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State advertising 22-story Sullivan Courthouse, seeking to sell by September

Posted by Brock Parker  November 16, 2011 04:22 PM

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State officials are advertising for a buyer for the 22-story, asbestos-plagued Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse in Cambridge and hope to move prisoners housed in a county jail at the facility to another location by the spring of 2013.

The state Division of Capital Asset Management has issued a request for proposals seeking a private buyer for the property at 40 Thorndike St. in East Cambridge and the agency is anticipating reaching a purchase and sale agreement by September of next year.

Carole Cornelison, the commissioner of the state agency, along with Dana Harrell, the acting deputy commissioner of real estate, met with the Cambridge City Council this week to discuss the sale and the future plans for the property, including relocating the jail located in the top floors of the otherwise vacated high-rise.

Harrell said the agency has guarded optimism that the building will attractive to investor capital, in part because of its proximity to the thriving Kendall Square.

“The Middlesex County Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse we see as a premiere redevelopment opportunity,” Harrell said.

But Harrell said he wouldn’t be surprised if a redeveloper completely demolished the interior of the building. Both the Middlesex Superior Court and the Cambridge District Court moved out of the building and into locations in Woburn and Medford, respectively, after the state decided the cost of removing asbestos from the Sullivan Courthouse was too great.

In a statement Wednesday, Cornelison said a preliminary study determined that removing asbestos from the building would cost $34 million, and as a result the agency decided to sell the building to a private developer.

Harrell told the Cambridge City Council Monday that asbestos removal would cost $10 to $16 million, but the agency said Wednesday that the figure was based on communications with potential developers and was not an official estimate.

The building was valued at $40 million to $50 million in 2007, but Harrell declined to tell the council the current value this week because he said the agency doesn’t want to “chill” the bidding on the building.

Last year, the Division of Capital Asset Management began asking other government agencies, including the City of Cambridge, if they had any public use for the building. Cambridge said no, and City Manager Roberty Healy said he thought it best to implode the building.

The only remaining tenant in the high-rise is the Middlesex Jail, which was built to house 160 prisoners but has a total of 375 as of Wednesday, said Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian.

While Harrell said the spring of 2013 is the target date to move prisoners in the building to another facility in Billerica, Koutoujian said in his discussions with the state agency there have been no final decisions made about where the prisoners will be moved.

Koutoujian said the high-rise is too expensive to operate for a sole tenant and the jail should not remain in the building when it is such a significant a piece of real estate to the state.

He said the sooner the prisoners move, the better, as long as it is to a safe facility.
“We’ve got to get out of there so the property can be dealt with,” he said.

Harrell said he thinks potential buyers will be interested in the views offered at the top of the high-rise, and the state will work with any potential developer to make the ground-level uses of the building blend in with the community.

The state agency is offering tours of the building to potential buyers before the deadline for development proposals on Feb. 6.

Cornelison said the state plans to meet with the community, and whoever wins the bidding for the building will also need city to approve the development plans.

Cambridge Mayor David Maher said people in the neighborhood around the old courthouse are somewhat nervous about what could become of the building, but no one wants to see it become a blight on the neighborhood, either.

“I think that this building has had a long, storied history and many, many in Cambridge felt that it was too big when it was built so there are hard feelings that go way back,” Maher said. “I think in redoing this building we want to make sure we don’t open those wounds again.”

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