First St Garage Disposition: A Test of Vision and Will (8 Responses)

We were supposed to vote on the First St Garage Parking Disposition in July, but the meeting had to be postponed because the Planning Board had not yet met, which is one requirement of the legal process. At issue is whether one-third of the municipal garage (420 spaces) should be leased on a long-term basis (30 years) to enable LMP’s still-controversial redevelopment of the Sullivan Courthouse into an office building 258-feet tall with 24 low- and moderate-income affordable housing units. The residential space, which originally had included some middle income units, would constitute only about 5% of the 450,000 sf building. The FAR would be an astounding 7.97 and open space comprises just 1.4% of the lot. With a total of 512 parking spaces (including 92 on site), the development would further burden East Cambridge’s narrow neighborhood streets with an estimated 2,000+ car trips daily. The disposition report and the parking study we have been offered to justify a favorable vote are themselves deeply flawed both procedurally and substantively, as was documented by the ECPT in their two July 15 letters to the Planning Board.

As one of the ECPT’s July 15 letters notes, the parking study did not respond the the request in the Policy Order I co-sponsored in November 2018 asking for a comprehensive parking study, and instead was narrowly scoped, conducted, and interpreted to justify a favorable outcome for Leggat’s need. The study ignored the reality that the garage is often functionally full by mid-morning (that us, all unreserved spaces are full) and that it maintains a waitlist for non-residents who work in the area and want monthly passes, two conditions that would not be improved were 420 spaces leased to Leggat. In fact, two sentences from the report contradict its conclusion that leasing 420 spaces to Leggat would not pose any problems:

“The results show that there are a few hours of the day on a higher than average day of the week and month of the year where not all pass holders will be able to find parking in the garage. At these times, these parkers must either seek parking elsewhere in the study area or use an alternate mode of transportation.” (p. 18)

“With 80% of the 420 new passes used each hour of the day, the utilization would exceed the garage’s capacity between 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM, resulting in 31 to 148 parkers needing to find parking elsewhere during these times, as shown in Figure 18.” (p. 20) 

It seems unwise to me to lock up one-third of the garage space for 30 years to serve one office building when those spaces are important to meeting both current and future parking needs. We do not have enough parking for our public school teachers and DPW workers, many of whom have to arrive very early in the morning and can’t rely on transit. The comprehensive parking study the Council requested was intended to consider the city’s parking needs more holistically, but the study produced looked only for ways to justify a lease to LMP — and if you read and analyze it carefully, as members of the ECPT did, the study even fell short at that.

I opposed the Courthouse project before I was elected and despite the promised benefits to sweeten the deal, I continue to feel it is the wrong choice for East Cambridge and the city, so I cannot support the disposition.

The Courthouse debate was one of the issues that first drew me into community organizing and local politics. Here is part of what I wrote to the Planning Board in February 2014, months before I even contemplated running for Council:

“On March 4 you will have the opportunity to right a historic wrong. I implore you to deny the special permits requested by developer Leggat McCall to give second life to the Sullivan Courthouse, a sick building that has been roundly reviled since it began terrorizing its residential neighbors like a concrete and asbestos King Kong four decades ago. 

The only reasonable course, legally and morally, is to terminate the disposition process, and to require the state to raze and remove this toxic monstrosity and return the site to the city to repurpose for a public use that conforms to the neighborhood zoning and respects the neighborhood’s wishes. 

No decision the Planning Board and City Council will make this year – or this decade – stands to have the same impact or legacy as the one presented by petition #288. Please do the right thing and send the Commonwealth back to the drawing board. Let it be known that the “c” in Cambridge stands for the courage to respect the community’s values and needs.”

I know a lot more about how the city’s development politics work than I did in 2014, but I stand by what I wrote five years ago. 

Rereading some of the many other letters of opposition to the Planning Board from 2014 that are archived along with the Petition Opposing the Permits on, I found one from former Councillor Leland Cheung, who was known to be quite pro-development. Leland could not be said to be afraid of tall buildings; remember, he wanted to build a 1,000-foot tower at Volpe “to put Cambridge on the map” and the site was one of the few in the city where such height would not interfere with the flight paths to and from Logan. And yet even he vigorously opposed the Leggat proposal.

