Developer agrees to double affordable housing in last-minute deal to advance Courthouse disposition

Last night, the Cambridge City Council voted 6-to-3 to approve the disposition of city-owned parking in the First Street Garage, clearing the way for commercial real estate developer Leggat McCall Properties to proceed with the purchase of the state-owned Sullivan Courthouse site.

Six votes were required under the city's disposition ordinance. Going into yesterday's hearing, five councilors were in support, three were opposed, and one was undecided. At the last minute, Councilor Sumbul Siddiqui announced she would be the sixth vote in support if the developer agreed to the following contingencies:

  • Double the number of affordable housing units — from 24 inclusionary units to 48 inclusionary units.
  • Reduce the amount of commercial office space — from 430,000 square feet to 406,000 square feet.
  • Reduce the number of parking spaces under long term lease in the First Street Garage — from 420 spaces to 295 spaces.
  • Seek a further reduction in on-site parking by 25 spaces — changing the residential parking ratio from 1.0 to 0.5.
  • Contribute an additional $3.5 million to the city's Affordable Housing Trust — for a total contribution of $15 million.
  • Make efforts to lease some of the proposed community space to a local non-profit childcare provider.

After Councilor Siddiqui made her requests, Leggat's attorney, former mayor and state senator Anthony Galluccio, asked Mayor McGovern to give the developer "30 seconds to a minute to discuss” the revised deal — a brief recess was called — and even though copies of the deal were not available to the public or all of the councilors — and even though questions were raised by some councilors about the mechanics of the deal — Councilor Toomey called for a final vote, and the hearing quickly ended. 

Overall, the doubling of the number of inclusionary affordable housing units is a significant victory, and the additional funds for the city's Affordable Housing Trust, the reduction of the size of the parking lease, and the pledge to dedicate space for affordable childcare are all welcome enhancements that will benefit Cambridge's working class and help mitigate the impact of the commercial office tower. 

Last Monday, when I spoke during the first part of this hearing, I highlighted the fact that Leggat's proposed ratio of commercial office space to affordable housing was 18-to-1, calling that "outrageous." Under the terms of this revised deal, the office-to-housing ratio will now be approximately 8-to-1. That’s a meaningful improvement, and I appreciate how Councilor Siddiqui worked to address an important range of resident concerns in deciding to move the Leggat project forward.

That said, I was really hoping a majority of the council would support a more inclusive negotiation process, at the very least.

In the end, the people who organized, knocked on doors, made phone calls, or otherwise agitated for more affordable housing, a better disposition process, and a community-driven alternative were not even given a chance to comment on this last-minute deal. This stands in stark contrast to the process that recently occured in Somerville, where members of the Somerville City Council used their leverage over a disposition to support community activists in winning an inclusive community benefits agreement with Union Square developer US2. 

Over the past several months, as residents joined together in an effort to use this disposition vote as leverage for a housing-focused alternative to the Leggat deal, inspired by the call to "Keep Public Land in Public Hands," we faced opposition from officials who said a better deal was not possible and a developer-sponsored public relations campaign that insisted it would take ten years to pursue any alternative. In spite of that opposition, and because of these grassroots efforts involving longtime residents and people on the frontlines of the displacement emergency, circumstances were created that helped make this yesterday's revised deal possible. Thank you to Councilor Siddiqui for working to address concerns on all sides of this issue, and thank you to Councilors Carlone and Zondervan and Vice Mayor Devereux for believing in our vision and to all members of the city council who engaged on this matter. Thanks especially to all of the Cambridge residents who participated in the process and made their voices heard.

Now that the council has voted to advance the disposition, I will continue to hold the state accountable and respond to resident concerns as efforts are made to complete the transaction and make progress with abatement and redevelopment of the Courthouse site. Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns about this or any other matter.