Residents Sue to Protect Park

Cantabs oppose development on 90-year-old open space built during 'Garden City' movement

Unnamed photo
Paras D. Bhayani

An artistic rendering of Shady Hill Square.

A cluster of Cambridge houses near the Harvard Divinity School, originally built as living quarters for Harvard junior faculty, is at the center of a heated clash over tempering development in the city.

Last month, the firm Stonehouse Holdings took control of “Shady Hill Square,” a green surrounded by seven 2,000 sq. ft. houses near the Holden Green graduate housing complex, according to city documents.

Stonehouse wants to construct a 5,000 sq. ft. residence on the park, which has been undeveloped since the adjacent houses were built in 1915.

Local residents have filed a lawsuit to stop the development and are attempting to have the space designated a historic landmark in order to give the land permanent protection. Yesterday morning, a tense standoff between construction crews and the Shady Hill residents prompted the city to issue an order that temporarily prevents any work on the site.

“To hear that a developer has come in and proposed a major house on this property is like hearing of an extraterrestrial landing, almost, into the neighborhood,” Susan J. Pharr, a neighborhood resident and the Reischauer Professor of Japanese Politics, said in protest to the construction at a Monday’s City Council meeting.

The houses wrapped around the green were built by Harvard as part of the “Garden City” architectural movement, which integrated open space into urban landscapes. The homes first went on the open market in 1972, and a single resident gained rights to the park soon thereafter.

That resident sold the park late last month to Stonehouse—which is owned by architects David T. Perry and Peter E. Madsen ‘67—for $850,000. Perry and Madsen did not respond to phone calls seeking comment last night.

In response, Shady Hill residents, who for decades have maintained the green and used it for recreation, challenged the developer’s rights to build on the property.

According to Dennis W. Townley, who has led the opposition to Stonehouse’s plans, the neighbors have a particularly strong claim over the green because of a recent Massachusetts court case.

In Reagan v. Brissey, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2005 that a park at the center of a mid-19th century housing development cannot be built upon because the way in which the development was marketed implied that the space would never be sold.

Townley—who lives in a Shady Hill house that he said was once inhabited by Harvard President James B. Conant ’14—added that the resident who purchased the square in 1972 did not pay taxes on it until 1998 because both the neighbors and the city had assumed the land could not be developed.

The residents are also attempting to invalidate the Stonehouse construction permit because of what they say are possible inconsistencies in the permit application. Townley said that if the permit is knocked out, the city might go ahead with designating Shady Hill a landmark—something that would prevent any future construction on the open space.

However, Councillor Brian P. Murphy ’86-’87 said that if the city deems the permit valid, a historical landmark designation could not prevent the construction from going forward.

Several residents said yesterday that keeping the land open was critical to the vibrancy of the community, and that residents from Shady Hill, Holden St., and beyond make extensive use of the space.

“Our neighborhood has united in opposing this act of destruction,” Townley said.

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Nicholas K. Tabor can be reached at ntabor@fas.harvard.edu.