I also found an email to DCAMM from January 2013 from ECPT’s president at the time, Barbara Brossard, and the late Seth Teller of MIT, one of the most brilliant and passionate opponents:

“We and about one hundred other East Cambridge residents attended presentations by the three designated finalists on the evening of August 22, 2012.The consensus opinion of those attending was that LMP did not present a thoughtful or professional proposal for development of this important site. Our vote afterward reflected this consensus: HYM was the favorite, receiving 78 of the #1 votes; DivcoWest received 11 #1 votes; and Leggat McCall came in third with only a handful of votes…..We formally request that DCAMM reopen the selection process and take our views into consideration. We think that it is unacceptable that you have not acknowledged two previous letters on this topic sent to your attention on behalf of the ECPT.”

Our state rep at the time, Councillor Toomey, was disappointed that DCAMM ignored the community’s preferences in choosing LMP’s higher bid. This is one point he and his successor Rep Connolly can agree on.

On the petition site, I also found a copy of the 1813 Founding Gift of the Courthouse site from Andrew Craigie, who built the bridge that connects Boston to Cambridge and who donated this plot of land for a public use in perpetuity. The 1813 deed in trust expressly forbids its conversion to a private use.

And yet that is exactly what the state and our city administration would have us do by approving the parking disposition that would clear the way for the state to execute the sale of public property, deeded in trust for public use, to a private developer, thereby collecting a windfall profit for unloading a sick building that DCAMM — the state agency devoted to maintenance — has neglected to the point where we now have residents fearful that they are being poisoned by the asbestos inside. (Supporters of the project have cynically played on these fears in the well-funded “Why Wait?” campaign funded and orchestrated by LMP.) This is the same asbestos that drove the state to close the jail, move its court offices, and shut down the building in 2014 and that should be, and still is, the state’s responsibility to responsibly contain and remediate. After a prior city manager refused to accept the building back in 2012, the state chose easy money over engaging authentically with a historic working class neighborhood that has been burdened and gentrified by the very economic growth engine that is keeping public coffers full. 

One of the promised benefits of the redevelopment is the renovation and re-use of the long-empty space on the ground floor of the garage. In a time when vacant retail spaces plague our neighborhood business districts, and residents plead with the Council to use whatever carrots and sticks we can to prod property owners to fill empty storefronts, the city has allowed our own retail space in the First St Garage to sit empty since 2006. Now, thirteen years later, its reactivation is counted among the public benefits that the parking disposition would bring — and we should be afraid to reject it because, wait for it, the space could sit empty a while longer. Where was the urgency before to take care of a space we control?

This siege-mentality decision making exemplifies the broken approach that has characterized this debate all along: must we hold ourselves captive to the state’s unprincipled disposition process and a private developer’s priorities to negotiate trickle-down public benefits? Or is there an even greater public benefit in allowing the community to control its destiny by collaboratively determining how we want our public assets to be used — and by that measure how to value them — and by supporting our community goals with a public investment made in partnership with the public agency or private entity of our own choosing?

I will be leaving public office at the end of this year, and I want to be able to do so with some faith that the Council can stand up for what’s right and knows how to use its leverage productively. The parking disposition is our last bit of leverage in this case. For me, that means rejecting the flawed process that has brought us to this point and asking the state and the city to work with the community to develop a plan that rights the many wrongs up to now. Since 1970 when the Courthouse tower was built over the neighborhood’s strong objections, every action connected to this site has ignored or shortchanged the public; let’s not compound a half-century of errors through a botched disposition process. 

Finally, supporters of the LMP plan demand to know what the alternative plan is if the parking disposition is voted down — as if we should be required to present a shovel-ready redevelopment plan in order to vote “no” on the parking lease. It seems obvious that in asking for a “community-driven” plan, we won’t skip the step of including the community in producing any new plan. So, no, we don’t have a Plan B yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to use our leverage, creativity, and resources to produce one in a reasonable time frame. It takes political will and courage, though, and ultimately that’s what this decision will test.

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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA