Councillor Zondervan’s Thoughts on the Sullivan Courthouse Vote

In one of the most consequential votes of this term, the Council approved the disposition of public assets at the First Street Garage, allowing a private developer to remediate the Sullivan Courthouse and convert it into primarily high-end commercial office space. The carefully orchestrated last-minute negotiation that took place on the chamber floor was a fitting end to a long process that exposed at every turn how undemocratic our city government truly is, and the extent to which powerful special interests rule. Putting the courthouse into private hands is a grave mistake, and I voted against proceeding in that way for reasons I will explain below. 

I am glad the project will contain twice as many affordable housing units than some were so eager to accept, although the additional units will not offset the impact of this development on the surrounding neighborhood and the people who hope to be able to continue living there. I am so proud of the overwhelming grassroots movement and true leadership from Representative Mike Connolly that it took to get us to the point where striking such a deal was even possible. To everyone who was a part of that, thank you for your work and your activism. I also appreciate Councillor Siddiqui’s willingness to demand more of the developer, though I am uncomfortable with the backroom approach, and ultimately we still left a lot on the table given the council held all the cards in this matter. 

Of particular concern is the impact that 400,000 square feet of high end commercial office space will have on the neighborhood and vulnerable renters who live nearby. Massive commercial development like this accelerates displacement, and the city has chosen to concentrate too much of it in the East Cambridge area. With millions more square feet set to come online over the next several years, the council had an opportunity to move in a different direction on land that had been in the public domain for more than 200 years. We should have denied the disposition and pursued the city purchasing the courthouse building instead. If successful in acquiring the building, we could have engaged in a democratic, public process that spread some of the development rights of the courthouse throughout the city so as not to overburden any particular neighborhood, while still being able to finance the cleanup and redevelopment of the site. Instead of an oversized commercial tower on the site itself that will worsen displacement, we could have built even more affordable housing than was obtained through this terrible deal. 

Hundreds of additional daily car trips in and out of East Cambridge will still be added by this hideous project despite the reduced number of disposed spaces in the proposed deal (which is subject to planning board approval). Even if the new deal is approved by the Planning Board, no actual car storage reduction will take place, because the number of spaces in the First Street Garage remains exactly the same. Keeping more of those spaces in the public domain for the next 30 years *is* a benefit to the community, because as we continue to eliminate on-street car storage to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety, we need public garages, as a matter of economic justice, to assist those who cannot afford alternatives to driving to work every day.

It was fairly obvious that the compromise brokered on the floor had been worked out ahead of time, as the developer took only a minute to mull over a complicated package that will necessitate a trip back to the Planning Board to seek amendments that have no guarantee of passing. The deal was negotiated without input from anyone opposing the disposition, including the neighborhood group (East Cambridge Planning Team). There wasn’t even an opportunity for the council to discuss the substantial changes, let alone space for public comment. 

The choice to privatize is particularly concerning given the abhorrent condition of the building. Sensational claims that the building represents an immediate safety hazard made by proponents of privatization turned out to be baseless, but the city and state alike chose to drag their feet on reaching this conclusion publicly. Instead, they allowed fears to fester in the community, putting additional pressure on the council to vote yes. Everybody agrees that the building must be remediated immediately, but the fear-mongering that took place was inappropriate and unnecessary. 

The neighborhood deserves a remediated site as soon as possible, but privatizing the courthouse means it could be many years before that work gets done, if at all. It has been 11 years since the last economic recession, the longest such period in US history, and our President is reckless and unpredictable. The developer’s ability to remediate the site is contingent on outside funding that could easily vanish if we have a recession soon, at which point the developer could sit on the asset or even sell it off to another party. Most of us remember how development in Northpoint was stalled for years after the last recession, and the unfortunate circumstances around Jerry’s Pond show us that the city has very little ability or appetite to control public safety concerns related to private assets. Selling off this asset was the absolute worst choice we could have made if our goal is to remediate the site as quickly as possible for the neighborhood.

I am disappointed by the cheap shots on social media that were made in the aftermath of this vote, especially those that were directed against some of my colleagues.. At his inauguration last year, the Mayor gave a beautiful speech about “Cambridge United”. I hope the Mayor recognizes that in this case his office did not live up to that slogan. Policy disagreements should not translate into personal attacks on individual councillors.

Unfortunately, the courthouse building will stand for decades to come as an ungainly monument to injustice, reminding generations to come that government by the people and for the people, remains an aspiration that we must continuously strive towards, and that even the best intentions to negotiate a better deal can produce unjust outcomes in the end.

One thought on “Councillor Zondervan’s Thoughts on the Sullivan Courthouse Vote

  1. Catz LeBlanc says:

    Greatly appreciate Councillor Zondervan’s explaining what went down. New small business owners can’t afford to pay the Central Square Business Association membership.
    Public comment not welcomed means public would not have supported. I am disgusted. I really thought Cambridge was making progress.

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