While the world was gearing up for the global climate strike last week, the years-long fight over the future of the Sullivan Courthouse in East Cambridge ended in a fast flurry of political maneuvers. Whose outcome surprised no one. Only the manner of the violation of the public trust remained in question until the last moment.
The matter up for debate in the Cambridge city council chamber was not really the matter up for debate. Officially the second of what had become a two-part council session was meeting to decide whether or not developer Leggat McCall Properties was going to get the 420 parking spaces required by the special permit which would allow it to convert the state-owned courthouse into a lucrative commercial office tower—with 24 affordable housing units and enough minor amenities thrown in to get the votes it needed to prevail.
In reality, the session was determining whether Leggat would be able to move forward with its plans or be stopped cold by failing to get the required six council votes for the necessary parking. At which time, anti-Leggat community activists hoped that the Commonwealth’s deal with the developer would collapse and the state would be forced to make a new deal with the city of Cambridge and other parties for a courthouse development that would mainly provide desperately needed affordable housing.
Leggat already had five votes locked down going into the session—councilors Craig Kelley, Alanna Mallon, Tim Toomey, and Denise Simmons plus Mayor Marc McGovern (who is still a councilor under Cambridge’s Plan E form of government). All exactly the kind of corporate-friendly pols whose support was never in doubt.
Facing off with them were three councilors solidly against the idea of a deal with Leggat—Dennis Carlone, Quinton Zondervan, and Vice Mayor Jan Devereux. Leaving one vote still in play. The deciding vote. Which was held by Sumbul Siddiqui, a councilor elected in 2017 with endorsements from several labor unions and, notably, two left-wing organizations that put boots on the ground in electoral contests: Our Revolution Cambridge and Boston Democratic Socialists of America. She had campaigned as a former resident of Cambridge public housing and a strong advocate for expanding affordable housing in the city. Those groups, and the public that elected her, took her at her word.
“After months of authentic grassroots advocacy led by state Rep. Mike Connolly with rallies, a door-knocking campaign and a petition that gathered more than 1,250 signatures to reject the parking disposition outright to give the city leverage with the state to negotiate an inclusive, community-driven alternative plan with affordable housing as its centerpiece, councillor Siddiqui went to the brink and then folded our hard-won winning hand too quickly, even depriving the three councillors who had always demanded much more from the courthouse redevelopment of any opportunity to improve her deal’s terms. It was the momentum built through the grassroots campaign to stand up to the expensive, professional public relations campaign waged by Leggat McCall that put councillor Siddiqui in the position to even make these demands. She could have stated them as the opening bid on what she would need to get to ‘yes’ without rushing us to a final vote last night. Seizing her own bird in the hand deprived everyone else of a voice, which sadly is pretty much the opposite of a collaborative and transparent community-driven process.”
Under pressure from city leadership and Leggat, Siddiqui had clearly made a deal for her vote in advance. She announced the deal by laying out what she wanted for that vote toward the end of the hearing—basically doubling the number of affordable housing units from 24 to 48 and throwing another $3.5 million at Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Trust. To which the Leggat lawyer, former mayor and disgraced former State Sen. Anthony Galluccio, agreed shortly after asking Mayor McGovern for “30 seconds to a minute” to discuss the new deal. But not before McGovern literally called his old pal “Gooch” in open session—having also called Galluccio “councilor” at another point. As the ex-con’s mayoral portrait looked down on the highly unusual scene from the wall.
After that the vote was merely a matter of codifying a fait accompli. Which the council then did 6-3 in favor along the expected lines—with the added insult of blocking any future reconsideration of the vote.
Puzzlingly, one of Siddiqui’s asks according to Devereux was “Reducing parking leased in the city garage by 125 spaces (from 420 to 295) and to seek a further reduction of up to 25 spaces in the total parking requirement (from 510 to 360 total for the project).”
The vice mayor explained that “the reduction in the required parking, which it seems possible the Planning Board could approve without even requiring a traffic and parking study to update data that are now six years old, will save Leggat McCall a substantial amount of money. By subtracting 150 spaces from its lease in the First Street Garage, Leggat McCall would save about $17.5 million over 30 years (that’s about half of its reported acquisition cost for the courthouse). The approximately $49 million in guaranteed revenue to the city from the parking lease had been touted as a significant community benefit; councillor Siddiqui’s bargain will reduce the value of that benefit by about 35 percent. And in a little less than six years, the additional $3.5 million payment to the Affordable Housing Trust will have been recouped through these windfall savings on the parking lease.”
