the pro-Leggat council until I’m blue in the face, and it won’t make much difference. Certainly not in this year’s swift-approaching elections.
So all I can do is encourage voters to support the seven council candidates backed by Our Revolution Cambridge: incumbents Dennis Carlone and Quinton Zondervan, and newcomers Charles Franklin, Patty Nolan, Ben Simon, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, and Nicola Williams. Simon and Sobrinho-Wheeler also being endorsed by Boston DSA.
Given the anticipated super-low voter turnout in this midterm election year and the fact of Cambridge’s ranked-choice voting system, I hesitate to even do that. Because the seven candidates are effectively running against each other in a race where each of them (speaking in basic terms about a complex process) needs to pass a specific threshold of #1 votes based on the number of people that ultimately vote—and voters can only assign one #1 vote each.
Since it’s fairly unlikely that a majority of those candidates will be able to win, we’re probably not going to see a significant change in the council’s attitude toward big real estate developers like Leggat. Yet.
I would suggest then that readers take a look at my “Political Movement” column and consider my prescriptions for those seeking to make Cambridge more (“small d”) democratic. Briefly, I’m saying that a city like the so-called “People’s Republic” can only improve if residents build a strong social force capable of freeing city politics of the malign influence of developers and other major corporations. And aim for electoral reform once they’ve built strength in every neighborhood. To succeed, activists may first need to run the major campaign required to change the city from a Plan E government to something else.
But one thing is for sure: If such a movement arises, any push to throw out politicians that real estate interests and other major corporations have in their back pockets will have a much better chance of success.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.