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Cambridge’s Sullivan Courthouse saga twists yet again

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Redevelopment push dates from 2012

The seemingly never-ending story of the redevelopment of the old Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge has taken yet another turn.

Recall that developer Leggat McCall won a state O.K. in 2012 to convert the 22-story former jail and courthouse to office and retail space, including a health club and a small grocery store. Community opposition to the all-commercial plan, however, soon drove the developer to add 24 apartments

Then community opposition led Leggat McCall to agree to chop two floors from its plans. It appeared things might be moving forward following those concessions. Then four property owners abutting the courthouse site at 40 Thorndike Street sued Leggat McCall in Massachusetts Land Court. That case has wended its way to appeal.

Which may not matter in the end. Why? John Hawkinson reports in Cambridge Day that a law that Gov. Charlie Baker signed on Aug. 4 could undercut the case of those opposed to the redevelopment. See, the brutalist-style courthouse building dates from the 1970s and some locals have long seen it as out of proportion to the lower-rise properties surrounding it.

The new law, though, kind of grandfathers in incongruous properties such as the courthouse-slash-jail. Simply put, the time to speak up was years ago—not now. Per Hawkinson: "[The law] provides that certain kinds of zoning lawsuits are permitted only within the first 10 years of a zoning violation, and that structures that have existed for longer ‘shall be deemed, for zoning purposes, to be legally non-conforming.’"

The appeal continues and there might be further appeals yet. Stay tuned.