So the new deal is essentially undoing one of its own key planks by allowing Leggat to develop the courthouse while using fewer public parking spaces. A move likely aimed at reducing remaining community opposition to the project on grounds that it would have been leasing too many of said spaces to the developer—with the unhappy side effect of reducing the money the city will make by now leasing less spaces. Excelsior.
Not with Siddiqui having failed to remain true to her previous campaign promises to be a champion for affordable housing—by backing 48 units instead of fighting for a better courthouse development with many more affordable apartments. In a city with thousands of people on public housing waiting lists.
As Devereux made clear, if Siddiqui had held firm to her supposed principles and voted against leasing the parking spaces, a much better deal could have been negotiated. If Leggat was willing to suddenly double the number of housing units in its courthouse plan—something its bosses had always refused to offer in previous negotiations—in exchange for her vote, then the company surely would have managed to come up with much bigger givebacks to ensure that it would be allowed to make the huge profits it is undoubtedly expecting from the commercial office space it’ll build out in the (currently) 22-story tower.
But Siddiqui took a dive at the moment the city’s remaining working families needed her most. She didn’t stand with Carlone, Devereaux, and Zondervan for even an extra hour. She buckled under pressure from the developer and its allies on the council when they did not, and she made the kind of deal that my labor movement mentor Tim Costello called “bargaining against yourself.” The worst possible kind of deal.
The question now is what to do with her. And with Kelley, Mallon, Simmons, Toomey, and most especially with the council’s chief corporate quisling—the person primarily responsible for this outcome—Mayor McGovern.
Yet here we arrive at the problem I outlined in my last article. There is no popular movement on the (actual) political left in Cambridge currently large enough to easily “throw the bums out.” Which is definitely the right thing to do in this situation.
Worse still, Cambridge residents—many of them transient students at local universities—turn out in pitifully low numbers for local elections. And most know literally nothing about city politics. Which absolutely works to preserve the neoliberal status quo that I outlined in my earlier column, “Don’t Buy What Mayor McGovern Is Selling.” Explaining that McGovern—and, by default, his allies Kelley, Mallon, Simmons, Toomey, and now Siddiqui—believe “that the way to run a city in 21st-century America is to attract as much big development as possible, get whatever funds collected from the generally small and inoffensive taxes and fees that developers will accept, and then use that money to keep the city attractive enough to hold onto to the developments that are here and entice more developers to build here. While, secondarily, providing public services to residents that are somewhat better than the services cities without big developments have.”
Meaning that I can shout that Cantabrigians should purge the pro-Leggat council until I’m blue in the face, and it won’t make much difference. Certainly not in this year’s swift-approaching elections.
So all I can do is encourage voters to support the seven council candidates backed by Our Revolution Cambridge: incumbents Dennis Carlone and Quinton Zondervan, and newcomers Charles Franklin, Patty Nolan, Ben Simon, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, and Nicola Williams. Simon and Sobrinho-Wheeler also being endorsed by Boston DSA.
Given the anticipated super-low voter turnout in this midterm election year and the fact of Cambridge’s ranked-choice voting system, I hesitate to even do that. Because the seven candidates are effectively running against each other in a race where each of them (speaking in basic terms about a complex process) needs to pass a specific threshold of #1 votes based on the number of people that ultimately vote—and voters can only assign one #1 vote each.
Since it’s fairly unlikely that a majority of those candidates will be able to win, we’re probably not going to see a significant change in the council’s attitude toward big real estate developers like Leggat. Yet.
I would suggest then that readers take a look at my “Political Movement” column and consider my prescriptions for those seeking to make Cambridge more (“small d”) democratic. Briefly, I’m saying that a city like the so-called “People’s Republic” can only improve if residents build a strong social force capable of freeing city politics of the malign influence of developers and other major corporations. And aim for electoral reform once they’ve built strength in every neighborhood. To succeed, activists may first need to run the major campaign required to change the city from a Plan E government to something else.
