Study of City Park Stalls New Mansion

Residents say 5,000-square-foot home would destroy neighborhood identity

The Cambridge Historical Commission decided last night to study whether a 92-year-old plot of green space at the center of a tense battle between residents and developers should be designated a historic landmark.

The group voted to launch a formal study of Shady Hill Square, stalling the construction of a mansion on the land for at least a year.

Two weeks ago, the city blocked work on the site after residents complained that building the proposed 5,000-square-foot home would destroy the neighborhood’s historic identity. A group of residents sued the developer, Stonehouse Holdings, in September.

“I think they made the right decision,” Dennis W. Townley, who lives in Shady Hill Square, said after the meeting. “I think it’s clear to the commission that Shady Hill should be made a historic area.”

The Shady Hill green space, surrounded by seven homes, lies near Harvard Divinity School and the Holden Green graduate housing complex.

Last night’s 5-to-2 decision prohibits developers from making major changes to the property without city approval while the study continues over the next year.

Another Shady Hill resident, Jane Rabe, called on her neighbors to stand during the meeting to emphasize the seriousness of the matter.

“We urge you to do this before it’s too late, before a hole is dug, before the trees are gone, before irreparable damage is done,” she said.

Seven years ago, the commission recommended that the Cambridge City Council designate the area a landmark, but the council never voted on the matter.

City Councillor Henrietta Davis, who was on the council when it first considered making the area a historic landmark, urged the commission to initiate a new study to protect the area.

But Cambridge Historical Commission member Frank Shirley, who participated in the 1999-2000 landmark study, voted against the new study.

He said that it was not wise for the commission to initiate a new study given the history of the matter.

“I have a certain amount of sympathy for a new owner who has abided by all of the requirements of the city to be in a position of having over $800,000 at risk,” he said, referring to the $850,000 cost of the parcel to Stonehouse Holdings.

After the meeting, the lawyer for Stonehouse Holdings, Thomas J. Harrington, called the commission’s decision “wrong.” He questioned the rationale to reinstate a study that originally failed to gain city approval.

“If this was such an important historical landmark, where was everybody the last seven years?” he said.

—Staff writer Laura A. Moore can be reached at