A possible reprieve
A proposal to close nearly a dozen state courthouses opens new development possibilities
The sleepy Charlestown courthouse sits on a prime plot overlooking City Square Park, where camera-toting tourists and nearby office workers break for lunch in the shadows of the striking Zakim bridge.
The steady flow of daily foot traffic suggests that a new restaurant would be a good fit for the courthouse’s ground floor, while its upper floors could be renovated into offices or apartments that offer views of Boston Harbor and the skyscrapers of downtown.
That does not seem such a far-fetched idea now that the state’s judiciary is planning to shutter the circa 1915 Charlestown building and at least 10 other courthouses across the state in response to deep funding cuts in the state budget. As with Charlestown, many occupy central locations in their communities, often serving as economic engines that support local cafes, dry cleaners, food markets, and other small businesses.
“Courthouses are often situated on very well-located real estate,’’ said Bob Richards, president of Richards Barry Joyce & Partners, a Boston real estate services firm. “You need to examine each one parcel by parcel, but there will be new opportunities for retail, office, and other uses.’’
The closure of the facilities will compound the already severe impacts of recession on local businesses, making it even more important that state and municipal landlords find new tenants to replace them, a task easier said than done in the down market.
The courts slated for closure range from juvenile courts in North Adams and New Bedford to district courts in Gloucester, Hingham, Wareham, Leominster, and Westborough. Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management of the judiciary, is due to release a report to the Legislature soon about the planned closures.
A spokeswoman for Mulligan said the closings, initiated last month in response to cuts in the judiciary’s budget, will save about about $3.4 million annually, with a one-time relocation cost of about $1.1 million.
Once the judiciary certifies it intends to vacate the buildings, the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management will consult municipalities and legislators to consider other public or community uses. If there is no interest, the agency will then seek to sell or lease them to a private entity by soliciting bids or holding an auction.
It is unclear when the courthouses would become available for redevelopment. Mulligan’s upcoming report to the Legislature provides a 90-day notice of the closings, meaning the buildings could begin to be vacated this fall.
The opportunities for redevelopment will vary from one courthouse to the next, but many occupy key real estate in their communities that could host retail stores, restaurants, offices, or a revamped civic use such as a museum or community center.
In Boston, developer Richard L. Friedman capitalized on a similar opportunity at the former Charles Street Jail, where he transformed the historic building into the 298-room Liberty Hotel with a popular night spot on the ground floor. The hotel opened in 2007 following a $150 million renovation.
While the nearby Charlestown court is much smaller, with only three stories and 6,400 square feet of space, real estate specialists said it could attract similar commercial interest due to its location near several restaurants and hundreds of office workers.
“That’s a very vibrant retail area,’’ said Richards, who added that such opportunities will not be available to all the courthouses. “The more challenging ones are the suburban locations where there isn’t that vibrancy. To find a re-use there is going to be a lot more challenging.’’
Some courthouses closed in recent years are still awaiting a new use. In Cambridge, officials continue to examine options for the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse, which was vacated in 2008 when Middlesex Superior Court moved to Woburn. The city of Cambridge took a pass on the building, and the Division of Capital Asset Management is now beginning to gauge private interest.
Several roadblocks stand in the way of successful reuse of courthouses, including their age , condition, and niche design. An overview provided by the judiciary indicates that the 63 state-owned court buildings are an average of 68 years old. In 2007, the Division of Capital Asset Management estimated those facilities need more than $500 million in repairs due to delayed maintenance, a backlog the state has only begun to chip away at in recent years.
Beyond those issues, each courthouse is divided into a labyrinth of anterooms, judges chambers, and courtrooms, requiring extensive work to transform them into stores or conventional office space.
Casey Ross can be reached at email@example.com