But one thing is for sure: If such a movement arises, any push to throw out politicians that real estate interests and other major corporations have in their back pockets will have a much better chance of success.
If brilliant Boston and the supposedly clever state surrounding it can’t get their climate remediation and preparedness acts together, how are less wealthy parts of the country supposed to manage the job?
How Cambridge can put public need before private greed
A five-hour city council hearing can really get you thinking.
As I sat watching the latest chapter in the East Cambridge courthouse saga unfold at city hall on Monday, I mulled over what it would take to start moving the city away from dependence on rubber-stamping massive commercial developments and toward Cambridge government advocating development in the public interest based on the needs of its working- and middle-class residents. Who remain a significant percentage of its population even after decades of gentrification and displacement.
Because the dozens of locals who testified against city government leasing the 420 public parking spaces that developer Leggat McCall Properties needs to be able to proceed with its plan to convert the publicly owned 22-story Sullivan Courthouse into yet another high rent commercial office building—a clear majority of those who spoke—said one of the biggest problems they see with the contested deal is that neither city nor state government ever considered doing anything with the structure other than trying to sell it off to the highest commercial bidder. Given that Cambridge city government is looking for more easy (if insufficient, relative to the tremendous wealth being made by major corporations doing business in the city) tax money from more commercial developments, and state government is just looking to sell the property with a minimum of fuss. Without trying to get the kind of money that the property is actually worth in the red-hot local real estate market.
It’s not bad enough that the now-defunct Middlesex County government dumped the much-hated building on East Cambridge a half-century back, but now both city and state governments are squaring off against the large numbers of Cantabrigians who have long wanted to see the courthouse property used to build more affordable housing units. Something desperately needed by the thousands of people now on public housing waiting lists.
This is because people who believe very strongly that corporations should run the show in our society—neoliberals, as they’re commonly called—occupy most of the positions in all the key departments, committees, and elected bodies that make decisions about development and taxation in cities like Cambridge nationwide.
So my question to myself as I sat watching the fray in the council chamber was: What kind of political movement would it take to ensure that public need comes before private greed in the so-called “People’s Republic”? How can ordinary people make that mocking appellation into a more democratic reality?
Based upon the decades of labor and community advocacy that I’ve done (sometimes overlapping my many years as a journalist), I decided that it will take a well-coordinated effort of committed denizens to really change the focus of Cambridge’s development strategy.
Specifically, it will take the formation of a network of people who believe in the importance of a public development focus for the city that has the ability to run neighborhood organizing, education, political pressure, electoral, and public relations campaigns simultaneously. For the years it would take to change the way development is planned and executed.
A quick look at each of these campaign areas is thus in order.
There can be no successful grassroots political movement without a strong base of active supporters. Particularly when trying to spark a sea change in an area like development policy. So an early initiative of any network trying to challenge the status quo in such a major way has to be recruiting members from every neighborhood in the city. People who are willing to go door to door to talk to their neighbors, donate money to build their organization, and do all the other work necessary to win enough political power to achieve their movement’s goals. Eventually forming neighborhood committees representing every part of Cambridge.
It will take a lot of education to convince residents that changing Cambridge’s development focus to producing public goods—like massive amounts of genuinely affordable housing—is a better deal for the city than the current model of chasing after commercial developers, lightly taxing what they build while keeping property taxes low (placating corporations and wealthy homeowners) then disbursing the still-significant funds collected to provide somewhat better services to residents than most other American cities can. Such education can only take place after lots of research has been done on best practices for public development and debate has taken place among advocates about the right kind of public development to add to the city’s current commercial-heavy mix. This, needless to say, will take a good deal of work on the part of advocates with the appropriate professional backgrounds.
This is the group of activities that most people associate with grassroots political movements. Getting big teams of advocates out on the streets with placards and bullhorns. Filling the city council chamber with testifiers. Facing off with any open opposition. Dogging recalcitrant politicians. Basically all the adventurous stuff. Which is necessary and useful—done carefully. But there’s more to a political movement’s pressure campaign than public standouts. There is also the long hard grind of sending small teams of knowledgeable advocates to the meetings of the kinds of city committees, commissions, and boards that have a lot of power in the development process. Notably, the powerful Cambridge Planning Board. Such specialist teams will need to understand the inner workings of municipal government to inform the political movement’s strategy, to better target tactical street team actions, and to map out appointed positions that will need to be filled with advocates once the movement is ready to take political power—in elections.
