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State to sell courthouse, move prisoners

Posted by Brock Parker  April 28, 2010 04:55 PM

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State officials are moving forward with an effort to sell the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in Cambridge and are planning to relocate almost 400 prisoners still housed in the problem-plagued high-rise.

Kevin Flanigan, a deputy director with the state Division of Capital Asset Management, said the 22-story building on Thorndike street “has a lot of issues” and instead of proceeding with the costly repairs the state will be developing a request for proposals in the next few months to sell the courthouse.

“This was a more cost-efficient solution at this point,” Flanigan said.

The building was valued at $40 to $50 million in 2007, but Flanigan said that estimate is no longer reliable because the real estate market has changed since then. He said the state would need to re-establish the value of the courthouse going forward.

Until 2008, the building housed the Middlesex Superior Court, but the need for extensive renovation and asbestos removal prompted the court to temporarily relocate to Woburn. The Cambridge District Court moved to Medford last year.

The stated estimated in 2006 for the cost of the asbestos removal and other renovations was $130 million.

This month Flanigan said DCAM began asking other state and local agencies, including the City of Cambridge, if they have any public need for the building.

Cambridge City Councilor Tim Toomey, who is also the state representative for much of East Cambridge, said the city will look into whether it could use the building.

But Toomey said the courthouse is “ugly” and the extent of the renovations needed in the high-rise will likely make the building too expensive for Cambridge or any other government agency.

“I’d like to see the building imploded,” Toomey said. “That’s what I would love to see.”
Flanigan said the state will give Cambridge until July to decide if it has any use for the building.

The state is also working with Middlesex Sheriff James DiPaola on a plan to temporarily relocate prisoners in the county jail in Cambridge to the Middlesex County House of Correction in Billerica, Flanigan said.

While the courts have moved out, the jail has remained in the top five floors of the building and has been operating with more than twice the 160 prisoners it was designed to hold, DiPaola said. Wednesday, there were 375 prisoners in the jail.

DiPaolo said he believes the overcrowding contributed to an incident last June when nine prisoners smashed and ripped apart the fire suppression system, causing massive flooding and forcing the evacuation of the jail.

But before moving the prisoners to Billerica, DiPaolo said he needs to more information about how long it would be before the jail in Cambridge could be move to a permanent home. He said discussions have been underway to temporarily move the prisoners to Billerica for some time, but the state has yet to provide a time line for how long it would be until prisoners could be moved into a permanent jail.

“I can’t agree to something until I have the whole plan,” DiPaola said. “I’m all for trying to get out of that place. My predicament is I need a safe plan that would be acceptable to me and would be acceptable to the community of Billerica.”

The Division of Capital Asset Management, which is part of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, is working to identify a long term home for the Cambridge jail, but there is more work to be done on the plan to relocate the prisoners, Flanigan said. He said Governor Deval Patrick’s administration will work to minimize the duration of the temporary relocation in Billerica.

“The administration looks forward to working with the sheriff in developing additional detailed relocation plans and addressing the concerns of the town to the extent possible,” said Flanigan.

Flanigan said the state is also working with the Administrative Office of the Trial Court to develop a long term solution for the courts.

Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the state Supreme Judicial Court, said the current lease for the Superior Court in Woburn runs until 2013, and the lease for Cambridge District Court at its temporary location in Medford runs until 2014. The courts have options to renew at both locations, she said.

Kenney said Chief Justice Robert A. Mulligan, who manages the Trial Court system, continues to promote the need for a permanent location for the superior and district courts. She said his first preference is to keep the courts in Cambridge, but the location and time frame for a permanent courthouse will depend on funding.

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