Report from meeting with DCAMM on the status of Sullivan Courthouse

On June 6, State Representative Mike Connolly, serving in his capacity as a member of the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures, and State Assets, participated in an oversight hearing at the State House where he had the opportunity to ask questions of DCAMM Commissioner Carol Gladstone. This was part of the House Bonding Committee's regular series of oversight hearings on various state departments.

Rep. Connolly used this opportunity to raise concerns with the state's management and maintenance of the site of the former Edward J. Courthouse in East Cambridge and DCAMM's apparent failure to coordinate with Veolia on the need to discontinue steam service to the building. During the hearing, Rep. Connolly held up a Cambridge Day article about the June 1 steam incident and read the title aloud: "False fire alarm at Courthouse enflames ire over state maintenance of crumbling tower."

Rep. Connolly proceeded to ask Commissioner Gladstone a series of questions about conditions at the Courthouse site, but the Commissioner indicated she was not prepared to address those questions at that time. In response, Rep. Connolly asked for the opportunity to meet with the Commissioner and her staff to discuss these and related concerns — and after some scheduling delays, that meeting occurred last week, on Tuesday, July 23.

Below are notes compiled by our office at the meeting last week. Following the meeting, we sent a draft of our notes to DCAMM for their feedback and review, and on July 25, DCAMM returned the notes to us with minimal revisions, which have been included in the following summary: 

Summary of statements from DCAMM on July 23, 2019:

  • The former Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse ("the Courthouse") does not pose a threat to public health and does not pose a risk to the environment. It is not accurate to suggest that the Courthouse is "exposing our neighbors to dangerous cancer-causing toxins," as some have claimed. The Courthouse "is not actively posing a risk to anybody," according to DCAMM.
  • DCAMM maintains 24/7 security on site, and they also provide building management staff that are available to address issues as they arise. Furthermore, DCAMM is in regular contact with Cambridge's Acting Fire Chief and Fire Department, and DCAMM has also communicated with other City departments and officials relative to the status of the building.
  • Although the Courthouse experienced a sprinkler pipe burst in January (one of several burst pipes that have occurred), the water was contained in the building and did not leak out of the building and was not pumped out of the building at any time. Therefore, it is not accurate to suggest that "water-remediation measures at the Courthouse led to flooding in abutters’ basements," as has been claimed. DCAMM attributed such reports back in January to melting snow. Furthermore, DCAMM has a plan in the works, subject to environmental approvals, for the removal of water that accumulated in the basement, and this plan is moving forward irrespective of the outcome of the City's pending vote on a parking disposition or the long-stalled P&S agreement. Pending environmental approvals, DCAMM says they will transport the water away from Cambridge via trucks. Furthermore, it is not accurate to say that asbestos is "condensing" in standing water in the basement, and it is not accurate to suggest that "asbestos-contaminated water is seeping into abutters’ homes," as has been suggested. 
  • DCAMM asked Veolia to shut off the supply of steam to the Courthouse, but Veolia failed to take this action (noted as a "coordination failure" by DCAMM). DCAMM stated that there were complications on Veolia’s part to provide steam to other customers in the area, and this prevented them from shutting down service to the Courthouse in a timely fashion. According to DCAMM, the incident posed no hazard. Furthermore it is not accurate to suggest that the burst pipe sent "aerosolized asbestos particles into the neighborhood," according to DCAMM.
  • While it is true that the flashing beacons on the roof of the Courthouse are no longer operating, the building poses no particular risk to aircraft. The beacons were more important in the past when there were no tall buildings in the area — but nowadays, with so many taller buildings in the Cambridge Crossing, East Cambridge, and Kendall Square areas, the operation of the beacons on the Courthouse seems to be less relevant, and the FAA and surrounding air fields have been advised of the status of the building. The building does not pose a flight risk, according to DCAMM.
  • It is not accurate to suggest that "pieces of the exterior and windows regularly break and fall off the building," as has been suggested.

DCAMM's statements coincide with a recent report from Cambridge's Fire Chief that declares the building is "unoccupied and secure" and "does not presently present a hazard that requires intervention."

Commenting on this report, Vice Mayor Jan Devereux recently stated: "The building is under close watch 24/7 by two security guards (at the state’s expense) and all the systems and utilities have been shut off. There is no elevated risk of fire in this steel-construction concrete building; asbestos does one thing well, it makes buildings more fire resistant. The Sullivan Courthouse is ugly and too tall and should be demolished, but it is not the imminent public safety threat that some supporters of the developer’s plan have led nervous neighbors to believe. Rumors spread by a city council candidate and others in the developer’s orbit that the vacant and locked building is dangerous are irresponsible."

While everyone recognizes the Courthouse contains asbestos that must be remediated, and while Rep. Connolly believes it is possible for city and state officials to work together to accomplish this remediation effort and a community-driven redevelopment in an expedited fashion, it is also important to ensure that city officials and the public are aware of accurate information about the status of the building. It is in that spirit that we have made these meeting notes available.

Our office will continue to work with local residents, DCAMM, the City of Cambridge, and all interested stakeholders to address concerns relative to the status of the building.