Historical Commission Approves Shady Hill Square Study

Historical Commission Approves Shady Hill Square Study

In a corner of Cambridge near the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the Agassiz neighborhood, Shady Hill Square is a bucolic green that residents regard as a treasured public space and a rare example of a more than century-old urban planning concept known as the "Garden City" movement.

But the square has new owners who say the property--which has remained open land since houses were built in 1915 around its horseshoe shape--never was intended to remain undeveloped in perpetuity. They say they have an absolute right to build a planned 5,000-square-foot home on it that nearby residents have derided as an enormous "McMansion" that would destroy not only the green space, but the ambience of the immediate community.

Now, the Cambridge Historical Commission has stepped into the fray by voting at a hearing on November 1 to approve a study that will suspend building for a year while staff members compile a report on whether the commission--and ultimately the city council--should approve landmark status for the property that would permanently block its development.

The merits of the case aside, the dispute has been marked by accusations that the new owners--who paid $850,000 for the property--kept the occupants of adjacent homes in the dark and lied in the course of obtaining a building permit by asserting that the abutters had been informed of the development plans.

The back-and-forth arguments between members of the unusually large audience at the hearing and an attorney for the developers were a departure for the usually low-key historical commission. One abutter, John Moore of 2 Shady Hill Square, told the commissioners, "We knew nothing about this until after the permit was issued," adding, "They lied to building inspectors."

Attorney Thomas Harrington countered that he took umbrage at the suggestion that the developers had engaged in subterfuge, saying the neighbors had every opportunity to learn about the plans and even to try to buy the property themselves from the previous long-time owner.

One thing not in dispute is that in the late 1990s, commission staffers did a previous study that recommended landmark status for Shady Hill Square, but the city council took no action and the matter died. Bryan Murphy, one of two councilors at the hearing, said he was not in office at that time, but feels the property is "unique in our city and very much worthy of preservation." Councilor Henrietta Davis echoed Murphy, saying "I certainly urge you to go ahead."

Murphy called Shady Hill Square the "best preserved example" in Cambridge of the Garden City movement, which was popularized in England just prior to the turn of the 20th Century by Ebenezer Howard, who also wrote a widely-known Utopian novel called "Looking Backward." The concept was to create self-contained communities with ample green space.

Harrington, the developers' attorney, asked the historical commission to put off any action until another city agency, the Board of Zoning Appeal, meets later in November. He also said a better venue for deciding the issue is state land court, where the Shady Hill Square abutters have filed a lawsuit.

But the neighbors won out, arguing that any delay might allow bulldozers to move in and begin construction by the time the commission met again.

Stating the obvious, Councilor Davis noted, "You can't very well have a square around somebody else's house."


Karen, you are doing an amazing job of peeking in to neighborhood issues that haven't seen much publicity or discussion. I knew nothing about this; it's really interesting. I'd love to see some photos of Shady Hill Square - still not sure that I know where it is.

Keep up the great work!