If the ultimate goal of the political movement I’m outlining is to change Cambridge’s development orientation from serving commercial developers to serving the needs of working- and middle-class residents, the penultimate goal must be taking over city government. As long discussed by generations of political commentators, this is very difficult to do because of the city’s “Plan E” form of government. With a city council comprised of all at-large seats elected by a byzantine ranked-choice voting system, a weak mayor that is a councilor and a first among equals elected by the other councilors, and a powerful city manager—who is appointed by the council (but rarely challenged by it)—in charge of the budget and many city staffers. Nevertheless, it is possible for a well-organized movement to win a majority of city council seats. Then the new council can use its hire/fire power over the city manager to effect significant change. Even without switching to a different form of government. Which is probably more difficult to do than winning a majority on the council. However, even a majority reform city council is still going to have a very hard time changing Cambridge’s development focus without a well-organized, disciplined, and informed movement behind it. Because city government has many moving parts and is not operating in a vacuum. Commercial developers are among the most powerful political forces in America and are more than capable of blitzing a rebel city government with more lawsuits and pressure from allied politicians at the state and federal level than it can handle. Followed by bankrolling the election of a more “friendly” pro-corporate council. A mere two years after a reform council is seated. So a movement council would not just have to win power once, but stay in power for many terms. A tall order to be sure, but a necessary one. To do that, a political movement for public development will have to win not only the ground war of electoral politics but also the air war of public opinion.
As I observed at Monday’s hearing, some East Cambridge residents were stampeded into action on behalf of a powerful commercial developer over the last several days by a suspiciously well-timed scare campaign with a single talking point: that a building—the Sullivan Courthouse—widely known to contain asbestos still contained asbestos. Leading one resident to testify that “we can all die” [from asbestos exposure]. Which would not be the case even if the entire population of the neighborhood worked in an asbestos mine. Such hyperbole is the result of corporate propaganda. Pushed on East Cambridge across a variety of media by the faction with far deeper pockets than its grassroots opposition, according to other testifiers. Naturally, the risk of the empty toxic building to abutters is not zero even if sealed off from the outside to the extent that it is, and must be taken seriously. But to go from that assessment to saying that Cambridge city government must allow the sale of the courthouse to Leggat McCall Properties because only they can remediate the asbestos in the building is simply sophistry. Since the sale has not yet been completed, the courthouse is still owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and managed by the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM). As many testifiers stated Monday, if the building presents an environmental threat to the neighborhood then DCAMM has to take immediate steps to remediate that threat. If it fails to do so, then Cambridge city government is well within its rights to push the state to take appropriate action in defense of public health. Including filing lawsuits, if necessary. The kind of decisive action that city officials have uniformly (and tellingly) failed to take during the years this fight has gone on. All of which is to say that public relations work is much more important to the success of a political movement than it might seem to be at first blush. If the East Cambridge residents against the courthouse sale to Leggat had a team of volunteers with appropriate professional PR skills at their disposal, the latest tempest in a teapot argument in favor of the sale would have been seen as the propaganda it was by all but those most ideologically committed to that outcome. And its political effect would have been neutralized. So the future movement for development in the public interest cannot possibly succeed without just such a team.
Until Cambridge residents can build the necessary political movement, all actions against the dominance of commercial development in city politics will be defensive. Which is better than nothing. But not the game-changer that the city’s remaining working- and middle-class families need.
Regardless, the Cambridge City Council went into recess on the matter of leasing the 420 public parking spaces to Leggat at the end of the hearing. Kicking the can of the vote that will help decide the disposition of the disputed public property down the road another week or three. Even as residents committed to keeping that property public are threatening lawsuits over alleged violations in the city’s process to lease the spaces and other irregularities. The courthouse fight, then, is far from over.
9/11/19 Note: The Cambridge City Council continued the recessed hearing to Wednesday 9/18/19 at 3pm after the print edition of this column went to press.
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Some of us are out here doing actual reporting on the state of public transit in Mass, while others are basically trolling their readers and viewers on social media with that stupid ‘ #Boston has the 2nd best public transportation in the country’ BS. Shameful. #MBTA#mapoli